Top 10 Music Myths, Hoaxes and Urban Legends

Urban legends and other misperceptions about early rock and roll

Roy Orbison
Evening Standard / Getty Images

The following is a chronological guide to myths, hoaxes, and urban legends concerning the legendary artists and songs of rock and roll, pop and R&B from the '50s, '60s, and '70s. 

1. Sam Phillips goofed by signing away Elvis for $35,000.

Considering that Elvis Presley went on to sell an estimated one billion records worldwide, or approximately one record for every sixth person on earth, this sounds like one of music history's biggest blunders.

It's not so, however. For one thing, the music business in 1955 was a quick-cash game; no label owner, certainly not a small, regional one like Phillips, could have possibly asked for a percentage of an artists' future royalties once he was signed away. Secondly, that 35 grand was by far the largest amount ever paid for any artist by a major label, one which was taking a huge chance by signing a "rock and roll" singer. (No one in the business really considered rock more than a passing fad; if anything, RCA was thought to have wildly overpaid for Elvis.) Thirdly, Sam Phillips proved he was indeed a shrewd businessman by investing that $35,000—he sunk some of it into a small upstart hotel chain in Memphis. The name of that chain was the Holiday Hotel; you may know it better as the Holiday Inn.

2. Roy Orbison was blind.

The singer's odd, pasty look and huge dark glasses led many to speculate, then and now, that Roy Orbison was blind. His trademark shades never left him, but they were no stranger (or stronger) than Grandma's reading glasses.

Roy did have eyeglasses to correct his vision, but they were quite normal; en route to an Alabama concert, however, he accidentally left them on the plane. The only other pair he had were prescription sunglasses, so he wore those instead. The very next day Roy was scheduled to open up a European Beatles tour, and there was no time to go find his old pair, so the dark shades stayed on him throughout the tour. The resultant frenzy of Beatlemania ensured that the singer would be seen throughout the world in that pair; by the time he returned home, it was a trademark. Proof that Roy wasn't blind can be found in the early television performance footage that shows him wearing no glasses at all.

3. The plane that crashed and killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper was named the "American Pie."

Singer Don McLean leaves much of the speculation about his monumental 1972 epic "American Pie" open to speculation: the song, after all, does feel open-ended lyrically, like a sonic dream. What McLean has admitted is that the tune centers around the 1959 plane crash that killed Holly, Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, and what happened to rock and roll in the years following.

The "Miss American Pie" is the symbol of that Fifties America, the passing of which the singer laments. But quite apart from the fact that the official reports and photos of the crash reveal no such aircraft name, McLean himself was forced to issue a press release in 1999 debunking this myth once and for all: "The growing urban legend that "American Pie" was the name of Buddy Hollys plane the night it crashed, killing him, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, is untrue. I created the term."

4. The hit Kingsmen version of "Louie Louie" contains dirty lyrics.

The 1964 hit "Louie Louie" may be one of frat-rock's greatest anthems, but it's also one of the most poorly-recorded records to ever hit the Top 40: most of the vocals on the song's one take went into one big boom mike hanging from the ceiling. For this reason, it's impossible to make out what lead singer Jack Ely is singing, and so fans went to work trying to inject the most salacious lyrics their dirty minds could imagine. The resultant controversy led to the song being banned by the state of Indiana and even to a full-fledged FBI investigation—the FBI, however, concluded that it couldn't prosecute something unintelligible, and the furor died off.

There are three compelling reasons to assume the lyrics are actually as tame as those in the 1956 original by Richard Berry. For one, the lyrics sound like the original ones, when you know what they are, although the first line of the last verse remains lost and floating around in that studio somewhere. We also have the testimony of Berry himself, who's repeatedly insisted the words are the same as his own. However, you CAN hear something spontaneously shouted out at the end of the second chorus: drummer Lynn Easton has claimed that he hit his sticks together accidentally at that moment, which caused him to yell "Oh, f---!" Ironically, no complaint has ever centered around that goof.

5. Peter, Paul and Mary's 1965 hit "Puff, The Magic Dragon" is about smoking marijuana.


The true facts are these: the lyrics to "Puff" were written by Cornell student Lenny Lipton in 1959. One particularly melancholy evening, Lipton realized his childhood was gone forever, and after reading Ogden Nash's "The Tale Of Custard The Dragon" at the college's library, he ventured into nearby Ithaca to visit his friend and fellow student Lenny Edelstein. No one was home, however, so Lenny let himself in and used the typewriter to craft an ode to his carefree days. Edelstein's roommate Peter Yarrow -- the Peter in Peter, Paul, and Mary -- eventually found the poem and wrote music around it.

Yarrow, for his part, also claims that no college student smoked pot in 1959, and the climate of the times seems to bear him out. In concert, the trio debunk the myth further by playing the US national anthem and humorously attempting to "find" drug references in it.

6. Charles Manson auditioned for the Monkees.

Notorious multiple-murder mastermind Manson was not at the auditions, however, for two other very good reasons. At 30 years of age, he didn't fit the call for 17-21 year olds (Stills was passed on merely for looking older than that). More importantly, Manson was also in jail -- serving a ten-year sentence for check forgery. He did get out early, but not until six months after the show hit the air.

7. Paul is dead.

Anthology 3

8. "Mama" Cass Elliot died from choking on a ham sandwich.

The former Mamas and Papas singer, who was quite overweight for her height, died from a weak heart caused by her excessive weight, the crash diets she used to try and control that weight, and (some say) cocaine. The reason this myth persists is because a half-eaten ham sandwich was found on the stand next to her bed, and initial reports from the police speculated that choking might have been the cause. But the official coroner's report found no food whatsoever in her trachea.

9. Michael Jackson owns the Beatles' songs.

Sort of. It depends on what you mean by "own." This is more a misconception than an outright myth, one where distraught Beatles fans envisioned Wacko Jacko sitting in Neverland on a big pile of the Fab Four's rightful money.

Here are the facts: Paul McCartney and Michael were friends in 1984 when the "Thriller" superstar asked Paul for ideas on how to invest his new-found windfall. McCartney advised him to go into song publishing, which is indeed the smartest move in the music business. Trouble is, Michael went ahead and bought publishing rights to most of the Beatles' catalog, which did not leave Paul amused.

All this meant was that Jackson would earn about half of the proceeds whenever a Beatles song was used or published in any form. The band themselves, notably principal songwriters Lennon and McCartney, never lost a dime from the deal. (Michael did infuriate many fans by licensing "Revolution" for use in a 1987 Nike ad, but in order to do so, he also had to get the permission of Capitol Records and Yoko Ono, as well.) Jackson never owned all the Beatles music per se -- he merely owned the half of the publishing company, Northern Songs, that once belonged to Sir Lew Grade. (Grade bought the controlling shares in 1969 when John and Paul, already in the throes of breakup, couldn't muster an effective counteroffer.) Paul still owns full control of four songs written before Northern Songs was created: "Love Me Do," "Please, Please Me," "P.S. I Love You," and "Tell Me Why."

Here's the main reason not to get too upset about Jackson and the Beatles catalog: he stopped controlling it long before his death. In 1995, Jackson merged his publishing company with Sony; over the years, escalating debts forced him to use his half as collateral for loans. This may or may not help Beatles fans sleep better at night.

10. The Ohio Players killed a woman during the recording of "Love Rollercoaster."

This silly rumor came about simply because you can hear what sounds like a woman screaming on the hit 1975 record -- just before the second verse, during the guitar breakdown. But that scream was an effect used to recreate the feel of being on a rollercoaster; in fact, it's not a woman at all but keyboardist William "Billy" Beck. There's a fire alarm sound on their previous hit, "Fire," but that doesn't mean there was actually a fire in the studio, does it?