In America, it is a fairly well-known historical fact that the legendary mob boss Al Capone was brought to justice not by uniformed officers of the Chicago Police Department, but by the punctilious accountants of the FBI. However, in England there were at least a few young men that didn’t have all the facts straight, and in the 1970s their pop group from Nottingham turned their romantic misunderstanding of American history into a historically dubious yet gloriously catchy hit record. Though it was never intended for the American market, Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died” crossed the Atlantic and became a #1 hit on the U.S. pop charts on this day in 1974.
“The Night Chicago Died” was a story-song chronicling a deadly 1930s gun battle between Chicago cops and Al Capone’s foot soldiers on the “East Side of Chicago”—a battle that never happened on a side of Chicago which, if it existed, would lie beneath the surface of Lake Michigan. But if “The Night Chicago Died” failed to go through a rigorous fact-check process prior to its release, it was certainly understandable. Just weeks before their sole international hit topped the Billboard pop chart, Paper Lace had watched another potential hit stolen from them by an American group called Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods.
The song that should have made Paper Lace a two-hit wonder in the United States was “Billy Don’t Be A Hero,” a Civil War epic pop song written by Paper Lace’s Mitch Murray and Peter Callandar. Though it was a #1 hit for Paper Lace in the UK in March 1974, before their version of “Billy Don’t Be A Hero” could be released in the United States, the song was snatched up and re-recorded by Bo Donaldson and they Heywoods, who turned it into their one and only smash hit in June of that year.
Paper Lace took no chances with “The Night Chicago Died,” which was released in the United States before any competing cover version. Songwriter Mitch Murray later acknowledged, however, that Bo Donaldson’s “theft” of what could have been Paper Lace’s #1 hit may have helped them eventually to get there. As he later told Billboard magazine, “People took notice of us because we were beaten to the post. It made more of a story for DJs to talk about.”