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In the Spotlight: The Byrds


In the Spotlight: The Byrds

The original incarnation of the Byrds



1964, Los Angeles, CA


Folk-rock, Jangle pop, Psychedelia, Country-rock

Contributions to music:

  • Essentially invented the folk-rock genre by electrifying Bob Dylan's song "Mr. Tambourine Man"
  • Godfathers of the jangle-pop genre due to their combination of Beatlesque songcraft and folk instrumentation
  • With temporary member Gram Parsons, helped create the country-rock genre with their 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo
  • One of the first to introduce jazz and psychedelia into rock through their 1966 hit "Eight Miles High"
  • Brought the songs of Bob Dylan into the pop mainstream, in the process making him "acceptable"
  • Established Laurel Canyon as a base for Southern California rock
  • The band's harmonies, Roger McGuinn's guitar skills and Gene Clark's songwriting served as an inspiration to generations of folk-rock and country-rock artists

Principal Members:

Roger McGuinn (born James Joseph McGuinn III, July 13, 1942, Chicago, IL): lead and backing vocals, guitar, banjo, keyboards
Gene Clark (born Harold Eugene Clark, November 17, 1944, Tipton, MO; died May 24, 1991, Los Angeles, CA): lead and backing vocals, guitar, harmonica, tambourine (1964-1967, 1972-1973)
David Crosby (born David Van Cortlandt Crosby, August 14, 1941, Los Angeles, CA): lead and backing vocals, guitar (1964-1967, 1972-1973)
Chris Hillman (born Christopher Hillman, December 4, 1944, Los Angeles, CA): lead and backing vocals, bass, guitar, mandolin (1964-1968, 1972-1973)
Michael Clarke (born Michael James Dick, June 3, 1946, Spokane, WA; died December 19, 1993, Treasure Island, FL): drums (1964-1967, 1972-1973)

Early years:

The Byrds were assembled from several veterans of Los Angeles' burgeoning folk-pop scene. Leader Roger McGuinn (then going by the first name Jim) had performed with the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio; Gene Clark had just quit the New Christy Minstrels; David Crosby was beginning a solo career after performing with Les Baxter's Balladeers. All were Beatles fans, despite the band being looked down on as teenybopper music by the folk hipsters, and all wanted to combine their brand of rock with the folk they'd grown up on. All were just out of their teens. McGuinn played a solo set at the Troubadour, which featured a few Beatles songs, and when Clark saw that, the two began working out songs together. Crosby came backstage one day and started singing high harmony, and the group was born.


Working at the recording studio of Crosby's friend, Jim Dickson, they began refining their sound. Dickson suggested a rhythm section to drive home the rock connection, and he brought in an old associate, mandolin player Chris Hillman, to learn the bass. Conga player Michael Clarke had never played a drum set, but looked so much like the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones they hired him anyway. They were briefly called the Beefeaters, then the Byrds, with the intentional misspelling suggested by McGuinn to not make their British fans think they were girls. Dickson brought them an acetate of an unreleased Bob Dylan song called "Mr. Tambourine Man" and the group reluctantly agreed to work on it, transforming it over six months into the arrangement we know today.

Later years:

Many hits followed, most notably an adaptation of a Pete Seeger song called "Turn! Turn! Turn!" that McGuinn had already cut with Judy Collins, not to mention several Dylan compositions and some classic band originals. But tensions fragmented the band within two years: Clark's fear of flying made him unable to honor the band's commitments, Crosby began to demand a more prominent songwriting role, and drummer Hillman tired of the tension. By 1968, McGuinn and Hillman were the only ones left, and brought in multi-instrumentalist Gram Parsons, resulting in a country-rock genesis as critically acclaimed, at least, as their earlier work. Parsons soon left after a power struggle with McGuinn, and Hillman soon joined him. The band limped on under McGuinn for a few years, eventually reforming for some lackluster reunion work. Parsons died of an overdose in 1973; Clark and Clarke both died from decades of excessive alcohol consumption in the early '90s. Crosby went on to superstardom with the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Byrds awards and honors:

  • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1991)
  • GRAMMY Awards (1966, 1967)
  • GRAMMY Hall of Fame (1998, 1999, 2000, 2001)
  • Vocal Group Hall of Fame (2006)

Byrds facts and trivia:

  • Dylan loved the band's take on "Mr. Tambourine Man," saying "You can dance to it!"
  • Dylan soon added electric instruments to his sound after being inspired by the Byrds' version
  • The Beatles' "Nowhere Man" is a homage to the Byrds' sound
  • McGuinn actually performed and toured with Bobby Darin before his Byrds stint
  • Jim McGuinn took the name "Roger" due to his flirtation with the Indonesian religion Subud
  • In the late '70s, three members reunited as a pop group called McGuinn, Clark and Hillman, scoring a minor hit with the song "Don't You Write Her Off"
  • The Mamas and the Papas refer to McGuinn in the lyrics to their hit "Creeque Alley"
  • Miles Davis helped the group land its Columbia recording contract

The Byrds hit singles and albums:

#1 hits:
  • "Mr. Tambourine Man" (1965)
  • "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (1965)
Top 10 hits:
  • "All I Really Want to Do" (1965)
Top 10 albums:
  • "The Byrds' Greatest Hits" (1967)
Other notable recordings: "Eight Miles High," "Feel a Whole Lot Better," "Mr. Spaceman," "The Bells of Rhymney," "My Back Pages," "Chimes of Freedom," "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," "5D (Fifth Dimension," "Set You Free This Time," "I Knew I'd Want You," "She Don't Care About Time," "It Won't Be Wrong," "He Was a Friend of Mine," "The World Turns All Around Her," "Captain Soul," "What's Happening?!?!," "Everybody's Been Burned," "Why," "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," "I Am a Pilgrim," "Hickory Wind," "You're Still on My Mind," "I Know My Rider (I Know You Rider)," "Renaissance Fair," "Have You Seen Her Face," "Don't Make Waves," "Lady Friend," "Old John Robertson," "Goin' Back," "Change Is Now," "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," "Artificial Energy," "I Am a Pilgrim," "Pretty Boy Floyd," "Bad Night at the Whiskey," "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man," "Wasn't Born to Follow," "Child of the Universe," "Ballad of Easy Rider," "Oil in My Lamp," "Jesus Is Just Alright," "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," "Chestnut Mare," "Just a Season," "I Trust," "You Won't Have to Cry"

Covered by: Tom Petty, R.E.M., Husker Du, Robyn Hitchcock, Dinosaur Jr., Roxy Music, Split Enz, Asia, The Flamin' Groovies, Eugene Chadbourne, Leo Kottke, Fairport Convention, Odetta, Johnny Rivers, Juice Newton, Percy Faith, The Turtles, Icicle Works, Joan Baez, Richard Thompson, Grant Lee Phillips, The Ventures, Phil Collins, Leathercoated Minds, Lighthouse, Marshall Crenshaw, Ride, Rockfour, Les Fradkin, The Move, Hookfoot, Southern Culture on the Skids, Nazareth, The Patti Smith Group, The New Seekers, Nils Lofgren, Diana Ross, Freddie Mercury, Black Oak Arkansas, Roxette, Carole King, Bon Jovi, Crowded House, The Postmarks, Golden Earring, 3, Wreckless Eric, The Flying Burrito Brothers. Miracle Legion, Velvet Crush, Limbeck, Ferrante and Teicher, James Last, Katey Sagal, The Muppets, Alvin and the Chipmunks

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