The Byrds' Gene Clark

On this day in 1941, Harold Eugene Clark, better known as Gene, was born in Tipton,

Mo. Clark played percussion and guitar and was an original member of the Byrds, the

American band that pioneered folk rock and country rock.

At age 14, Clark formed his own group, the Sharks. He next played with the Surf Riders

before joining the folk group the New Christy Minstrels. Clark met fellow future-Byrd

David Crosby at Los Angeles' Troubadour Club, and they soon hooked up with ex-Chad

Mitchell Trio singer Roger (born James) McGuinn and ex-Green Grass Group bassist

Chris Hillman. Drummer Michael Clarke rounded out the lineup. The quartet was initially

named Jet Set, and later the Beefeaters, before the members decided on the Byrds.

At their formation in 1964, the Byrds were inexperienced on electric instruments, but

jazz-great Miles Davis liked their sound and suggested that Columbia Records sign

them. A year later, the Byrds met Bob Dylan, who spoke highly of them and gave them

"Mr. Tambourine Man" to record. The single, which hit #1 in the U.S. and U.K. in

mid-1965, featured McGuinn on guitar with session musicians also playing and the other

Byrds singing. The Byrds' tight harmonies on the cut, coupled with the electric

instruments, resulted in one of the first true examples of folk rock.

In 1966, folk-giant Pete Seeger set phrases from Ecclesiastes to music, which the Byrds

turned into the smash hit "Turn! Turn! Turn!" The band's first two LPs -- 1965's top-10

Mr. Tambourine Man and 1966's top-20 Turn! Turn! Turn! -- both featured

new songs by Clark, such as "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better," and are now considered early

folk-rock classics.

Later in the year, the Byrds took one of the first stabs at psychedelia with the top-20

single

href="http://www.addict.com/music/Byrds,_The/Eight_Miles_High.ram">"Eight Miles

High" (RealAudio excerpt). The song's allegedly drug-inspired lyrics caused it

to be banned by many radio stations. McGuinn's guitar-playing on the track was

influenced by the "free jazz" of legendary saxophonist John Coltrane.

Soon after the single's release, Clark quit the Byrds, ostensibly because of his fear of

flying. Though losing one of their chief songwriters and lead singers was a big blow, the

Byrds carried on. McGuinn's growing control over the band soon caused a break with

Crosby; later, the country-rock visionary Gram Parsons briefly joined the band.

Although Clark played with the Byrds again briefly after Crosby's departure from the

band, he drastically reduced his profile on the music scene for the rest of his life. Soon

after he left the Byrds, Clark released the acclaimed, but commercially unsuccessful,

Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers. As Dillard and Clark, he and banjo-player

Doug Dillard, who occasionally played with the Byrds, recorded two albums.

Clark's 1971 LP White Light was released at the height of the singer/songwriter

explosion, but it didn't catch on either. The original Byrds quartet, including Clark,

re-formed for one album in 1973. Then Clark issued the highly acclaimed No

Other on Asylum Records, but it was another commercial failure. After one more

unsuccessful LP, Clark re-teamed with McGuinn and Hillman for 1979's McGuinn,

Clark and Hillman and the following year's City.

But the ex-Byrds soon began disagreeing again and the trio disbanded. Clark spent the

rest of his career infrequently recording for small labels and made two folk albums with

former Textone Carla Olson. Clark was ill during the last few years of his life and died in

1991, four months after the Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Despite their brief time together, the Byrds were true rock innovators because of their

brilliant melding of Beatles-like rock with folk structures, highlighted by McGuinn's highly

original 12-string guitar-playing.

Other birthdays: Gordon Lightfoot, 60; Bob Gaudio (Four Seasons), 56; Martin Barre

(Jethro Tull), 52; Jim Babjak (Smithereens), 41; Harry Rushakoff (Concrete Blonde), 39;

RuPaul, 38; and Ronnie DeVoe (New Edition, Bell Biv DeVoe), 31.