The Most Infamous Rock and Roll Urban Legends

The mythos of rock and roll music started as soon as Elvis and his swiveling hips hit the stage. But with a powerful mystique comes stories, legends, and myths - some of them true, some of them true but exaggerated, and some of them just plain made up. Others are misconceptions passed down through the generations, despite never being true.

These are the most persistent urban legends and rumors in rock history, with an emphasis on the rock myths that are a little more unknown. Sure, you know about Phil Collins and the drowning man, but did you know that despite wearing dark glasses all the time, Roy Orbison was not actually blind? Or that two famous rock legends actually did die in the same apartment, years apart?

Note that this list omits some of the more well known and disgusting stories, such as Led Zeppelin's "mud shark" (which didn't happen) or that one about Rod Stewart (which also didn't happen.) The emphasis here is on stuff you've heard about and think might have happened... and maybe did.

  • Charles Manson Wrote A Song For The Beach Boys (True)
    Photo: ABC Television / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Legend has it that Charles Manson wrote a song with or for The Beach Boys. Before you scoff at the impossibility of this, know that it's completely true.

    Before he was a psychopathic murderer, Manson was just another struggling songwriter in LA. In 1968, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson had a chance meeting with two female members of the nascent Manson Family, picking them up while they were hitchhiking, leading to Manson and Wilson forming a strange friendship. Manson wrote a song for Wilson to give to The Beach Boys, titled “Cease to Exist.” Wilson liked the song, re-wrote the lyrics and titled it “Never Learn Not to Love.”

    Manson was reportedly enraged by Wilson changing his lyrics and taking credit. Though accounts differ as to what happened when Manson confronted Wilson, the strange songwriter was soon out of Wilson’s life, and went on to bigger things, namely carving a swath of destruction through Topanga Canyon.

  • Roy Orbison Was Blind (False)
    Photo: Jac. de Nijs / Anefo / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 4.0

    The “Crying” singer's normal attire of black clothes and his stationary concerts gave him the aura of a sad, dark man. And the huge dark glasses he wore both on and off stage led to something else: a persistent rumor that the singer was either born blind or blinded from an accident at some point in his life.

    The truth is that Orbison was never blind, though he did wear thick glasses to correct his vision. As the story goes, he once accidentally left them on a plane, and the only other pair he had were prescription sunglasses, so he wore those on stage. The next day he left for Europe to open for the Beatles, and didn’t have time to find his old glasses or get new ones made, so he just kept the sunglasses on. That tour received massive press coverage, and by the time he returned home, he was “the singer in the dark glasses.” So he made them part of his persona.

  • Two Musicians Died In Harry Nilsson's Apartment (True)
    Photo: RCA Records / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    This one is actually true. Mamas and the Papas singer Mama Cass and The Who drummer Keith Moon did actually die in the same London flat, four years apart. The apartment belonged to American singer Harry Nilsson, who was so spooked by the two deaths that he never went back. Instead, the apartment was bought by The Who lead singer Pete Townshend, to keep it from being exploited as a tourist trap.

  • Van Morrison Recorded Nonsense Songs (True)
    Photo: Warner Bros. Records / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Why would someone record three dozen intentionally bad gibberish songs? In 1967, Irish troubadour Van Morrison was stuck in a brutally unfair record deal, and tangled in a dispute with his manager’s widow. Finally, he managed to get his contract bought out by Warner Brothers, but was still bound to the terms of his old deal, which required him to write and record 36 more songs.

    But Morrison got the last laugh. Knocking out over 30 songs in one day, Morrison fulfilled his end of the deal, recording short, out-of-tune, nonsensical tracks about ringworms, Danishes, and overdue royalty checks. These so-called “revenge songs” were useless to his old record company, but they did the trick, freeing Morrison up to start a run of albums that are hardly surpassed in rock greatness.  

  • Mama Cass Choked On A Ham Sandwich (False)
    Photo: CBS Television / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    A half-eaten ham sandwich was found by the body of singer Mama Cass Elliot in a London flat, leading the media to put two and two together and declare she choked to death on it. It’s not true, and never had any truth to it. In fact, Elliot’s death from heart failure was probably due to the stress she put on herself through an extreme form of fasting, attempting to quickly lose a large amount of weight.

    Like so many other urban legends, the ham sandwich rumor has become accepted as fact, despite it not being true in the least. Unlike Phil Collins’s drowning victim, or the woman murdered by the Ohio Players, this urban legend has a real victim behind it: a great singer who died before her time, whose legacy is burdened with an ugly, fat-shaming smear, and should be debunked at every opportunity.

  • Aerosmith Nearly Bought Lynyrd Skynyrd's Plane (True)
    Photo: Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Rob Rubio / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Various stories have swirled about Aerosmith almost buying the plane that later crashed and nearly killed everyone in Lynyrd Skynyrd. What actually happened is a lot less mystical, and is based on good observation and strong human resources.

    Right before the Skynyrd crash, Aerosmith’s assistant chief of flight operations checked out the Convair CV-300 that Skynyrd later chartered and deemed it unworthy of the Boston band, either because he saw the crew drinking or the engine caught on fire in his presence. Unfortunately for Skynyrd, they had no such luck, and spent years trying to pick up the pieces from the incident.