The Byrds - Biography

The ByrdsThe Byrds (formed in Los Angeles, California, in 1964) were an American rock band.

Bridging the gap between the socially and spiritually conscious folk music of Bob Dylan and the fresh sounding hybrid pop of The Beatles, The Byrds are widely considered to have been one of the most important and influential bands of the 1960s. Throughout their career, they helped forge such subgenres as folk rock, space rock, raga rock, psychedelic rock, jangle pop, and – on their 1968 classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo – country rock. After several line-up changes (with lead singer/guitarist Roger McGuinn as the only consistent member), they broke up in 1973.

Some of their trademark songs include pop covers of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and Pete Seeger’s "Turn! Turn! Turn!," and the originals "I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better", and "Eight Miles High."

They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and several band members have launched successful solo careers after leaving the group.


The Byrds were founded in Los Angeles, California, in 1964 by singers and guitarists Jim McGuinn (born James McGuinn III on July 13, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois) (he later changed his name to Roger McGuinn after encountering the Indonesian religion Subud), Gene Clark (born Harold Eugene Clark on November 17, 1944, in Tipton, Missouri; died May 24, 1991), and David Crosby (born David Van Cortland Crosby on August 14, 1941, in Los Angeles). Bassist Chris Hillman (born December 4, 1944, in Los Angeles) and drummer Michael Clarke (born Michael Dick on June 3, 1946, in NYC; died December 19, 1993) joined soon after.

McGuinn had been in a series of folk outfits including The Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio before working in NYC in 1962-63 as a songwriter for Bobby Darin. He'd journeyed to L.A. in late 1963 and began gigging at clubs such as the Troubadour but, after hearing The Beatles for the first time, he resolved to take "Lennon and Dylan and mix them together."

Gene Clark, who'd been in the New Christy Minstrels, briefly joined McGuinn in a duo playing at The Folk Den before Crosby, who'd performed with Les Baxter's Balladeers, persuaded them to let him join. The newly-formed trio recorded a song, "The Only Girl I Adore," soon after naming themselves "The Jet Set" (McGuinn and Crosby were aviation buffs). As such they cut a couple of numbers, "You Movin'" and "The Only Girl." They then hired Michael Clarke (who had the right look for the part) to join on drums. Former bluegrass mandolin player Hillman, who'd played with the Scotsville Squirrel Barkers, the Golden State Boys, and the Hillmen, completed the quintet.

They rehearsed and recorded extensively at the World Pacific Studios in Los Angeles under the guidance of manager Jim Dickson. This period culminated with Elektra Records releasing a single, Please Let Me Love You B/W Don't Be Long, under the name "The Beefeaters". Years later, these World Pacific demos were released as the Preflyte album and even made the lower reaches of the album charts. There have since been two further archive albums culled from the World Pacific sessions, In The Beginning (1988) and The Preflyte Sessions (2001).

In November 1964, the band signed to Columbia Records and a few days later renamed themselves "The Byrds." On January 20, 1965, they recorded "Mr. Tambourine Man," a Bob Dylan song that they gave the electric treatment to and at a single stroke created Folk Rock. McGuinn's guitar-sound (played on a 12-string, heavily compressed Rickenbacker) with its jangling melodicism, was immediately influential and has remained so to the present day. The group's harmony work was another characteristic of their signature sound. In June, the song reached #1 on the US charts and, a month later, repeated the feat in the UK. At the same time, their debut album Mr. Tambourine Man was released and virtually provided the template for the entire folk rock movement.

The group's follow-up single was another distinctive interpretation of a Dylan song, "All I Really Want To Do." Unfortunately for them, Cher released a version of the song just before theirs and she received the greater commercial success.

The Byrds then proceeded to record "Turn! Turn! Turn!," a Pete Seeger adaptation of a traditional melody, with some lyrics taken directly from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. The song became the group's second US #1 single and headlined their second album, also titled Turn! Turn! Turn!.

The Byrds' first two albums were enhanced by the bright sounding production of Terry Melcher who was also known for his work on Paul Revere and the Raiders albums. The Byrds also performed their own compositions and, in Gene Clark, included a major songwriter; his songs with the band include The World Turns All Around Her, She Don't Care About Time, I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better and Set You Free This Time.

By the end of 1965, the band moved away from the simple folk rock that they had pioneered and ventured into more abstruse territory. On December 22, 1965, they recorded Eight Miles High, possibly the first fully-blown psychedelic recording (although contemporaneous efforts by The Yardbirds were in a similar vein). The song was widely regarded as a "drug" song (although the band deny this) and its relatively modest success when it was released as a single (US # 14) has been attributed to the resulting airplay bans on some radio-stations. Gene Clark, who had provided the melody and the majority of the song's lyrics, left the band in March 1966, partly due to a fear of flying but also because he wanted to go solo. He was signed by Columbia and went on to forge an artistically varied but commercially unsuccessful body of work.

The Byrds' third album, Fifth Dimension (5D), released in July 1966, wasn't as overtly psychedelic as might have been expected from its name, but it provided further evidence that The Byrds weren't content to churn out endless reruns of Mr. Tambourine Man. Although slightly diminished by the inclusion of some substandard and atypical material, 5D contained innovative and memorable music thus rendering it a landmark work. Unfortunately, the US radio anti-drug movement had branded several of the tracks such as Eight Miles High and 5D as "drug songs" and this campaign undoubtedly limited the album's commercial success (#24 US).

Patently irritated by the manufactured, overnight success of the uncontroversial Monkees, they then recorded a satirical dig at the music business—So You Want To Be A Rock'N'Roll Star. The song achieved modest success as a single and also kicked off their fourth album, Younger Than Yesterday. In some quarters, this is regarded as their best album. While it does contain some of their loveliest works such as Crosby's Everybody's Been Burned, Dylan's My Back Pages, and a quartet of Chris Hillman numbers (Have You Seen Her Face, Time Between, Thoughts And Words, The Girl With No Name,) it also features Crosby's indulgent Mind Gardens and McGuinn's novelty CTA-102.

In June 1967, the Byrds played a ragged set at the Monterey Pop Festival, during which Crosby proceeded to utter both pro-drug and JFK assassination conspiracy statements, to the annoyance of the other band members. He then added insult to injury by playing with rival band Buffalo Springfield. In October, during the recording of their fifth album, Crosby refused to participate in taping a Goffin-King number Goin' Back in preference to his more controversial Triad. The simmering tensions within the band finally errupted and the other group members fired Crosby who subsequently received a considerable cash settlement. Gene Clark briefly rejoined but left after a mere three weeks after refusing to board an aircraft while on tour. Michael Clarke also quit during these sessions, mainly due to disputes with Crosby during the recording of Dolphin's Smile. Studio drummer Jim Gordon was drafted in to complete his parts. The bluegrass guitarist Clarence White contributed significantly on several tracks and became a permanent band member, in 1968.

The resulting album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, was released in Jan. 1968 and contains some of the band's most ethereal music. Most of the tracks mixed folk rock, country, psychedelia and jazz to produce an eclectic opus which dealt with many contemporary themes such as peace, ecology, freedom, drug use, alienation, relationships and mankind's place in the Universe. Over the years, The Notorious Byrd Brothers has gained in reputation, while the contentious incidents surrounding its making have largely been forgotten.

The Byrds were now a duo but quickly recruited Hillman's cousin, Kevin Kelley, as drummer and then, in a fateful decision for their future career-direction, hired Gram Parsons to play keyboards. With the aid of Hillman, Parsons persuaded McGuinn to take the Byrds into a territory they'd only sporadically covered before—country music.

The Byrds had virtually invented Folk Rock three years earlier. Now, remarkably, they were involved in the genesis of yet another genre—Country-Rock. On Feb. 15, 1968 they played at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, the first group of longhairs ever to do so, and immediately started recording their next album in a wholly Country style with Parsons choosing and singing many of the songs. However, on July 29, Parsons quit the band just before they flew to South Africa because he refused to play to segregated audiences. At the same time, Sweetheart of the Rodeo was released, in their new country vein, but most of Parsons' vocals were replaced by either McGuinn or Hillman because of legal problems with Parsons' previous record company. The album was commercially unsuccessful (US # 77) but contains the yearning Parsons classic, Hickory Wind, a couple of Dylan tunes from The Basement Tapes, as well as songs from such unlikely sources as The Louvin Brothers (The Christian Life). It's often cited (somewhat dubiously) as the first country-rock album but is certainly the first country album by an established rock band.

Hillman left in October to join Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers. Kelley also quit at this time and McGuinn was left on his own. He hired guitarist Clarence White, who had been an uncredited session player on both the Younger Than Yesterday and The Notorious Byrd Brothers albums. White recommended Gene Parsons to play drums and John York to join on bass. The resulting quartet recorded the Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde album and released it in Feb. 1969 to poor US sales and moderate UK success.

In October 1969 came the Ballad Of Easy Rider album. Jesus Is Just Alright from that album was issued as a single which, in a similar arrangement, became a hit for The Doobie Brothers, four years later. The group also recorded a version of Jackson Browne's Mae Jean Goes to Hollywood during the recording sessions but it remained unreleased for some twenty years. The title track was composed by McGuinn (expanding on a verse line written by Bob Dylan) as the music theme for the 1969 Hippie movie Easy Rider and is recognized as one of their most affecting performances.

In 1970, The Byrds released the double album (Untitled) which charted well in the UK and acceptably in the US. (Untitled) featured one disc of live recordings and one of studio performances and produced tracks such as Chestnut Mare, All The Things and Lover of the Bayou. It also included a 16 minute live version of Eight Miles High.

1971 yielded the Byrdmaniax album which was a commercial and critical disappointment, largely due to inappropriate orchestration which was added to many tracks without the band's approval by producer Terry Melcher. 1971 also saw the release of the Farther Along album. The title track of that album, sung by Clarence White (with the rest of the group harmonizing), would became a prophetic epitaph for both White and Gram Parsons. (In July 1973, White was killed by a motor vehicle while he was loading equipment after a gig in Palmsdale, California. Soon afterwards, Gram Parsons died, as a result of a heroin overdose, in the Joshua Tree Motel, California.)

McGuinn toured with the Columbia Byrds through 1972, with LA session man John Guerin replacing Gene Parsons, before terminating the band. The final recording sessions involving all four of the latter-day Columbia Byrds were for Skip Battin's 1972 album, Skip; Guerin was on drums. McGuinn appeared only on one track, though, "Captain Video" - evidently Battin's tribute to his erstwhile employer.

The five original Byrds all briefly reunited in late 1972 to cut the anti-climactic reunion album Byrds. The reunion was interesting in that the group never called themselves The Byrds and instead opted to call themselves "Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Michael Clarke" (after the naming style of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young). Because the album was not recorded under the band's name, many fans do not consider Byrds to actually be part of The Byrds' official discography.

Subsequently, there were disputes over which members owned the rights to the "Byrds" name in the late 1980s. Clarke and Clark toured under The Byrds' name at that time, and from 1989 through most of 1993 Clarke toured occasionally as "The Byrds Featuring Michael Clarke" with former Byrd Skip Battin along with newcomers Terry Jones Rogers and Jerry Sorn. To solidify their claim to the name and prevent any non-original members from using the name, McGuinn, Hillman, and Crosby staged a series of Byrds' reunion concerts in 1989 and 1990 including a famous performance at a Roy Orbison tribute concert where they were joined by Bob Dylan for Mr. Tambourine Man. These shows led to McGuinn, Hillman, and Crosby recording four new studio tracks for the boxed set The Byrds in 1990. During that year, a legal action against Clarke and his booking agent failed, the judge ruling that Clarke's group had toured successfully. Eventually, a settlement was reached, preventing any entity not including McGuinn, Hillman and Crosby from using the name "Byrds".

The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. Gene Clark died later that year and, two years later, Michael Clarke succumbed to liver disease brought on by alcoholism.

Though both Hillman and Crosby have expressed an interest in working with McGuinn again on future Byrds projects, McGuinn is currently committed to his folk music career.

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