Byrds, The

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Byrds, The

Byrds, The, the most important group in the creation of both folk–rock and country–rock. membership:Roger McGuinn (real name, James Joseph McGuinn III), lead electric 12–string gtr., voc. (b. Chicago, July 13, 1942); Gene Clark (real name, Harold Eugene Clark), rhythm gtr., har., voc. (b. Tipton, Mo., Nov. 17, 1941; d. Sherman Oaks, Calif., May 24, 1991); David Crosby (real name, Van Cortland), rhythm gtr., voc. (b. Los Angeles, Aug.14, 1941); Chris Hillman, bs., mdln., voc. (b. Los Angeles, Dec. 4, 1942); Mike Clarke (b. N.Y., June 3, 1944; d. Treasure Island, Fla., Dec. 19, 1993). Gene Clark left in March 1966. David Crosby left in October 1967. Gram Parsons (real name, Cecil Connor III), gtr., voc. (b. Winter Haven, Fla., Nov. 5, 1946; d. Joshua Tree, Calif., Sept. 19, 1973), was a member in 1968. Other later members included Clarence White, gtr., voc, (b. Lewiston, Maine, June 7, 1944; d. Palmdale, Calif., July 14, 1973); John York, bs. (b. White Plains, N.Y., Aug. 3, 1946); Skip Battin, bs. (b. Gallipolis, Ohio, Feb. 2, 1934); Kevin Kelly, drm. (b. Calif., 1945); Gene Parsons, drm. (b. April 9, 1944).

The Byrds formed in L.A. in the summer of 1964. Jim McGuinn had made his debut at the Gate of Horn in Chicago in the late 1950s, later backing the Limeliters and Judy Collins. He performed as a solo folk artist in Greenwich Village and played as accompanist to the Chad Mitchell Trio beginning in 1960, helping record their Mighty Day on Campus and At the Bitter End albums. After working with Bobby Darin in N.Y. in 1962, he returned to solo work at the Troubadour in L.A., where he met Gene Clark in 1964. Clark had played in bands since the age of 13 and was a member of the New Christy Minstrels in the early 1960s. McGuinn and Clark began working as a duo and were later joined by David Crosby. Crosby had sung in coffeehouses in N.Y. and Calif, in the early 1960s and served a short–lived stint in Les Baxter’s Balladeers. Crosby introduced them to producer Jim Dickson and the trio recorded “The Only Girl I Adore”.

McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby subsequently formed the Jet Set, recording “You Movin’” and “The Only Girl” with sessions musicians. They subsequently recruited drummer Michael Clarke and bluegrass prodigy Chris Hillman. Hillman had formed the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers in 1961, and, later, the Hillmen with Gosdin brothers Vern and Rex. Recordings made by the Hillmen between 1963 and 1964 were later issued on Together Records after the success of the Byrds.

In 1964, with the assistance of Dickson, the group recorded a demonstration tape at World Pacific Studios (later issued as Preflyte). Initially signed to Elektra Records as the Beefeaters, the group’s first single, “Please Let Me Love You,” flopped and they subsequently signed with Columbia Records in November 1964, thus becoming the first rock act signed by the mainstream label. Soon changing their name to the Byrds, the group recorded Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” at the urging of Dickson. Ironically, only McGuinn actually played an instrument on the recording, his electric 12–string guitar. With McGuinn singing lead and Crosby and Clark providing harmonies, the instrumentation was done by L.A. studio stalwarts Leon Russell, Larry Knechtel, and Hal Blaine. The single, issued in March 1965, became a top British and American hit and launched the Byrds into international prominence. Debuting that month at Ciro’s in L.A., the original group remained far more effective as a recording group than a performing one.

All of the Byrds actually played on their debut album, save the songs “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “I Knew I’d Want You.” The album contained four Dylan songs, including the moderate American and near–smash British hit “All I Really Want to Do,” plus Gene Clark’s classic “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” and Jackie DeShannon’s “Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe.” Their second album yielded a top American hit with the title song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (adapted by Pete Seeger from the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes), and contained two more Dylan songs, McGuinn’s “It Won’t Be Wrong,” and Clark’s “Set You Free This Time,” a minor hit.

Conflicts in the group soon became apparent as Crosby and McGuinn frequently disagreed on the Byrds’ direction, sometimes coming to actual blows. However, the first defection was Gene Clark in March 1966. He soon recorded his debut album with Gosdin brothers Vern and Rex, augmented by Hillman, Clarke, Clarence White, and Doug Dillard. It included “Echoes,” “Tried So Hard,” and “So You Say You Lost Your Baby.” With Dillard, Clark subsequently formed Dillard and Clark, recording two neglected albums for A&M Records that are regarded as the earliest example of newgrass, a progressive variation of traditional blue–grass. Their debut, recorded with future Flying Burrito Brother and Eagle Bernie Leadon, featured the Clark–Leadon composition, “Train Leaves Here This Mornin’.” Fiddler Byron Berline joined for the second album. Never afforded the attention of other former Byrds, Clark recorded the solo albums White Light, No Other, and Two Sides to Every Story during the 1970s.

Having lost one of their singers and their principal songwriter, the Byrds realigned, with Hillman taking up vocals and McGuinn and Crosby writing more songs. At the same time, the group started experimenting with a more sophisticated sound, as McGuinn immersed himself in the music of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. The result was the major hit single “Eight Miles High,” written by McGuinn, Crosby, and Gene Clark and recorded shortly before Clark’s departure. With three–part harmony and an almost imperceptible melody, the song featured McGuinn playing his electric 12–string modally (rather than in a major or minor scale). The first psychedelic hit song, with its apparent reference to the LSD experience, “Eight Miles High” had the dubious distinction of being one of the first singles of the 1960s to be banned from airplay. The eclectic Fifth Dimension album also included McGuinn and Crosby’s psychedelic “I See You,” the moderate hit “Mr. Spaceman,” and the bluesy “Hey Joe.”

The Byrds’ increasing musical sophistication was evident with the release of Younger Than Yesterday. Although marred by two overdone production numbers, the album yielded a pair of hits with Dylan’s “My Back Pages” and McGuinn and Hillman’s bitterly satiric “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star.” It contained Crosby’s beautiful “Everybody’s Been Burned,” two McGuinn–Crosby collaborations, “Why” and “Renaissance Faire,” and four Hillman songs, including the country–flavored “Time Between.” The Byrds performed at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967, but by then the rift between McGuinn and Crosby had become irreparable. When Crosby refused to sing two Gerry Goffin–Carole King compositions, he was summarily paid off and fired in October. Crosby later produced Joni Mitchell’s debut album and helped form the quintessential 1960s acoustic guitar–vocal harmony group, Crosby, Stills and Nash. Crosby’s subsequent career is chronicled under Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Recorded with the assistance of outside musicians, The Notorious Byrd Brothers was critically hailed and marked the beginning of a trend toward simplicity rather than sophistication in the music of the Byrds. The album contained the two disputed Goffin–King songs, “Wasn’t Born to Follow” and “Goin’ Back,” a minor hit, and McGuinn and Hillman’s “Change Is Now.” Mike Clarke departed in late 1967, to be replaced by Hillman’s cousin Kevin Kelly.

McGuinn, now using the first name Roger, recruited singer–songwriter– guitarist Gram Parsons in February 1968, lending the Byrds a country music orientation. They soon appeared at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and their next album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, openly embraced country–western music. Hailed as the first country–rock album, Sweetheart was years ahead of its time and proved a commercial flop. It contained Dylan’s “Nothing Was Delivered” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” a minor hit, and two excellent Parsons songs, “Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years from Now.” The Byrds subsequently began to deteriorate. Gram Parsons quit in July 1968, followed in October by Chris Hillman. The two soon formed the Flying Burrito Broth–ers with Chris Ethridge. Hillman/s career with and after the Flying Burrito Brothers is chronicled under the Flying Burrito Brothers.

McGuinn, the only original member left, put together a new group with another bluegrass prodigy, Clarence White. White had been playing bluegrass music with his brothers Roland and Eric since the mid–1950s, initially as the Three Little Country Boys, later as the Country Boys. By the early 1960s, the Country Boys had evolved into the Kentucky Colonels, one of the most popular West Coast bluegrass bands, rivaled only by Hillman’s groups. After the Kentucky Colonels disbanded around 1967, Clarence White had pursued session work before joining Gene Parsons, Gib Guilbeau, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, and others in the group Nashville West. For McGuinn’s newest Byrds, White recommended John York and Gene Parsons. Parsons (no relation to Gram) had played with Guilbeau in the duo Cajun Gib and Gene before joining Nashville West.

The new lineup of the Byrds recorded Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde, which included McGuinn’s “Bad Night at the Whiskey/7 McGuinn and Gram Parsons’ “Drug Store Truck Driving Man/’ and the instrumental “Nashville West/’ The Byrds’ nosedive into obscurity was arrested briefly by the surprise popularity of the Peter Fonda–Dennis Hopper film Easy Rider. The best–selling soundtrack album contained three songs sung by McGuinn, including the minor hit “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” The obvious follow–up album The Ballad of Easy Rider yielded the Byrds’ final (minor) hit, “Jesus Is Just All Right.”

John York left in September 1968, and was replaced by Skip Battin. Years earlier, Battin had been half of the duo Skip and Flip, who hit with a remake of Marvin and Johnny’s “Cherry Pie” in 1960. The Byrds’ (Untitled), half live and half studio material, included “Truck Stop Girl” (written by Lowell George and Bill Payne of Little Feat) and several McGuinn–Jaques Levy collaborations, most notably “Lover of the Bayou” and “Chestnut Mare.” Defections continued and, finally, in February 1973, McGuinn disbanded the Byrds. The original group did reassemble briefly for 1973’s rather crassly commercial reunion album, which featured McGuinn’s “Born to Rock ’n’ Roll.” The Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

Clarence White quickly joined David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Richard Greene, and others in Muleskinner, recording one album on Warner Brothers. He formed the New Kentucky Colonels with brother Roland, touring Sweden, and started work on a solo album. However, on July 14, 1973, he was killed when struck by a drunk driver while loading equipment in Palmdale, Calif.

Gene Parsons recorded the impressive Kindling album before joining the later–day edition of the Flying Burrito Brothers for Flying Again and Airborne. He joined Sierra Records in 1980 and later recorded with Meridian Green, whom he married in 1986.

Roger McGuinn recorded a number of albums for Columbia in the 1970s, most notably the overlooked Cardiff Rose. Produced by Mick Ronson, the album contained two previously unrecorded songs, Joni Mitch–

ell’s “Dreamland” and Bob Dylan’s “Up to Me.” McGuinn toured with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in late 1975, forming a new band, Thunderbyrd, in 1977. That spring Chris Hillman’s band toured Europe with Gene Clark’s band and McGuinn’s Thunderbyrd, leading to a jam session among the three at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. Later, Clark joined McGuinn onstage at the Troubadour in L.A. They subsequently toured as a duo, becoming a trio when Hillman joined. The three, playing acoustic guitars, opened the Canadian leg of Eric Clapton’s Slowhand tour. In late 1978, the three recorded the highly polished McGuinn, Clark and Hillman album for Capitol Records, and managed a moderate hit with McGuinn’s “Don’t Write Her Off.”

Gene Clark toured with John York and others as the Byrds from 1985–87. In 1987, he recorded the solo album Firebyrd for Takoma Records and So Rebellious a Lover with Carla Olson of the Textones. In January 1989, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, and Chris Hillman played three Calif, club dates to establish their right to the Byrds’ name and prevent Gene Clark and Mike Clarke from touring under the name. On May 24, 1991, Clark was found dead in his home in Sherman Oaks. Roger McGuinn, who did not record during the 1980s, finally reemerged in 1991 with Back from Rio, recorded with the assistance of Elvis Costello and Tom Petty. Michael Clarke died of liver failure on Dec. 19, 1993, in Treasure Island, Fla.

The Byrds are often considered as influential as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Producing a remarkable body of work from 1965–68, the Byrds were noteworthy for their spirit of adventure and innovation, and were one of the first rock groups to experiment with studio technology. Presenting the first substantial challenge to the popularity of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the mid–1960s, the Byrds’ recording of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” marked the first time his still–acoustic music had been adapted to rock and launched folk–rock. Ostensibly, their recording inspired Dylan to take up electric guitar. The Byrds’ 1966 hit “Eight Miles High” was the first hit psychedelic song and showcased Roger McGuinn’s chiming 12–string electric guitar playing (a sound later emulated by Tom Petty and R.E.M.). The song was also one of the first to be banned for radio airplay due to its supposed reference to drugs. Anchored by the excellent songwriting of Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, and Chris Hillman, the Byrds were an inspiration to the singer–songwriter movement that proved so popular in the 1970s. Moreover, their attention to melody and harmony opened rock to the gentle sophistication later explored by groups such as Crosby, Stills and Nash. The Byrds’ 1968 Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, one of the first albums recorded in Nashville by an established rock group, introduced Gram Parsons to rock audiences and pioneered country–rock. The Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

Although talented songwriter Gene Clark languished in obscurity after leaving the group, others, particularly Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman, and David Crosby went on to spectacularly influential and successful careers. Parsons and Hillman formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, the group that laid the foundation for dozens of bands that explored country and rock during the 1970s. David Crosby helped found Crosby, Stills and Nash, who blended acoustic instrumentation with electric backing on engaging melodies and impeccable harmonies and helped define the singer–songwriter movement of the 1970s.


the chad mitchell trio (with jimmcguinn) : A Mighty Day on Campus (1962); Live at the BitterEnd (1962).the scottsville squirrel barkers (with chris hillman):Blue–Grass Favorites (1963). the hillmen:The Hillmen (recorded 1963–1964; 1969). the byrds:Mr. Tambourine Man (1965); Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965); Fifth Dimension (1966); Younger Than Yesterday (1967); Greatest Hits (1967); Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968); Preflyte (1968); Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968); Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde (1969); Ballad of Easy Rider (1969); (Untitled) (1970); Byrdmaniax (1971); Farther Along (1971); Best (Greatest Hits, Volume 2) (1971); Clark, Hillman, Crosby, McGuinn, Clarke (1973); The Byrds Play Dylan (1979); The Original Singles (1965–1967) (1981); Very Best (1986); In the Beginning (1988); The Byrds: Box Set (1990); 20 Essential Tracks from the Boxed Set: 1965–1990 (1991). gene clark:Early L.A. Sessions (1972); Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers (1967); White Light (1971); No Other (1974); Two Sides to Every Story (1977); Firebyrd (1987). dillard and clark:The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark (1968); Through the Morning, Through the Night (1970). gene clark and carla olson:So Rebellious a Lover (1987). the kentucky colonels (with clarence white):New Sound of Bluegrass (1963); Livin’ in the Past (1975); Scotty Stoneman with the Kentucky ColonelsLive in L.A.(1975); Long Journey Home (live; 1964); Appalachian Swing! (1964); The Kentucky Colonels (1974); The White Brothers (The New Kentucky Colonels) Live in Sweden (1977); The Kentucky Colonels Featuring Clarence White (1980); On Stage (1984). nashville west (with clarence white and gene parsons):Nashville West (1978); Nashville West Featuring Clarence White (1997). muleskinner (with clarence white):Muleskinner (1973); Muleskinner Live: Original Television Soundtrack (1992). mcguinn, clark and hillman:McGuinn, Clark and Hillman (1979); City (1980). mcguinn and hillman:McGuinn and Hillman (1980). skip bat–tin:SkipBattin (1973). gene parsons:Kindling (1973); Melodies (1980); The Kindling Collection (1995). gene parsons and meridian green:Birds of a Feather (1987). rogermcguinn:Roger McGuinn (1973); Peace on You (1974); Roger McGuinn and Band (1975); Cardiff Rose (1976); Thunderbyrd (1977); Born to Rock & Roll (1991); Back from Rio (1990); Live from Mars (1996).


John Rogan, Timeless Flight: The Definitive Biography of The Byrds (London, 1981).

—Brock Helander