Personalities | The Byrds | Sixties | Rock

Melding folk with rock, smooth harmonies with jangling guitars, The Byrds enjoyed a short period during the mid-1960s when they were not only publicly acclaimed by their two biggest influences, Bob Dylan and The Beatles, but when they themselves also influenced those icons.

Acoustic Folk Pop

Jim McGuinn (born James Joseph McGuinn III, 13 July 1942), David Crosby (born 14 August 1941) and Gene Clark (1944–91) were all seasoned folk musicians when, inspired by the sounds of the ‘British Invasion, they teamed up in Los Angeles in early 1964 to form an acoustic folk pop group named The Jet Set. Managed by Crosby’s friend, producer Jim Dickson, the trio recorded a demo that secured them a deal with Elektra Records, and after undergoing an Anglicized name change to The Beefeaters they released a flop single titled ‘Please Let Me Love You’. Session musicians assisted them in that endeavour, but Dickson now suggested that, with McGuinn, Crosby and Clark each singing and playing acoustic 12-string guitars, the group should recruit their own bass player and drummer.

To that end, Dickson knew a bluegrass mandolin player named Chris Hillman (born 4 December 1944) and, confident of his abilities, inserted him on bass even though he had never played the instrument. The same applied to conga player Michael Clarke (1946–93), who filled the other spot even though he did not really know how to play the drums – his facial similarity to The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones was enough to land him the job. Indeed, it was what McGuinn later described as a group ‘pilgrimage’ to see The Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night that determined not only the appearance but, more importantly, the trademark sound of the outfit that would soon rename itself The Byrds.

Twelve-String Electric Sound

Utilizing a $5,000 loan and the trade-in of McGuinn’s now-redundant banjo and acoustic guitar, the group invested in a Rickenbacker 12-string electric for him just like the one they saw and heard George Harrison play, as well as a Gretsch six-string electric guitar for Crosby, a Gibson bass for Hillman, Ludwig drums for Clarke, three Epiphone amplifiers and five black suits with velvet collars. Clark, who would subsequently be the main composer and, along with McGuinn, handle many of the lead vocals, was basically relegated to the tambourine. Nevertheless, after The Byrds moved to the Columbia label in late 1964, McGuinn was the only one of them to play an instrument on their first release, accompanied by members of Phil Spector’s famed ‘Wrecking Crew’: Hal Blaine on drums, Larry Knechtel on bass, Jerry Cole and Bill Pitman on guitars, and Leon Russell on electric piano.

The song they played was a shortened version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, rearranged from a 2/4 time signature to a more Beatle-ish 4/4, and distinguished by McGuinn’s Bach-like Rickenbacker guitar intro, his laid-back, Dylanish vocal delivery and Crosby’s and Clark’s high harmonies. Eventually released...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, general editor Michael Heatley


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