The Byrds pioneered folk-rock, combining traditional acoustic music with early Sixties pop. The group's signature sunny melodies, lush harmonies, and ringing 12-string guitars — as well as their eventual exploration of psychedelic rock — made for some of the decade's best singles. The band continued to do strong work (including foray into country), establishing a sonic model for many of the Seventies biggest rock bands, including the Eagles, Tom Petty, and the latter-day Fleetwood Mac.
The band formed in Los Angeles in 1964 as the Jet Set and was originally conceived as a duo consisting of folk musicians Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark. They soon added David Crosby and changed their name to the Beefeaters, before changing their name a second time and settling on the Byrds, misspelled à la the Beatles. They fleshed out their sound by adding drummer Michael Clarke and bassist Chris Hillman and signed with Columbia Records in November of 1964.
In January 1965 they met Bob Dylan, who provided their first hit, "Mr. Tambourine Man" (Number One, 1965). The single had Dylan's lyrics, a catchy guitar hook, chorus harmonies, and a rock rhythm section. Later that year, the Byrds scored another hit with the anthemic "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (Number One, 1965), based on an Old Testament passage and set to music by Pete Seeger. But the Byrds failed to reach the Top Ten after that, perhaps due to their deviation from the folk rock sound they help create and into the psychedelic on the single "Eight Miles High" (Number 14, 1966), the centerpiece of their trippy Fifth Dimension LP (Number 24, 1966). It was one of the first records to be widely banned because of its supposedly drug-related content.
Gene Clark left the band in 1966, and tensions among the remaining members developed and occasionally erupted into onstage fisticuffs. The group managed to stay together long enough to see 1967's Younger Than Yesterday (Number 24) released and to record the country rock follow-up, The Notorious Byrd Brothers (Number 47, 1968), but by the time the record hit stores, Crosby and drummer Michael Clarke were both gone. Crosby went on to superstardom with Crosby, Stills and Nash, while Clarke joined the Dillard and Clark group. McGuinn and Hillman soldiered on with new drummer Kevin Kelley and International Submarine Band singer/songwriter/guitarist Gram Parsons. Parsons took the Byrds even further into country territory on Sweetheart of the Rodeo (Number 77), recorded in Nashville and released in the fall of 1968. While it failed to attain commercial success, Sweetheart remains a cornerstone of country-rock.
By October 1968, McGuinn was the only original Byrd remaining, and Parsons and Hillman left to continue their country experiments with the Flying Burrito Brothers. McGuinn kept the patchwork Byrds alive through 1973 with a series of partners, most notably guitarist Clarence White, a session veteran of several previous Byrds albums. The various combos toured steadily and put out a series of mildly successful albums, including the double live and studio set Untitled (Number 40, 1970), which contained "Chestnut Mare" (Number 121, 1970), one of McGuinn's signature tunes. After 1972's commercial flop Farther Along (Number 152), however, McGuinn disbanded the group to record a reunion album with Clark, Crosby, Hillman, and Clarke in 1973. Simply titled Byrds (Number 20), the album marked the last time the five would enter the studio together.
McGuinn subsequently embarked on a low-key solo career. In late 1975 and early 1976 he was prominently featured in Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. In early 1977 he assembled a new band, wryly dubbed Thunderbyrd, and recorded an album of the same name. By late in the year he was playing occasional dates in tandem with Clark, and the alliance soon expanded to include Hillman as well. In 1979 the three recorded their self-titled debut disc and enjoyed some pop success with "Don't You Write Her Off" (Number 33, 1979). In 1980 McGuinn and Hillman returned with City, after which McGuinn took up his solo career again.
McGuinn, Hillman, and Crosby had been at odds with Clark and Clarke for touring under the Byrds name. To prevent them from doing so, McGuinn, Hillman, and Crosby had played three dates in 1989 and recorded four songs for inclusion on an anthology box set to establish their legal right to the name.
The Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, just four months before Gene Clark died of a heart attack at the age of 46. Michael Clarke passed away two years later at 47 after a long battle with alcoholism.
Beginning in 1996, Columbia/Legacy began a lavish Byrds reissue series, eventually re-releasing the entire catalogue (minus the box set, which had been released by Asylum Records) embellished with multiple bonus tracks. Along with the reissues came the previously unreleased Live at the Fillmore - February 1969.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Joel Hoard contributed to this article.