Les McKeown's death robs Bay City Rollers fans of their first love
From humble beginnings, Leslie Richard McKeown became one of the world’s greatest pop stars. A showman who knew how to entertain, he knew how to hold audiences spellbound and, until lock down last year, could claim to be one of the hardest working entertainers in the music business, clocking up hundreds of concerts a year.
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His sudden death on Tuesday, announced by his wife Peko, will be an unbearable loss for both her and their son Jubei. Met with a public outpouring of grief, the news has also robbed fans the world over of their first love.
Born and raised in Broomhouse, Les was just 16 when he joined the Bay City Rollers, replacing Nobby Clark as their singer. I first properly met him in 2014 when he made a guest appearance in Alan Longmuir's musical, I Ran With The Gang. Les had agreed to join Alan on stage at the end of a performance to sing Shang-a-lang with the cast. The buzz in the venue that day was palpable. The show sold out and when he stepped onto the stage a couple of hundred ladies of a certain age screamed every bit as loudly as they had in their teenage years, five decades earlier. Such was his presence.
Always candid, frequently cheeky and more often than not with a mischievous glint in his eye, Les cast a spell over audiences in a way few can. "He's a real frontman," Alan Longmuir, the original Bay City Roller would tell me. "You need someone like that in the group. I couldn't do what he does."
To do what Les did, you needed an ego and Les certainly had that. He may have made an impact whenever he appeared on stage, but getting him there was a skill in itself, everything had to be exactly right.
That first occasion, backing tracks even had to be re-recorded in his key and, although it was many years after the heyday of the band, security had to be in place, such was the enthusiasm of his fans. Like many in his position, Les fought many demons in his life, he beat most but could still be unpredictable. On one occasion, another guest appearance with Alan, he called five minutes before he was due on stage to say he had changed his mind. Everything had to be done on his terms. In anyone else it might have seemed churlish, in Les, well, it was just what he did.
That 2014 appearance was the first time Alan and Les had been on stage together in two decades and paved the way for a series of Bay City Rollers' reunion concerts in 2015 amd 2016, when three of famous five got back together for a number of UK concerts.
Talking to the Record, producer and friend John McLaughlin, who organised the gigs, said, "I'm still in shock right now, I spoke to him last week and he was on great form and happy about life and happy to book his tour. We were friends as well as working partners. We got on so great and he was great fun to be around. He had his moments but was always a good laugh to be around and a great performer."
The reunion gigs came some 30 years after the Rollers had split up. Les had joined the band in 1974 and in his autobiography recalled how he had come to join Scotland's biggest musical export in his typically tongue in cheek fashion:
'In November of 1973, my band Threshold had a gig in Dunbar. As usual I was wearing really cool gear that my dad had made for me, on this occasion, a pair of bright-yellow flares, made of stretch nylon fabric and measuring 36 inches at the hem. Now, most people know that it’s part of Scottish tradition to not wear underwear, but you might not realise this is not only the case when the top garment is a kilt. Yellow stretch flares looked much better without a visible panty line.
‘At the time, I thought I looked the dog’s bollocks. I didnae much care that most people were finding it hard not to look at mine. I didnae know, on stage that night, that one member of the audience in particular was especially drawn to those tight trousers. After the show, Tam Paton came to see me backstage.'
The Rollers' infamous manager quickly signed the teenager who, just a couple of years later would become an international pop star, along with Alan, Eric Faulkner, Derek Longmuir and Stuart Wood. With him at the helm, the Bay City Rollers went on to do what few British bands managed, they broke America and scored chart hits across Europe, Canada, Japan and Israel. Hits like S.A.T.U.R.D.A.Y. Night, Summerlove Sensation, All of Me Loves All of You, Bye Bye Baby and of course, Scotland's other national anthem, Shang-a-lang. Their songs became some of the Seventies’ most iconic sounds and, for a period, the band members were A-listers, winning their own TV shows not just in the UK but in the United States too.
Co-founder of the Bay City Rollers, Derek Longmuir says, "I was deeply saddened to hear that Les had passed away. We had our differences, but we spent many great and fun years travelling around the world at the height of Rollermania. And that is what I will remember. He was a brilliant frontman for the band. A great entertainer. We had some amazing times together. My sincere condolences to his lovely wife and son."
Eileen Longmuir, wife of Bay City Rollers’ other founding member, Derek’s brother Alan, adds, "When Les' wife Peko called to tell me I was shocked. So soon on the back of losing Alan, it was devastating. I only spoke to Les last week, he used to call me for a blether and I was just waiting for his next call. I know what a huge loss it must be for Peko and Jubei and my heart goes out to them both. Les’ passing really does mark the end of an era."
Les McKeown may have started life as a working class lad from one the Capital's then more deprived areas, but with the Rollers he went on to become one of the Edinburgh’s greatest ambassadors, albeit unwittingly. Though long settled in London, he enjoyed his visits back to the Capital and reminisced fondly of growing up here. We last spoke a couple of weeks ago. He was looking forward to getting back on the road and was planning to complete a tour of Canada that had been cut short by the pandemic. It was again typical of Les, a man who worked hard, played hard, lived for his music... but most of all, lived for his fans.