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Les McKeown Dies: Bay City Rollers Frontman Was 65

Erik Pedersen
·3-min read

Les McKeown, who sang lead for Scottish ’70s hitmakers Bay City Rollers during its heyday, died Tuesday at home, his family announced. He was 65. No cause of death was revealed.

“It is with profound sadness that we announce the death of our beloved husband and father Leslie Richard McKeown, his family posted on the singer’s Twitter account. “We are currently making arrangements for his funeral and ask privacy after the shock of our profound loss.”

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Considered a progenitor of the modern boy band, the Edinburgh quintet saw McKeown join in 1973. He replaced original singer Gordon “Nobby” Clark two years after the group had broken through with a top 10 single in the UK. In 1974, Bay City Rollers scored a second British hit with the McKeown-sung “Remember (Sha La La),” which began a streak of nine consecutive Top 10 hits for the Bell label in the UK. They included the No. 1s “Bye Bye Baby” and “Give a Little Love.” Their albums Rollin’ (1974) and Once Upon a Star (1975) both topped the UK chart.

American shores beckoned for the group, which years earlier had found its name by throwing a dart at a U.S. map. Signed to Arista Records, they would break out Stateside with “Saturday Night,” an uber-catchy bubblegum rave-up that sold a million copies and reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — and the brief Rollermania phenomenon was born.

The song with Clark’s vocal had been released as a single in the UK but failed to chart, and the McKeown-fronted version was not released as a 45 there.

Meanwhile, the States caught Scottish fever. Bay City Rollers had two more Top 10 U.S. singles with “Money Honey” and “You Made me Believe in Magic” and five consecutive gold albums from 1975-77. Tartan came into fashion as the group regularly covered kiddie fanzines such as Tiger Beat and 16. Along with playing the likes of The Midnight Special and American Bandstand, they also would appear on such mainstream outlets as Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore and Mike Douglas’ daytime talk shows.

While likely not edgy enough for the then-nascent Saturday Night Live, the Rollers did appear on ABC’s mid-’70s variety show Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell.

But success was fleeting, and McKeown left the group in 1978. In 2015, he rejoined the band, which has reunited in various incarnations in the years since its major U.S. and UK successes.

Born on November 15, 1955, in Edinburgh, McKeown would record eight LPs with the Rollers and went on to release eight solo albums, though none charted on either side of the Atlantic.

The Rollers were formed in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1964 by brothers Alan and Derek Longmuir. In the late ’60s, they decided on a new direction and a name change, which led to the dart-throwing that landed near Bay City, Michigan. The group’s song can be heard in such films and TV shows as The Umbrella Academy, The Simpsons, Love Actually, That ’70s Show and So I Married an Axe Murderer.

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