Mass Murder, Skyjacking, and the Autumn Equinox–The Story Behind “Dancing in the Moonlight”


I’m an absolute asshole for autumn. I love everything about it. I drape myself in leaf garlands. I snort lines of pumpkin spice. I keep an apple crumble baking at all times just so my house smells like brown sugar.

That type of indulgence calls for a proper soundtrack. And if you’re doing it right, you should have “Dancing in the Moonlight” on heavy rotation.

“Dancing in the Moonlight” was a #13 hit on the charts for King Harvest in 1972.

It is a quintessential one-hit wonder, a slice of early-70s FM Gold, and to my ears, a perfectly articulated celebration of the autumn equinox. “Dancing in the Moonlight” captures the crisp evening air, the glowing bonfires and the bourbon flushed flavor of the season with intoxicated perfection.

Of course, it was inspired by a violent assault that nearly left its writer for dead. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

For now, I simply must warn you that this story is full of tangents…and I kind of feel like going on all of them. Stick with me. I’ll reward you with a sweet fall playlist at the end of it all.

Ok. First stop—upstate New York.

Saint of Circumstance

Boffalongo was a short-lived psychedelic combo formed in 1968 by a group of Cornell students. Moving to New York City’s Fashion District, Boffalongo recorded their self-titled debut in 1969. 

That same year, lead singer Sherman Kelly took an ill-fated vacation to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. While there, he was the victim of a violent attack. A local gang, led by a man named Ishmael LaBeet, randomly confronted Kelly, viciously assaulted him, and left to die on the side of the road. (Keep the LaBeet Gang in mind. We’ll get back to them in a bit.)

As Kelly recovered from multiple facial fractures, he dreamed of an alternate reality, a world of peace and love, a world in which five Virgin Islanders didn’t beat the ever-loving shit out of him and leave him bleeding in a ditch.

That dream became “Dancing in the Moonlight.”

In 1970, Boffolongo released their second album—Beyond Your Head—which represented a slight shift toward cosmic country. The album includes the first recording of “Dancing in the Moonlight,” featuring accompaniment from New York-based jazz flautist Jeremy Steig. 

You may not recognize the name, but you’ll definitely recognize this tune, which Steig also recorded in 1970.

Of course, you know it courtesy of the Beastie Boys. (You were warned about the tangents).

Anyway, the original version of “Dancing in the Moonlight” was not a hit, and Boffalongo soon disbanded.

King Harvest Has Surely Come

That same year, a few erstwhile Boffolongo members came together to form King Harvest, borrowing their sonic inspiration and name from The Band.

They too dissolved after just a few months, but over the course of the following year, various members of the group reassembled in Paris. There, they recorded their debut album in 1971. I Can Tell made minimal impact.

At this point, Sherman Kelly was not a member of the band, but his brother Wells Kelly was serving as the drummer. Wells suggested they record “Dancing in the Moonlight.” 

They did. Once again, it went nowhere. And once again, the band broke up.

Northern Exposure

Then, in 1972, for some mysterious reason, Canadian radio stations discovered the tune. 

Sherman’s brother, Wells Kelly had already departed by now to form Orleans, noted for Lite-FM fare like “Still the One” and “Dance With Me”.

Side Note: Of the numerous heinous crimes detailed in this story (and they are quite heinous), this album cover above may be the gravest of them all.

Anyway, by 1973, King Harvest had reached #5 on the Canadian charts. American programmers took note, and by February, the song peaked at #13 on the U.S. billboard charts.

The band quickly reassembled back in New York to record a full-length sophomore release. They followed with a tour. Though not present for the recording of his own song, Sherman Kelly would join the band for the very first time on this tour.

Also added to the band were drummer David Montgomery and bassist Tony Cahill, both formerly of Australian blues rock combo, Python Lee Jackson.

A Random But Absolutely Worth-it Aside on Python Lee Jackson

This heavy blues rock combo is utterly forgettable but for the guest appearance of Rod Stewart on one absolutely blistering nugget.

History holds that Jimmy Page once approached Rod Stewart as a prospective vocalist for the as yet unformed Led Zeppelin. Obviously, that didn’t happen. But if it had, I imagine the results might have sounded a lot like this.

Ok. Back to the story of “Dancing in the Moonlight.”

The LaBeet Gang

Remember, there are two sides to every story. King Harvest’s hit song only tells Sherman Kelly’s side. But what of his attackers?

The very same year that King Harvest was beginning its ascent of the charts, Kelly’s one-time attackers were also busy upping their game.

In 1972, the same five men who assaulted the songwriter three years prior would force their way into St. Croix’s Fountain Valley Golf Course and gun down eight American tourists and resort employees. The massacre was either a robbery gone wrong, a political statement, or a little of both. 

Testifying against their alleged ringleader, Warren Ballentine and Raphael Joseph claimed that Ishmael LaBeet was incensed over the exploitation of his homeland by white foreigners.

All five defendants were convicted to eight consecutive life terms. Three of the defendants remain in custody. Joseph was eventually pardoned in 1994, but died of a drug overdose four years later.

As for LaBeet?

In 1984, he hijacked American Airlines Flight 626 during a federal prison transfer, forced an emergency landing in Cuba and remains at large to date. 

King Harvest’s Endless Summer

The members of King Harvest struggled to find another hit. Their label—Perception—went bankrupt in 1974. The lineup splintered, shifted and reformed without much impact. They called it quits for the last time in 1976.

Former members subsequently enjoyed a fruitful affiliation with various members of the Beach Boys, including joining as session musicians on Dennis Wilson’s 1977 burnout classic, Pacific Ocean Blues, and working at various points as part of the touring band for Mike Love.

But for the long and tangent-filled story here, King Harvest is rightly remembered as a one-hit wonder. They embody the phrase.

And they also kind of prove the point—if all you achieve in the course of your existence is a single great song—just three minutes of pure everlasting pop perfection…well that’s a pretty monumental mark to leave on this earth.

Cheers to the one-hit wonders and cheers to this new season. 


Ok. As promised, a soundtrack for your harvest celebration…