(Pictured: Evel Knievel clears a line of buses in London in 1975. Seconds after this photo is taken, he will crash, and later announce his retirement. It didn’t take.)
America loves its daredevils and its outlaws, people who face down danger and do what cannot be done, but there’s never been one quite like Evel Knievel. At the same time, he is yet another in a long line of self-made entrepreneurs whose main product was himself.
Bobby Knievel took the name Evel Knievel in 1966, choosing to spell it “Evel” rather then “Evil,” the story goes, so that he wouldn’t be mistaken for a Hell’s Angels type. He first gained fame jumping his motorcycle over whatever a promoter wanted him to jump over. In 1967, he jumped the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Unable to interest anybody in broadcasting it live, he paid for the filming himself, and then sold it to ABC. And for the next several years, the legend of Evel Knievel grew. His jumps (and crashes) became a regular feature of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. In fact, the show’s single highest-rated episode, on October 24, 1975, featured a live Knievel jump at Kings Island, Ohio.
But that’s getting ahead of the story. As early as 1968, Knievel was trying to arrange a jump across the Grand Canyon. That was never going to happen, but he eventually settled on the privately owned Snake River Canyon near Twin Falls, Idaho. A standard motorcycle wouldn’t do the job. It took over two years of development and testing before the Skycycle—registered with the state of Idaho as an airplane but considered by the FAA to be a rocket—was ready to fly.
On jump day, Sunday, September 8, 1974, President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. It took a story of that magnitude to pull the spotlight away from Evel Knievel, but his show went on. Knievel and ABC had been unable to agree on live TV rights, so the jump was presented on closed circuit in theaters. A parachute deployed prematurely and the Skycycle fell into the canyon. Knievel’s jump aired on Wide World of Sports the next week; see it here, both highlights of the jump and an interview with Jim McKay and ABC science editor Jules Bergman, who had covered the jump live.
Knievel’s notoriety led several recording artists to try cashing in on it. This had actually begun in the late 60s, but reached an early peak thanks to the 1971 movie Evel Knievel, which starred George Hamilton. Two Knievel-themed songs sung by Hamilton, neither of which was in the movie, were released on a single. Another single included the film’s opening and closing theme, “I Do What I Please.”
Knievel’s 1974 notoriety produced a few more records, but only two of them were on labels with national reach. To help promote the Snake River Canyon jump, Amherst Records released an album called Evel Knievel, which includes a load of ephemera: press conference clips, Evel talking with some children and reciting poetry, and “The Ballad of Evel Knievel” by John Culliton Mahoney. The latter (backed by one of Knievel’s poetic readings, which was heard on the TV coverage of the Snake River jump) made #85 in Cash Box and #105 in Billboard in late September 1974.
The most successful of the Knievel-themed records was “Evil Boll Weevil,” a break-in record on the Bang label credited to Grand Canyon and featuring an introduction by Chicago radio legend Fred Winston. “Evil Boll Weevil” (a name frequently used in media parodies of Knievel) got to #72 during a five-week run on the Hot 100 in November 1974. It was a Top-10 hit in Minneapolis and Columbus, and it got airplay in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Denver, Louisville, and Des Moines.
Knievel’s star peaked in 1975 and dimmed in 1976. He was jailed for the 1977 beating of a promoter, and he jumped for the last time in shows with his son Robbie in 1981. After a decade of obscurity, he embarked on a second career in the 90s—being Evel Knievel (but also engaging in some shady business ventures). He died in 2007 at the age of 69, not of motorcycle-related injuries, but of lung disease. Although he had been in ill health for a while, a friend is said to have said, “You just don’t expect it. Superman doesn’t just die, right?”
Evel Knievel’s Wikipedia page is crazy entertaining, if questionably sourced. For more on the Knievel media phenomenon, read Steve Mandich, whose book Evel Incarnate inspired a TV movie and which lives on at a website I strongly recommend.