The DJ Who Told Us That Paul is (maybe) Dead

Garry Berman
9 min readDec 11, 2023

One of the most curious chapters of pop culture folklore is the infamous “Paul is Dead” rumor of 1969, when the idea spread that Paul McCartney — at least the Paul whom Beatles fans worldwide had known — may have been killed in an auto accident in November of 1966, and that the remaining Beatles had brought in a look-alike replacement, William Campbell, to take Paul’s place for subsequent recordings and public appearances with the group.

It was a bizarre rumor, one that is still discussed and debated to this day among Beatles enthusiasts and experts. But where and how did it all begin? As is the case with just about any rumor, the exact origin is difficult if not impossible to track down. But we can come close, as we recall the radio DJ who allowed the story to spread nationally from a single broadcast. His name was Roby Yonge.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, WABC in New York City was the premiere AM pop station, with a ridiculously powerful signal that could carry its music and its DJ’s voices to about 40 states when atmospheric conditions permitted, especially during the overnight hours. The station and its legendary “Cousin” Bruce Morrow and Dan Ingram became household names in the early ’60s, especially as WABC played a crucial role in the Beatlemania era and the Beatles’ first arrival in New York [as discussed in my article, “The Beatlemania Years on New York Radio” | by Garry Berman | Medium].

Roby Yonge began his radio career in Florida. He was working for Top 40 WQAM in Miami (nicknaming himself “The Big Kahuna”) when WABC hired the 24-year-old to begin his on-air work in New York in December of 1967.

After being assigned various on-air shifts for the next two years, he was given the overnight shift in August of 1969, replacing the departing Charlie Greer. Shortly thereafter, however, program director Rick Sklar informed Yonge that his contract was not going to be renewed (the best guess is that Yonge simply wasn’t the best fit for WABC, and his brashness seemed to rub some of his fellow DJs the wrong way).

As of October 1969, Yonge’s show was still on the schedule, beginning each weeknight at midnight. On the night of October 21, 1969, at 12:38 a.m., he decided to spill the beans on a story he had considered keeping to himself for a little longer. Instead, he offered a strange message to his listeners, asking them to take a closer look at the Beatles’ albums, up to and including the latest, Abbey Road, and a closer listen to some of their songs, as they may contain messages suggesting that Paul was indeed dead.

“I’m not gonna be cut [off the air] because it’s 12:39 at night and there’s nobody standing by to cut the switch,” he said, “but the truth is I’ve been fired anyhow,” explaining that he had only two weeks left on his current contract and would soon be off the air for good. So, he figured, he had nothing to lose nor gain by his words that night.

He continued with the explanation that he had been on the phone the previous night with “a research group of thirty students” attending Indiana University in Bloomington, who recited for him miscellaneous clues to be found in the photos and artwork of the Beatles’ albums (beginning with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), as well as in lines from Beatles songs supposedly alluding to Paul’s death. Creepier still was the claim that some of the clues could be heard if portions of certain songs were played backwards.

Yonge never specified the exact nature of this “research group,” whether the students were fulfilling an actual class assignment, or if they had formed some sort of extra-curricular club after stumbling onto the clues, either by accident or design. Either way, they first contacted a DJ at their campus radio station and perhaps those at one or two other stations, before contacting Yonge, as he was a young and “hip” representative of their generation, who also had a nightly radio audience of untold millions.

The clues are familiar to most us now: the phrase “I buried Paul” at fade out of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the words “turn me on, dead man” that emit from the opening moments of “Revolution #9” — when played backwards — several hints scattered throughout the cover photos of Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, Abbey Road, etc.

We obviously can’t cover the breadth and depth of the scores of clues here in this modest column, but for those of you who are not familiar, they’re well documented and easy to find with a little Googling and/or a visit to YouTube to see the many documentaries on the topic posted there.

“After ten years in broadcasting,” Yonge announced with considerable sincerity, “I have never felt so sure of a thing as I feel right now — that there is something strange going on with the Beatles…”

As he relayed a number of the clues to his listeners, he made one of several mistakes that night by failing to have the “evidence” within reach, preferring instead to rely on his memory or scribbled notes from what the students were “turning me onto” during the lengthy phone call. He also related having acquired the entire Beatles catalogue and a new stereo for conducting his own research at home.

However, despite his authoritative tone and air of confidence in relating the story, accuracy was obviously not Yonge’s priority. On the air, he simply got most of the clues wrong, misstating what the students had told him, and conflating some clues with others, resulting in an often-nonsensical harangue, especially for those who knew what the “real” clues were, so to speak.

Not long after the first station break, the switchboard at WABC became inundated with calls. The overload sent the sole operator into a panic, reporting an hour later that the digital counter marking incoming calls had surpassed 350. “Maybe there should be more than one WABC operator,” Yonge joked at one point.

Rick Sklar was one of those callers who couldn’t get through, and the station operator, as one version goes, called Sklar at home to describe what was going on.

As Yonge continued on the air, he even began receiving phone calls from other DJs across the country who were hungry for more Paul-is-Dead details. He was clearly enjoying the ruckus he was raising, while at the same time attempted to balance on a thin line, claiming that he was simply reporting clues he had been learning about from the college students in Bloomington.

His espousal of the theory went on for an hour and twenty minutes until Sklar arrived at the station and had the security guard accompany him to the glass-enclosed studio. In a 1995 interview with John Paul Roberts, his former WQAM colleague in Miami, Yonge picked up the story:

“Very calmly, I turned to Gary Adler, the engineer, and I said, ‘Gary, do ‘Come Together’ by the Beatles, after ‘Come Together’ go to Les Marshak in the booth, introduce the news, and after that, I’m outta here.’ I guess I was the first person to say ‘I’m outta here.’ WABC took me out of there — the guard was not needed at all. I didn’t say that Paul McCartney was dead, I said there was reason to believe these people [the Beatles] were putting messages in the tracks. I wasn’t loaded, I wasn’t drinking, I wasn’t smoking, I wasn’t doing anything…I did not cause a problem at WABC except for the fact that they only had one telephone operator…The boss couldn’t get through, came down in his bathrobe with a guard, yes, didn’t physically trip me off, I left willingly…”

Les Marshak was sent from the newsroom to the studio to take over the rest of Yonge’s show and plead to listeners not to pay attention to the rumor or continue calling the station. He would fill in Yonge’s slot until the station found a permanent replacement.

Les Marshak.

Yonge continued the story, with more than a touch of self-aggrandizement: “Rick asked me, “Will you be here tomorrow to do your show? ’Cause we’re paying you.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think so, Rick. But I think you’re going to be famous tomorrow morning’…because I blew the whistle on a continuing and ongoing situation wherein the first Paul McCartney was replaced, after being maimed and burned, by a second boy who turned out to be even more talented…”

Rick Sklar.

But that was only the beginning. Newspaper and magazine stories, radio documentaries (including one aired on WABC-FM a few weeks later, which Sklar had no control over), and newscasts kept the rumor alive.

Life magazine finally caught up with Paul in Scotland and interviewed him about the story, seemingly putting the rumor to rest. But for many, it did no such thing. With each new supposed clue discovery, no matter how far it strained credulity, the rumor’s life extended.

Later in the 1995 interview with Roberts, Yonge continued his attempts to veer from giving a straight answer to whether or not Paul was really killed in a car accident in 1966. Roberts continued to press him, resulting in Yonge finally but vaguely acknowledging that Paul wasn’t killed, and therefore hadn’t died, but was horribly maimed and therefore unable to continue in the group.

And then the conversation really went off the rails. Yonge actually expanded upon his conspiracy theory about Paul even further, with claims of having evidence — then reluctantly offering tidbits of his evidence — before obfuscating it all with the help of double-talk, semantics, and unconfirmed stories.

After leaving WABC on that fateful night, Yonge remained in New York and joined WCBS as that station focused its format on pop oldies. He eventually returned to Miami. In his later years, he reportedly fell on hard times, and died July 18, 1997, just shy of his 55th birthday.

As for Paul…at this writing, he is 81 years old but still very much with us, showing little signs of slowing down (nor does Ringo, for that matter), yet will eventually have to make allowances for the relentless passage of time.

Here is the entire surviving segment of Yonge’s legendary broadcast (albeit a “telescoped” version, with songs and commercials edited out). It’s probably best to listen to it late at night, at roughly the same time it originally aired, in order to capture some of the quiet, late-night mood. For all of its faults and somewhat eerie, macabre atmosphere, it remains a fascinating 20-minute piece of pop culture history.

Maybe Roby knew what he was doing after all.

Until next time…

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My other articles related to the Beatles:

“Was ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ Really a Failure?” Was the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” Really a Failure? | by Garry Berman | Medium

“The Beatlemania Years on New York Radio” https://medium.com/@garryberman/the-beatlemania-years-as-heard-on-new-york-radio-69f98aec8474

“The Man Who Filmed the Beatles” https://garryberman.medium.com/the-man-who-filmed-the-beatles-d674eed00bd6

“Remembering When the Beatles Appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show” https://garryberman.medium.com/when-the-beatles-appeared-on-the-ed-sullivan-show-b45b30c00a46

“Retro Review: George Harrison’s ‘Gone Troppo’ “ | by Garry Berman | Medium

“For the Last Time: ‘Let It Be Was NOT the Beatles’ Break-up Album” https://garryberman.medium.com/for-the-last-time-let-it-be-was-not-the-beatles-break-up-album-10ec71cc387c

“The Night John Lennon Died” https://garryberman.medium.com/the-night-john-lennon-died-55b215bf0c8d

Please visit www.GarryBerman.com to read synopses and reviews of my books (including We’re Going to See the Beatles!) and order them via the links to Amazon.com.

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Garry Berman

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.