Originators of folk-rock and pioneers of acid- and country-rock, the Byrds were one of the most influential bands in rock history. They left their mark on the sounds of the Eagles, Tom Petty, R.E.M., and hundreds of less well-known artists. The Byrds reclaimed rock and roll as an American music form in the wake of the Beatles-led British Invasion of English bands and brought a previously unimagined level of lyricism and artistic experimentation to pop music.
The Byrds were formed in 1964—when the British Invasion was at its height and the early 1960s folk scene that had built an intellectual wing onto American popular music was fading. Byrds founder Roger McGuinn was a moderately successful folksinger who had backed up his then-more-famous colleague Judy Collins, playing 12-string guitar and banjo on her recordings of the classic Pete Seeger compositions “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “The Bells of Rhymney,” among others. He had also played with Bobby Darin, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and the Limeliters. In 1964 McGuinn was playing coffeehouses in Los Angeles. He recalled of those days in Mike Jahn’s book Rock, “I knew folk music was on its last legs. I loved folk music. … But [by 1964] it was obvious it was dying.”
Actually, McGuinn had never been a folk purist. “I started with rock,” he told Guitar Player. “I started with Elvis, and I was heavily into Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, the Everly Brothers, and Johnny Cash—that whole rockabilly, Memphis sound.” The Beatles showed McGuinn the way back to rock and roll. He began playing Beatles songs during his sets at the Los Angeles folk club the Troubador, but—though still using an acoustic 12-string guitar—he added a rock-like beat to the folk material. As he told Rolling Stone in 1990, “I came out and started blending Beatles stuff with the folk stuff, and the audience hated it. I used to get mad at ‘em because I thought it was good. … Later on I ran into [original Byrds vocalist] Gene Clark at the Troubador. He was one of the few people who understood it. He asked if I wanted to write some songs with him. Then [original Byrds guitarist] David Crosby came in and started singing harmony.”
Clark, like McGuinn, was a midwestern folkie who had relocated to Los Angeles. He had spent two years with the very commercial folk group the New Christy Minstrels and in 1964 was frequenting folk clubs, writing Beatleseque songs, and looking for a partner. “He was looking for somebody else to go with him in [the folkrock] direction, and I just happened to be going that way,” McGuinn recounted in Rolling Stone.
For the Record…
Original members included Gene Clark (born November 17, 1941, in Tipton, MO; died May 24, 1991, in Los Angeles, CA; left group, 1966), vocals; Michael Clarke (born June 3, 1944, in New York, NY; left group, 1968), drums; David Crosby (born August 14, 1941, in Los Angeles; left group, 1967), guitar; Chris Hillman (born December 4, 1942, in Los Angeles; left group, 1968), bass; and Roger McGuinn (born Jim McGuinn, July 13, 1942, in Chicago, IL, [changed name, 1968]), guitar.
Later members included Skip Battin (born February 2, 1934, in Gallipolis, OH; joined group, 1969), bass; John Guerin (joined group, 1972), drums; Kevin Kelly (born in 1945 in California; joined group, 1968), drums; Gene Parsons (born in 1944 in Los Angeles), drums; Gram Parsons (born Cecil Connor, November 5, 1946, in Winter Haven, FL [changed name, c. 1960]; died September 19, 1973, in Joshua Tree, CA; joined and left group, 1968), guitar; Clarence White (born June 6, 1944, in Lewiston, ME; died July 14, 1973), guitar; and John York (left group, 1969) bass.
Group formed in 1964 in Los Angeles; originally named the Jet Set; signed with Elektra Records, released first single as the Beefeaters; signed with Columbia Records, released “Mr. Tambourine Man,” 1965; released three LPs; released several LPs with various lineups, 1967-73; group disbanded, 1973; original members reunited to make one album, The Byrds, Asylum, 1973.
Awards: Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1991.
Crosby, a Los Angeles native, had met McGuinn in 1960. In the intervening years Crosby had played the coffeehouse circuit, sung with Les Baxter’s Balladeers, and become part of a group of musicians who would create the California folk- and acid-rock scenes in the following few years. Crosby had also become friends with a recording engineer named Jim Dickson, a jazz buff who had become interested in folk music and made private tapes of folksingers in his spare time.
Dickson took McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby into the studio to make an audition tape. He recalled the sound of that tape in Crosby’s autobiography, Long Time Gone: “Because of the British Invasion thing that was happening, they’re singing with these English accents. It’s marvelous, really, and funny. But they had a sound. There’s no question about it. The Byrds.” The fledgling group hadn’t yet hit on that name, however. McGuinn named them the Jet Set, and when Elektra Records signed them, it released their first single under the name the Beefeaters, trying to appeal to the craze for all things English. The single flopped, and Elektra dropped them.
The Jet Set were still playing acoustic guitars—and as such, were not really considered a rock band—but when they saw the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night, they decided true rock and roll was the way to go. Crosby tried to play bass, but found it impossible to sing when he did. Dickson knew a bluegrass mandolin player named Chris Hillman who was looking for something new; he agreed to join on bass, though he had never played the instrument before. Drums were a bigger problem, but Crosby remembered Michael Clarke, whom he had met while living on the beach in California’s Big Sur in 1962. Clarke had never played rock and roll trap drums, only congas and bongos, and couldn’t afford a drum kit—he showed up at the first rehearsal with an assortment of cardboard boxes.
Dickson rehearsed McGuinn, Clark, Crosby, Hillman, and Clarke intensely for several months, taping every session and forcing the musicians to listen to the playback. Crosby remembered it in his autobiography as a painful experience. “It was truly terrible. Michael Clarke, when he started out, was the only drummer who could, without any awareness of it at all, turn the beat around, back to front, three times in one song. And none of the rest of us were that much better. Roger was the only one who could really play.” But the constant rehearsal paid off, and it was only a few months before the group—by then the Byrds—were ready for their first gig, a $50 lunch-hour set at Los Angeles City College.
The Byrds caught on quickly, with Dickson, as the group’s manager, hustling furiously to get them into the new clubs that were opening on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. There they would play four or five sets a night for dancing teenagers, filling out their repertoire with cover versions of current hits. At Ciro’s—one of the Strip’s biggest clubs—the Byrds finally made their breakthrough in the spring of 1965.
By then they already had a recording contract with Columbia and had released a single, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Dickson had insisted they record the now-classic Bob Dylan song, but producer Terry Melcher decided that the Byrds’ musicianship was not up to professional studio standards and used session musicians on the instrumental tracks, though McGuinn did contribute his twelve-string. “Mr. Tambourine Man” was released in March of 1965 and initially moved slowly, not entering the charts until May. Once there, however, it jumped quickly to Number One and stayed in the Top Ten for 13 weeks. Film- and music-business celebrities began showing up at Ciro’s to catch the Byrds, and the Los Angeles Times, Variety, and Time wrote about them. Beatle John Lennon sang their praises, and Dylan himself joined them onstage. Somewhere along the way, someone coined the term “folk-rock” to describe the Byrds’ unique approach to rock and roll.
What the Byrds had done was truly revolutionary: “Bringing Bob Dylan and the hit parade together,” wrote The Map author Paul Williams more than 20 years later, “with a gorgeous twelve-string guitar sound that had nothing to do with either Dylan or 1965 pop, yet somehow served perfectly to unite the two.” In a Los Angeles Free Press article quoted in John Stuessy’s Rock and Roll, Mike Jahn’s Rock, and the liner notes to Mr. Tambourine Man, among other sources, Paul Jay Robbins wrote: “Their singular method is to unite, in a dynamic and irresistible adventure, the techniques and honesty of folk music, the joy and immediacy of r & r, and the virtuosity of jazz. … What the Byrds signify … is a concept deeply applied to unification and empathy and a rich joy of life. … Dancing with the Byrds becomes a mystic loss of ego and tangibility; you become pure energy someplace between sound and motion and the involvement is total.” Bud Scoppa, in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, elaborated, writing, “The Byrds pioneered a new approach to rock. It all had to do with the sound. … [The Byrds’ sound], with its 12-string symphony and massive chorale was new in rock, … as diamond-sharp cascading guitar notes intertwined with the Byrds’ gothic vocal harmonies.”
“Mr. Tambourine Man” was followed that summer by an album of the same name, on which the Byrds played their own instruments. That release in turn was copied by a host of imitators, emulators, and like-minded creators. It was reported that Dylan made up his mind to move toward rock only after hearing the Byrds; the Lovin’ Spoonful came out with their own folk-rock sound; and Sonny and Cher, Barry McGuire, Donovan, and Simon and Garfunkel, among others, all rode the folk-rock wave, many of them to greater commercial success than the Byrds had enjoyed.
Though Crosby told Newsweek in September of 1965, “We put reality in music. It’s better than June-Foon-Boon-Spoon,” the Byrds—who rarely sang Dylan-style protest songs—were not content to remain pigeonholed as “Dylanized Beatles.” Their second album, Turn! Turn! Turn!, was much like their first, but the band’s third outing, Fifth Dimension, moved well beyond folk-rock—and beyond the conventions of commercial radio in 1966. Crosby had discovered Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and played tapes of them incessantly while the Byrds were on tour. By the time the band next went into the studio, they had new songs, McGuinn had a new approach to the 12-string, and the Byrds were ready to revolutionize rock once more.
“Eight Miles High,” the first single from Fifth Dimension, was unlike anything pop radio had ever seen. With no chorus or lyrical hook, surrealistic lyrics, Hillman’s ominous, throbbing bass, and the unconventional counterpoint of McGuinn’s jazzy Indian-inspired solo, it was the first psychedelic rock song; despite common misperceptions, however, the song was not about drugs, but the Byrds’ first, disastrous tour of England. The title referred to the transatlantic flight: “I said ‘Six Miles High,’ being more technologically oriented than Gene Clark,” Rock author Jahn quoted McGuinn as saying. “Gene said, ‘It doesn’t sound right poetically, eight miles high sounds better.’” Enduring suspicions about the song’s meaning, however, led some radio stations to ban it. Though “Eight Miles High” reached Number 14 on the charts, it was the last Byrds single to make the Top Twenty.
Soon after the release of Fifth Dimension, personality conflicts began to take their toll on the group. The liner notes to the previous album had referred to “fistfights and great mouthfuls of awful abuse” in the recording studio; artistic and personal differences seemed to intensify with each record. Gene Clark was the first to go, driven out by clashes with McGuinn and Crosby and his own fear of flying, which made touring difficult. He teamed up with bluegrass musician Doug Dillard for two albums of country-rock, then went on to make several highly regarded solo records but never equalled the success he had had as a Byrd.
Younger Than Yesterday took the Byrds further from the pop mainstream and deeper into the eclecticism that once led Crosby to describe their music as “rock, folk, bossa nova, jazz, Afro.” Of this style Sandy Pearlman wrote in Crawdaddy!, “The Byrds give us magic, science, religion, psychedelic sounds, lots of electronic stuff and technological tongues, love songs, Dylan … rock and roll, science fiction, some Southern California local lore, an African trumpet guy, a country and western guitar guy, a little bit of raga. … Yet after a while. … they make themselves very familiar.” Though Hillman and Crosby became more prominent as singers and songwriters with songs like “Everybody’s Been Burned” and “Thoughts and Words,” McGuinn’s guitar work continued to dominate the Byrds sound.
The first single off Younger Than Yesterday, “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” satirized the music business; the second, “My Back Pages,” was a Dylan song and, in Crosby’s opinion, a step backwards. “It was ‘Oh, let’s make “Tambourine Man” again, “’he told Rolling Stone’s Ben Fong-Torres in 1970. “It was a formula record. … Had all the life and commitment of a four-day old mackerel.” It was also the last Byrds single to make it into the Top Forty, peaking at Number 30 as the Byrds became too hip for AM radio and more of a force in the growing “underground” rock scene. As Pearlman observed, “Only the Byrds, amongst modern rock stars, have managed to change their status from stardom to cultural heroism.”
Crosby was kicked out of the band during the recording of The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Mike Clarke finished the record, but left before it was released. McGuinn unveiled the “new Byrds” in the spring of 1968; the major addition was Gram Parsons who, McGuinn told Jerry Hopkins of Rolling Stone, “added a whole hunk of country” to the Byrds sound. This new direction was confirmed with the release of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the album that many credit with starting the countryrock movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Sweetheart was the first Byrds album that did not feature McGuinn’s guitar. As he told Guitar Player in 1991, “I guess I was kind of tired by then. Gram was a strong musical force. I just let him go and went along with it.” Response to the record was mixed; Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice called it “a gentle, moving work, and the most authentic piece of nostalgia in a year when every folkie worth his Little Sandy Review is going Nashville.” Barry Gifford, in Rolling Stone, was more ambivalent, describing Sweetheart of the Rodeo as “interesting” but “uninvolved” and suggesting that it was a weak imitation of genuine country music. But Geoffrey Stokes, writing 18 years later in Rock of Ages, called the release “the Byrds’ last perfect album, … free from condescension … with a skewed passion as genuine as that of the originals.”
Though country music had been an element of the Byrds’ style since 1965 and Hillman and Parsons wanted to further pursue country-rock, McGuinn considered Sweetheart of the Rodeo a one-time excursion. Parsons made continued discussion of the point moot when he quit the group rather than tour racially segregated South Africa (a tour McGuinn undertook on the advice of South African singer-activist Miriam Makeba). A few months later, Hillman left to join Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers; he later joined guitarist-vocalist Stephen Stills in Manassas, J. D. Souther and Richie Furay in the Souther-Furay-Hillman Band, and eventually made a series of solo albums before ultimately finding a niche in mainstream country music as leader of the Desert Rose Band.
McGuinn, the only remaining original Byrd, hired side-men to fill out the band. At first the results were good: Dr. Byrds and Mrs. Hyde was praised by Rolling Stone, and with Clarence White on guitar and Gene Parsons on drums, McGuinn was able to declare, “For the first time, the Byrds are better live than on record.” But the records became less consistent. Legendary rock scribe Lester Bangs, reviewing (Untitled) in Rolling Stone, remarked, “Some of it is fantastic and some is very poor … and between the stuff that will rank with their best and the born outtakes lies a lot of rather watery music. … Roger McGuinn and all Cos. have been plowing pastures in the same admittedly verdant American valley for just a season too long now. Their old riffs have run dry.” Mixed reviews also greeted Byrdmaniax and Farther Along, and in 1973 McGuinn decided to call it quits.
That decision coincided with the reunion of the five original Byrds in the recording studio. It took several months of negotiation to settle both business and personal issues, but the album was made, and all the Byrds were enthusiastic about it. A tour was considered. Critical response, however, was mostly negative: “Unfocused,” Rolling Stone’s judgment, was one of the kinder assessments. McGuinn decided it was time to abandon the Byrds name and launch a solo career.
The solo path turned out to be harder than he had expected. “When you’ve been in a group,” he told Guitar Player’s Alan di Perna in 1991, “there’s something that happens psychologically to the public, and I guess to the individual. If you step out of the group, it’s almost like you’re a traitor. … It’s tough to do.” Even when the music was good—Robert Christgau, in his Record Guide, called McGuinn’s solo debut “more coherent than any Byrds album since Sweetheart of the Rodeo” —sales were not. Even a stint touring with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue failed to ignite much interest in Roger McGuinn without the Byrds. After five solo albums and three collaborations with other ex-Byrds, he found himself entering the 1980s with neither a band nor a recording contract.
By then, the sound that McGuinn and the Byrds had created had become a major influence on musicians as diverse as Tom Petty, R.E.M., the Bangles, and dozens of British post-punk bands. Ironically, while they copied the jangling guitar sound of the early Byrds records, the man who developed it played solo acoustic sets in small clubs.
Nonetheless, McGuinn did not complain: “Doing solo gigs without a contract was really rewarding,” he told Dave DiMartino in Spin. “I almost got to the point of saying who needs to record. … [I] just loved going out and touring. And audiences were so responsive—we just had such a good time all the time.” The tide began to turn in the late 1980s with the release of Never Before, a collection of Byrds outtakes and alternate takes that was greeted by Steve Simels of Stereo Review as a reminder that “the Byrds were not only the premier American band of the day, but one of the most innovative and influential bands ever.”
As 1990 approached, and thus the Byrds’ eligibility for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Columbia Records prepared a four-CD boxed set covering the Byrds’ career; McGuinn, Hillman, and Crosby went into the studio to record four new tracks for that collection. And McGuinn found himself in demand elsewhere—he appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2, and played guitar on Elvis Costello’s album Spike.
The culmination of this activity was a contract for McGuinn with Arista Records and a new album, Back From Rio. The album hit Number 45 on the Billboard chart, and the video of the single “King of the Hill” got considerable play on MTV. John Milward of Rolling Stone wrote, “Back From Rio evokes the commercial pop rock of [the Byrds’] 1967 album Younger Than Yesterday. McGuinn’s twelve-string shimmers … like sunlight on the ocean. … And on terrific tunes by Costello and Jules Shear … the sound meets the songs to create interpretive magic. … McGuinn is hardly the future of rock & roll, but he’s an important part of the past on which that future rests, a past that will not fade away.”
In January of 1991, the Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. McGuinn remarked to Musician’s Jon Young, “Everybody says it’s the most prestigious honor in rock ‘n’ roll, but that’s kind of a contradiction in terms, isn’t it?” Of the momentous occasion, Rolling Stone concluded: “The Byrds were among the most liberating forces in American rock & roll history, … rooted partly in age-old folk tradition but with an eye toward unprecedented experimentalism. … This adventurous spirit—this playful mix of old forms, new concerns and spacey improvisation—would help to transform the entire style and context of West Coast rock & roll. And combined with the breakthroughs made by British rock, it would … transmogrify pop music’s cultural purpose. … The Byrds helped turn rock & roll into something dreamy, daring and open-hearted, and because of those ambitions, modern pop music is all the richer.”
Mr. Tambourine Man, Columbia, 1965.
Turn! Turn! Turn!, Columbia, 1966.
Fifth Dimension (includes “Eight Miles High”), Columbia, 1966.
Younger Than Yesterday (includes “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and “My Back Pages,” Columbia, 1967.
The Byrds Greatest Hits, Columbia, 1967.
The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Columbia, 1968.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Columbia, 1968.
Dr. Byrds and Mrs. Hyde, Columbia, 1969.
Preflyte, Together, 1969.
(Untitled), Columbia, 1970.
Farther Along, Columbia, 1971.
Byrdmaniax, Columbia, 1971.
The Best of the Byrds: Greatest Hits Volume II, Columbia, 1972.
The Byrds, Asylum, 1973.
Never Before, Murray Hill, 1988.
The Byrds (boxed set), Columbia, 1991.
(Chris Hillman) Cherokee, ABC, 1971.
(Hillman) Slippin’ Away, Asylum, 1976.
(Hillman) Clear Sailin’, Asylum, 1977.
(Hillman) Morning Sky, Sugar Hill, 1982.
(Hillman) Desert Rose, Sugar Hill, 1984.
(Souther-Hillman-Furay Band) The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, Asylum, 1974.
(Souther-Hillman-Furay Band) Trouble in Paradise, Asylum, 1975.
(Gene Clark) White Light, A&M, 1971.
(Clark) Roadmaster, A&M, 1973.
(Clark) No Other, Asylum, 1974.
(Clark) Two Sides to Every Story, RSO, 1977.
(Clark) Firebyrd, Takoma, 1984.
(Doug Dillard and Clark) The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark, A&M, 1969.
(Dillard and Clark) Through the Morning Through the Night, A&M, 1969.
(Clark and Carla Olson) So Rebellious a Lover, Demon, 1987.
(Roger McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman) McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, Capitol, 1979.
(McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman) City, Capitol, 1980.
(McGuinn and Hillman), McGuinn & Hillman, Capitol, 1980.
Solo LPs by McGuinn; on Columbia, except as noted
Roger McGuinn, 1973.
Peace on You, 1974.
Roger McGuinn & Band, 1975.
Cardiff Rose, 1976.
Back From Rio, Arista, 1990.
Born to Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1991.
Christgau, Robert, Christgau’s Record Guide, Ticknor & Fields, 1981.
Cohn, Nik, Rock From the Beginning, Stein & Day, 1969.
Crosby, David, Long Time Gone, Doubleday, 1988.
Denselow, Robin, When the Music’s Over, Faber & Faber, 1989.
The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, edited by Irwin Stambler, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Goldstein, Richard, Goldstein’s Greatest Hits, Prentice-Hall, 1970.
Marsh, Dave, The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, New American Library, 1989.
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking, 1989.
Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, edited by Ed Ward, Rolling Stone Press, 1986.
Rock On: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, vol. 2, edited by Norm N. Nite, Harper & Row, 1978.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, edited by Jim Miller, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1980.
The Rolling Stone Interviews, edited by Jann Wenner, Straight Arrow, 1971.
Roxon, Lilian, Lilian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, Grosset & Dunlap, 1969.
Stuessy, Joe, Rock and Roll: Its History and Stylistic Development, Prentice-Hall, 1990.
Williams, Paul, The Map: Rediscovering Rock & Roll, A Journey, And Books, 1988.
Williams, Paul, Outlaw Blues, Dutton, 1969.
CD Review, January 1, 1992.
Crawdaddy!, July/August, 1967; September/October, 1967; May 1968.
Down Beat, May 1, 1990.
Gentlemen’s Quarterly, March 1, 1991.
Guitar Player, April 1, 1991.
Musician, April 1991; May 1991.
New York Times, January 30, 1966.
Newsweek, September 20, 1965.
Rolling Stone, April 27, 1968; May 11, 1968; April 5, 1969; May 17, 1969; November 26, 1970; August 19, 1971; March 16, 1972; January 4, 1973; December 6, 1973; December 15, 1977; March 24, 1988; August 23, 1990; February 7, 1991; July 11, 1991.
Spin, April 1, 1991.
Stereo Review, June 1, 1988.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from album liner notes to Turn! Turn! Turn!, Columbia, 1966.
Guitarist, singer, songwriter
Roger McGuinn will always be known first and foremost as the founder of perhaps the greatest American folk-rock band, the Byrds. The ringing of his 12-string electric guitar on classics like “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” and the ethereal beauty of self-penned ballads like “Chestnut Mare” are unforgettable. Considered by many to be the American equivalent of the Beatles, the Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. While McGuinn played a central role in the birth and development of the band, his musical explorations started before the famous group debuted and continued long after its demise.
James Joseph McGuinn III grew up in a comfortable Chicago neighborhood in the 1940s and 1950s. His parents, James and Dorothy McGuinn, became minor celebrities when they published the humorous bestseller Parents Can’t Win in 1948. Young Jim McGuinn came of age during the heady days of the folk revival, and Chicago, like New York, had a lively local scene. At coffeehouses and at Albert Grossman’s Gate of Horn one could see folk performers like Bob Gibson and Hamilton Camp. McGuinn attended the Old Town School of Folk Music from 1957 to 1960 and became proficient on the banjo and guitar. A few weeks after he graduated from high school, he received an offer to go on the road with the popular folk group the Limeliters. His parents made no objections. “[W]hen I decided to become a professional musician at age 17,” McGuinn recalled to Dan Epstein of the Backstage Pass website, “they said, ‘Go for it, kid!’ They were just happy that I knew what I wanted to do in life.”
During the early 1960s McGuinn’s musical Odyssey took a number of twists and turns. After playing for a short time with the Limeliters, he moved to Los Angeles and performed as a solo act. After another move, this time to San Francisco, he joined the Chad Mitchell Trio and remained with the group for two years. He was approached by the New Christy Minstrels but opted instead to work for several months with Bobby Darin. McGuinn also played on a number of recording sessions, including one with Judy Collins, accompanying her on a Pete Seeger song called, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” At the end of 1963, he moved back to Los Angeles and continued his solo career.
McGuinn, however, had changed. Like many of his peers in 1963, he began to re-examine his commitment to folk music in the wake of the Beatles’ success. He continued to play acoustic music but adapted a rock beat and began to search for like-minded musicians. He formed a duo with former New Christy Minstrel Gene Clark, and later they added David Crosby. Calling themselves the Jet Set, they quickly supplemented their lineup with drummer Michael Clarke and bassist Chris Hillman. Still, something was missing from the acoustic group. This “missing” element was revealed when McGuinn saw George Harrison playing
Born James Joseph McGuinn III on July 13, 1942, in Chicago, IL; son of James and Dorothy McGuinn. Education: Attended Old Town School of Folk Music, 1957-60.
Began playing with the Limeliters, age 17; worked with Chad Mitchell Trio for two years, appearing on Mighty Day on Campus, 1961; joined Bobby Darin for several months, appeared on recording sessions with Judy Collins and Hoyt Axton, early 1960s; performed as solo artist in Los Angeles, formed several short-lived groups, early to mid-1960s; formed the Byrds with David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, and Michael Clarke, 1964; led Byrds through numerous personnel changes, 1965-73; recorded self-titled debut, 1973, followed by Peace on You, 1974; released critically acclaimed Cardiff Rose, 1976; recorded and performed, 1980s; released Back from Rio, 1990, Born to Rock & Roll, 1992, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band—Roger McGuinn Live, 1994, Live from Mars, 1996; began posting MP3 files of traditional folksongs on Internet, mid-1990s; released traditional folksongs on Treasures from the Folk Den, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Appleseed Records, P.O. Box 2593, West Chester, PA 19380, phone: (610) 701-5755, website: http://www.appleseedrec.com.
an electric, 12-string Rickenbacker in A Hard Day’s Night. The band, briefly calling themselves the Beefeaters, combined their resources and bought a 12-string guitar and a bass, and by Thanksgiving 1964, the electrified group decided to call themselves the Byrds. In January of 1965, McGuinn cut a version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” with studio musicians at Columbia Records. When it became a hit six months later, the Byrds had arrived.
Between 1965 and 1973 McGuinn stood at the helm of the Byrds, forging new sounds and creating a series of groundbreaking albums. First dubbed folk-rock, the band also dabbled in psychedelic rock and pioneered country-rock. McGuinn changed his name from Jim to Roger after a short involvement with the Subud religion. Early albums like Mr. Tambourine Man in 1965 and Turn! Turn! Turn! in 1966 were noted for the close three-part harmony, Bob Dylan songs, and the ringing sound of McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker. The lineup of the band changed constantly. In 1968, with the addition of Gram Parsons, the band recorded Sweetheart of the Rodeo, drawing heavily from country music. The 1970 album Untitled presents both live and studio material, including one of McGuinn’s most beloved songs, “Chestnut Mare.” While the Byrds seemed to run out of steam by the time they disbanded in 1973, their influence has continued to be immense. “The Byrds’ innovations have echoed nearly as strongly through subsequent generations,” wrote Richie Unterberger in All Music Guide, “in the work of Tom Petty, R.E.M., and innumerable alternative bands of the post-punk era that feature those jangling guitars and dense harmonies.”
Complications ensued for McGuinn in 1973. After disbanding the Byrds, he recorded an unsatisfying album with the original members. In the midst of this chaos, in the summer of 1973, he released his self-titled debut. While Roger McGuinn and the 1974 follow-up Peace on You received some good reviews, many critics thought the recordings lacked the vigor of earlier Byrds material. In 1975, after another lackluster album, McGuinn joined the Rolling Thunder Revue, a high-profile rock show put together by Bob Dylan. The touring and camaraderie of the revue energized McGuinn, leading to the recording of Cardiff Rose, an album many saw as his best work since 1970’s Untitled. Despite this success, life as a rock star was taking its toll. In retrospect, he believed that the fog of alcohol and drugs had led to a number of less-than-satisfying albums. He proceeded to clean up his act, get married, and become a Christian.
While McGuinn continued to perform for the next 12 years, he kept a lower profile and did not release another solo album until 1990. He played several live dates and recorded with Gene Clark and Chris Hillman in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While live shows, occasionally including David Crosby, garnered accolades, the critical response to the studio recordings was lackluster. During the remainder of the 1980s McGuinn returned to solo performing while continuing to make intermittent guest appearances. In 1990 Colombia released a boxed set of Byrds albums and in 1991 the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The recognition of his former work re-invigorated McGuinn at the beginning of the 1990s. He continued his solo career, began a number of new projects, and seemed comfortable in his role as a rock ‘n’ roll icon. For 1990’s critically acclaimed Back to Rio, he wrote nine new songs and was joined by guests including Tom Petty and Elvis Costello. In 1993 he performed “Mr. Tambourine Man” at Bob Dylan’s thirtieth anniversary celebration and then joined in an all-star finale of “My Back Pages.” The 1996 album Live from Mars included new and old songs, accompanied by autobiographical monologues. McGuinn also began storing traditional folksongs on MP3 files in the mid-1990s, making them easily available to Internet users. He extended this project with the release of Treasures from the Folk Den in 2001, recording old songs like “John the Revelator” and “The Virgin Mary” with the help of Joan Baez and Judy Collins. When asked in 1996 by Paul Kitchen in Dig Magazine about his plans for the future, McGuinn said, “Andres Segovia was scheduled to play Carnegie Hall the month he died. He kept doing what he loved until he couldn’t do it any longer. That’s what I plan to do!”
Roger McGuinn, Columbia, 1973.
Cardiff Rose, Columbia, 1976.
Back from Rio, Arista, 1990.
Treasures from the Folk Den, Appleseed, 2001.
Walters, Neal, and Brian Mansfield, editors, MusicHound Folk: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Ward, Ed, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker, Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1986.
No Depression, November-December 1999, pp.18-19.
“Byrds,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=Bn7qvadskv8w8 (September 14, 2001).
“No Exit: Roger McGuinn,” Backstage Pass, http://users.aol.com/McGuinn742/BAM.html (August 30, 2001).
“Roger McGuinn,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=B3ucyxdgb8ols (August 30, 2001).
“Roger McGuinn,” Dig Magazine, http://www.digmagazine.com/inside/music/mcguinn.cfm (August 30, 2001).
—Ronnie D. Lankford Jr.
The Byrds began as a folk-rock band in 1965 led by Jim McGuinn (later renamed Roger following his conversion to Subud). The harmonies arranged by David Crosby and McGuinn's electric twelve-string guitar gave them a rich, fresh sound. Often described as the American Beatles, The Byrds were nevertheless distinctly original. On their first two albums, Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965), they covered Bob Dylan and traditional folk songs, and wrote their own material. On "Eight Miles High" (1966) McGuinn exhibited the influence of Indian ragas and the improvisational style of John Coltrane. The Byrds explored a psychedelic sound on Fifth Dimension (1966) and Younger than Yesterday (1967). They continued in the folk/psychedelic style on The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968), but Crosby left halfway through the recording of this album, later forming Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The Byrds' next album,Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), detoured into country-western. Throughout the next five albums, the band suffered numerous personnel changes. McGuinn remained the only original member, but somehow the newcomers persuaded him to continue recording country music and The Byrds abandoned their exploratory spirit. They disbanded in 1973. Today The Byrds are remembered for the classics of their folk and psychedelic period, some of which were immortalized in the film Easy Rider (1969).
Fricke, David. Liner notes for The Byrds. New York, Columbia Records, 1990.
Rogan, Johnny. Timeless Flight: The Definitive Biography of the Byrds. London, Scorpion Publications, 1981.