by Jonathan Bennett
In 1963 in Los Angeles, Claifornia, USA something great occurred. Three musicians, Jim McGuinn, David Crosby, and Gene Clark, formed a group called The Jet Set. McGuinn had preformed with the Chad Mitchell trio and the Limeliters, while Gene Clark was fresh from a stint with the folk group the New Christy Minstrels. Changing their name to the Beefeaters, they released the single "Please Let Me Love You" on Elektra. The three added Chris Hillman, a mandolin player formerly with bluegrass groups, on bass. Mike Clarke, a bongo player joined on the drums. Although inexperienced, he had a Beatles haircut (a major asset in 1964). The Byrds were born.
Getting the Worm
They secured a record contract and went in the studio and recorded Bob Dylan's "Mr Tambourine Man". The style was unlike anything heard before, due to tight harmonies and McGuinn's jangly twelve-string guitar and Dylanesque lead vocal. The song shot to number one and The Byrds were on the rock and roll merry-go-round. They released an album named after the hit in 1965, which featured many good songs, particularly the ones written by Gene Clark. The Byrds followed up the hit with another Dylan tune, "All I Really Want To Do" which went to number forty. The Byrds scored a second number one with Pete Seeger's biblical "Turn! Turn! Turn!" which was also the name of their 1966 album. Unfortunately that same year Gene Clark left the group due to his fear of flying. His influence was still in evidence on the next album "Fifth Dimension," on which the band embraced psychedelic rock. "Eight Miles High" still remains a classic song. In 1967 McGuinn, Hillman, Crosby, and Clarke released "Younger Than Yesterday," and the hit single "So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star." After this album David Crosby left the band and only three faces graced the cover of "Notorious Byrd Brothers": Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and Mike Clarke. However, this album remains a Byrds classic, a transition between the folk-rock and country-rock stages. "Goin' Back," a Goffin-King song is a standout track. It features not only strings, but pedal steel, a foreshadowing of things to come.
Opening Up the Honky Tonks
In 1967 Gram Parsons joined the group. He was originally hired to play keyboards, but as McGuinn noted, the Byrds got "George Jones in a Nudie suit." Gram convinced McGuinn and Hillman to play country music. Kevin Kelley replaced Michael Clarke and he, McGuinn, Parsons, and Hillman made the first country rock album (arguably), "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." During this period, the Byrds also played at the Grand Ole Opry to a muted reception. Country music was not ready for the Byrds' innovation. Yet, the album remains influencial and every country rocker today owes something to the Byrds. Gram, however, protesting the group's decision to tour South Africa, quit the group after almost 6 months. He later joined the Flying Burrito Brothers and released two wonderful solo albums. Sadly, this country rock pioneer died of an overdose in 1973. Chris Hillman also left after this album and joined the Burritos. McGuinn brought in guitarist Clarence White, bassist John York, and drummer Gene Parsons for "Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde" in 1969. White had been in the bluegrass band The Kentucky Colonels and played with country rock outfit Nashville West. Parsons also had played with Nashville West and lent the Byrds his banjo skills. "Dr. Byrds" includes the classic McGuinn and Parsons (Gram) song "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man." Also in 1969, this same lineup released "Ballad of Easy Rider" cashing in on the movie. After this album, John York was replaced by Skip Battin (from the 1950s duo Skip and Flip; they released "Cherry Pie.") Although the McGuinn, White, Parsons, Battin lineup was not as critically or commercially successful as the earlier lineups, the latter day Byrds had many great moments.
In for the Landing
This new lineup put out the half live, half studio work "Untitled" in 1970. This album featured "Chestnut Mare," a highly rated McGuinn song originally planned for a country rock musical. In 1971 the Byrds released "Byrdmaniax," which included "Pale Blue" and the ironic "I Wanna Grow Up to Be a Politician." In 1972, the Byrds released their last album, "Farther Along," which featured the memorable songs "Bugler" and "Lazy Waters." After "Farther Along" McGuinn disbanded The Byrds. The original Byrds (McGuinn, Crosby, Clark, Hillman, and Clarke) re-formed for one album in 1973, entitled simply "The Byrds." This forgettable album nonetheless contained a good version of Neil Young's "See the Sky (About to Rain)."
Roger McGuinn has released several solo albums and eventually reunited with Clark and Hillman. He still performs today and has a new album out.
Chris Hillman has also been active in the music business. He joined the Flying Burrito Brothers after leaving the Byrds. He has also put out solo albums, some Christian material, and was a member of the Desert Rose Band.
David Crosby joined Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young) and has been active in the music industry. He recently fathered Melissa Ethridge's baby.
Gene Clark worked with the Gosdin Brothers, Doug Dillard, and Carla Olsen, and also did a lot of good solo work. Like Gram Parsons, his solo work is highly regarded and should be listened to. He died in 1991.
Michael Clarke also joined the Burrito Brothers and later was a member of the successful band Firefall. He died in 1993.
Gene Parsons also did solo work after his time with the Byrds and released "Kindling" a compilation of his best songs.
Clarence White reformed the Kentucky Colonels, but died tragically in 1973 (see Clarence White Page)
Back to my Byrds Page
© 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 Jonathan Bennett and David Bennett