Born October 17, 1938 in Butte, Montana – the former mining town which, in its heyday, was home to hundreds of saloons and a notorious red-light district – Robert Craig ‘Evel’ Knievel was an American daredevil, entertainer and (or so it says on Wikipedia) ‘international icon’. The original Lance Murdoch, between 1965 and 1980 he attempted over 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps in his red, white and blue leather cat suit: in 1974 a failed jump across Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket almost resulted in his death and, during his professional career, he broke 433 bones – earning him an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the survivor of "most bones broken in a lifetime".
He was well paid for his feats of daring. He earned $1 million for his jump over 13 buses at Wembley Stadium (the crash landing broke his pelvis) and more than $6 million for the Snake River Canyon attempt, where the parachute on his rocket-powered Skycycle malfunctioned and deployed after take-off. Strong winds blew the cycle into the canyon, landing him close to the river below.
At the height of his fame Evel appeared in movies, made dozens of appearances as a guest on hit TV shows including The Bionic Woman and the Sonny and Cher Show and had a range of toys (or collectable figurines I guess you’d call them now) based on him, his family and his contemporaries. Knievel toys accounted for more than $300 million in sales in the 70s and 80s.
Thankfully, in 1974, he released the thoroughly bizarre album, with the incredibly original title Evel Knievel, which featured a 26 minute press conference, a song about (but not by) him and the great man himself reciting a self-composed poem. It’s a pretty boring listen: luckily the two standout tracks – Why and The Ballad of Evel Knievel – were issued as a single. And it’s those two tracks I present for you today. When producer Ron Kramer was searching for a vocalist to sing a song he had co-written written for Knievel he approached John Culliton Mahoney, who performs The Ballad of Evel Knievel in a shrill vibrato. It sounds to me like the theme tune to a Saturday tea time TV show, which it possibly could have been intended for. Why is just horrible: a miserable piece of poetry worthy of a ten year-old in which, over swelling strings, Evel talks about his faith in God, and how the power of prayer has pulled him through his darkest days.
Originally issued on Amherst in 1974 (the long-established US company owned by Leonard Silver that also licensed 45s by The Stylistics, Van McCoy and Glenn Medeiros), the album was reissued on Tin Toy Records (on CD in 2000) as Evel Speaks to the Kids. A strange move, as Tin Toy seem to specialise in semi-legit (read 'dodgy') Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV albums. To the best of my knowledge Evel Speaks to the Kids is a Genesis P Orridge-free zone. After years of licensing tracks from other stables, John Culliton Mahoney became the first artist to sign directly to Amherst Records in 1973 (according to an article in the Niagara Falls Reporter), releasing his first album, Love Not Guaranteed, the same year. He’s still performing today.
The promoter for the Snake River Canyon jump, Shelly Saltman, wrote a book entitled Evel Knievel on Tour. The book painted an unflattering picture of Knievel's character, alleging that he abused his wife and kids and he used drugs. Enraged, Knievel flew to California to confront Saltman, who was a Vice President at 20th Century Fox. Gaining entrance to the studio lot, one of Knievel's friends grabbed Saltman and held him while Knievel, with both arms still in casts, attacked him with an aluminium baseball bat, declaring, "I'm going to kill you!" According to a witness, Knievel struck repeated blows at Saltman's head, with Saltman blocking the blows with his left arm. Saltman's arm and wrist were shattered in several places before he fell to the ground unconscious. It took numerous surgeries and permanent metal plates to eventually give Saltman back the use of his arm. Saltman's book was pulled from the shelves by the publisher after Knievel threatened to sue. Saltman later produced documents in both criminal and civil court that proved that, although Knievel claimed to have been insulted by statements in Saltman's book, he and his lawyers had actually been given editorial access to the book and had approved and signed off on every word prior to its publication. Knievel pleaded guilty to battery and was sentenced to three years' probation and six months in county jail.
Unsurprisingly, Knievel lost most of his marketing endorsements and deals and, with no income from jumping or sponsorship, he was eventually forced to declare bankruptcy. He still managed to make a living though: thousands came to Butte each year to celebrate Evel Knievel Day, where he would sell autographs and memorabilia.
Evel died in November 2007 at the age of 69. He had been in failing health for years, suffering from diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis (an incurable condition that scarred his lungs); he had undergone a liver transplant in 1999 after nearly dying of hepatitis C, likely contracted through a blood transfusion after one of his bone-shattering spill and he also suffered two strokes in the years before he passed.