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Fans Mourn Sudden Death of Popular Rock Band Leader

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The singer’s voice was deep, and the lyrics echoing Wednesday from a cliff in Malibu were haunting.

“Wheels keep turning, and they’re taking me far away,” sang Chris Williams on a CD being played from a van with a bumper sticker reading “Backbone69.” “Wheels keep turning, and they’re taking me far away. . . .”

The van was parked next to Latigo Canyon Road, where Williams, a popular Malibu rock band leader and songwriter, died Sunday in a traffic accident that has puzzled music fans and authorities.

Investigators say Williams veered off the road and plunged 600 feet to his death after inexplicably driving off in a friend’s car. The friend had been stopped for a traffic violation and was out of the car.

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Fans say the accident spells the end of Backbone69, a band composed of the sons of rock music legends that many feel was on the verge of its big break in the rock ‘n’ roll recording field.

Formed in the early 1990s by guitarist-vocalist Williams and drummer Alex Orbison, son of Roy Orbison, Backbone69 included guitarist Duane Betts, son of the Allman Brothers’ Dickey Betts, and bass player Berry Oakley Jr., son of Allman Brothers bassist Berry Oakley.

Williams, 31, was the son of songwriter Jerry Lynn Williams, who has written for such stars as Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

In Malibu, Backbone69 had developed a following of fans ranging from young teenagers to graying rock-lovers in their 50s.

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The younger fans routinely chartered buses to take them to band performances at places such as the House of Blues or venues in Las Vegas or Newport Beach, said Jackie Forge, 17, a high school senior who traveled to the accident site Wednesday to pay her respects at an impromptu shrine.

The site 1 1/2 miles north of Pacific Coast Highway is on a curve. Gaping holes in two fences show where the car broke through before it tumbled down the mountainside and landed on steep and twisting Latigo Canyon Road.

Portia Englund, 16, left a note praising Williams. “Your great heart and beautiful soul has taught us a lesson,” it read.

“Word spread right away about the crash. I’ve been crying ever since,” Portia said.

Older fans of Backbone69 were equally distraught. Filmmaker Greg Temple, 44, likened the band’s local influence to that of Topanga Canyon’s Canned Heat and Malibu’s Buffalo Springfield decades ago.

“I’ll get through this, but I’ll never get over it,” said Temple, a Malibu resident since 1963. He said he had started work on a documentary about Backbone69, which started out simply as “Backbone” but added the numbers when it learned another group had that name.

Those stopping at the accident site wondered about its cause. Fan Brad Ginsburg, 37, of Malibu, said he had heard that Williams sped off after seeing his friend get into an altercation with the Sheriff’s Department motorcycle deputy who had pulled him over along Pacific Coast Highway.

The driver, Travis Bennett, 20, of Malibu, was later booked on suspicion of driving under the influence and resisting arrest.

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“This kid started fighting with a cop and Chris didn’t want any part of it. When you fight with police you can get shot,” Ginsburg said.

Sheriff’s investigators said Bennett began struggling with the motorcycle officer after he underwent a sobriety test and was handcuffed. That’s when Williams slid from the passenger side of the car into the driver’s seat and drove away.

“We usually ask those we arrest if they would like the passenger to take the car,” Sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Mauch said Wednesday. But they never got the chance. “We’re still investigating. We’re curious about this. It’s bizarre.”

Barron Miller, a Topanga resident who managed Backbone69 and had scheduled upcoming performances at music festivals in Telluride, Colo., and New Orleans, said services are pending for Williams. He said they probably will include an event on a beach and at the Malibu Inn, the band’s favorite place.

Along with his father, Williams’ survivors include his longtime girlfriend, fashion industry technical designer Roxy Starr of Marina del Rey.


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