Les McKeown, frontman of the Bay City Rollers, darlings of 1970s teenyboppers whose hits included Bye, Bye, Baby and Give a Little Love – obituary

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Bay City Rollers in 1974, l-r, Alan Longmuir, Derek Longmuir, Les McKeown, Stuart ‘Woody’ Wood and Eric Faulkner - Michael Putland/Getty Images
Bay City Rollers in 1974, l-r, Alan Longmuir, Derek Longmuir, Les McKeown, Stuart ‘Woody’ Wood and Eric Faulkner - Michael Putland/Getty Images

Les McKeown, who has died aged 65, was the frontman in the Bay City Rollers, the Scottish boy band who took the 1970s music world by storm with “Rollermania”; his vocals were first heard in 1974 on Remember (Sha-La-La-La), which shot to No 6 in the UK charts, heralding the start of band’s most successful period.

From the outset McKeown embraced the rock’n’roll lifestyle. “The sex, drugs and booze … were all on tap,” he wrote of life with his previous band, Threshold. Bottles of rum were consumed before a gig started and afterwards an army of young ladies were willing to test the suspension of the band’s touring van.

The Bay City Rollers had been formed in Edinburgh in 1964 as The Ambassadors by the 16-year-old guitarist Alan Longmuir, his younger brother Derek on drums, and their older cousin Neil Porteous on acoustic guitar. They became the Saxons, then the Rollers and eventually the Bay City Rollers with a line-up that included the guitarists Eric Faulkner and Stuart “Woody” Wood.

They had a problem with turnover of members, however, and McKeown recalled being approached after a Threshold gig by their manager Tam Paton, who would later be convicted of sex offences.

The Rollers in 1976 - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
The Rollers in 1976 - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

After some deliberation he decided that “whereas Threshold was definitely an up-and-coming band, the Rollers were already there”. Almost immediately he was thrown into the fleshpots of London, with appearances on Crackerjack and Top of the Pops.

Remember was followed by a string of chart successes including Shang-a-Lang, which reached No 2, Summerlove Sensation (No 3) and All of Me Loves All of You (No 4).

The band’s debut album, Rollin’, was No 1 in 1974 and their cover of the Four Seasons’ Bye, Bye, Baby stayed at the top of the charts for six weeks in the summer of 1975, followed by Give a Little Love, a No 1 in December. In total, the Rollers’ upbeat tunes, mixing influences from bubblegum pop to glam rock, sold more than 100 million records.

McKeown signing autographs in Copenhagen in 1976 -  Jorgen Angel/Redferns
McKeown signing autographs in Copenhagen in 1976 - Jorgen Angel/Redferns

Meanwhile, the heavy living continued, often with unpleasant consequences. In 1975 McKeown was fined £1,100 for attacking a paparazzo in Oxford, while a few weeks later he appeared in court charged with causing death by dangerous driving after knocking over a pedestrian in Edinburgh; he was convicted of the lesser charge of reckless driving and banned for a year.

By then the band were known for their distinctive Scots look, with tartan calf-length trousers and tartan scarves, which were copied by their fans – though with little benefit to the musicians. “As with every aspect of the Bay City Rollers, we should’ve taken more of an interest in what was going on,” McKeown recalled, adding that the band’s finances were somewhat chaotic. “Our naivety cost us millions.”

McKeown in 1979, when he was attempting to launch a solo career - Photoshot/Getty Images
McKeown in 1979, when he was attempting to launch a solo career - Photoshot/Getty Images

Leslie Richard McKeown was born in the Broomhouse area of Edinburgh on November 12 1955, the youngest of four sons of Francis McKeown, a deaf Irish tailor, and his wife Florence (née Close), who had settled in Scotland at the time of their marriage. His father’s lack of hearing meant that much of the family’s communication was by hand signal.

He was educated at Forrester high school and served in the Boys Brigade, learning to swing on ropes, tie knots, start fires and build explosive devices. He became known to the Corstorphine constabulary and his first court appearance was for stealing a can of cola from a pub. He was expelled from school after a “dirty protest” in the teachers’ lift.

An attempt to join the merchant navy at 15 was rejected. Instead, he began hanging about at a local recording studio, making cups of tea for the technicians and bombarding them with questions. His first public performances were at the local community centre.

He found work as a lab technician with Scottish & Newcastle Breweries, siphoning off samples that made him popular with friends, but led to his dismissal. That was followed by “God knows how many different jobs”, for a bakery, a laundry, a chemical factory and as an electrician’s apprentice. Eventually he found work in a paper mill.

Once Upon a Star, the band's second album
Once Upon a Star, the band's second album

Meanwhile, he had started to dream of his own band, advertising for members in the Edinburgh Evening News. That led to an approach to join Threshold, with whom he was soon appearing in the less-salubrious clubs of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

His father, who had long watched Top of the Pops in forced silence, used the visual inspiration to make their stage gear including bright-yellow flares. This and the music brought “quite a substantial following of young lassies”.

Les McKeown of the Bay City Rollers on stage at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith, London, December 2016 - Dick Barnatt/Redferns
Les McKeown of the Bay City Rollers on stage at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith, London, December 2016 - Dick Barnatt/Redferns

The Bay City Rollers split at the end of 1978 and McKeown, whose rock-star earnings had largely been dissipated by touring costs, tax bills and legal fees, pursued a solo career.

Sales of the LP All Washed Up, by Leslie McKeown and his self-deprecatingly named band Ego Trip, bombed and the single Shall I Do It flopped. Eventually his work showed a respectable return in Germany and Japan, where his career blossomed with albums such as The Face of Love, 100% Live and The Greatest.

Les McKeown in 1975 in Aarhus, Denmark - Jorgen Angel/Redferns
Les McKeown in 1975 in Aarhus, Denmark - Jorgen Angel/Redferns

There were a few Bay City Rollers’ reunions, including the album Breakout, and in 2015 a sold-out comeback tour. In 2003 he published Shang-a-Lang: My Life with the Bay City Rollers, a memoir revealing the more colourful details of his showbusiness life, including a former cocaine habit.

Les McKeown is survived by Peko Keiko, his Japanese-born wife, whom he married in 1983, and by their son Jubei.

Les McKeown, born November 12 1955, died April 20 2021

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