Gene Clark was a singer and songwriter, one of folk rock’s most influential musicians during the 1960s. In 1964, he and Roger McGuinn formed the Gene Clark and served as the group’s primary songwriter for Byrds’ first two albums. He was a pivotal contributor to the growth of country rock through his work with Doug Dillard in the late 1960s and his solo career in the early 1970s. However, Clark’s demons occasionally undermined his victories. Due to his fear of flying, regular touring was impossible, and years of drug abuse would eventually destroy his health. He left behind a massive impact that affected alternative country musicians throughout the 1990s and beyond.
On November 17, 1944, Clark was born in Tipton, Missouri. At nine, Clark received his first guitar from his father, who also enjoyed listening to country music on the guitar. He first tried to write songs while listening to Hank Williams, but as a teenager, he switched to Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. At 13, he formed Joe Meyers and the Sharks with several other classmates, and the group released “Blue Ribbon,” one of the early songs by Clark, on a minor label. But by the late 1950s, Clark had joined the urban folk revival and was listening to bands like the Kingston Trio and many others. He and two friends soon formed his folk band, the Surf Riders, and they started playing frequently in Kansas City.
Randy Sparks of the New Christy Minstrels saw the Surf Riders perform at the Castaways in June 1963, and it was Clark’s first significant break. The 18-year-old Clark accepted Sparks’ offer to join the well-liked folk band. His time with the group would be brief and unsatisfying, though. He adopted the role of the backing singer without the lead vocals since he was unwilling to push himself firmly. After seven months of traveling, Clark departed the group because he needed to appreciate how pop-oriented the group’s folk music performance was. However, before leaving the Christys, hearing the Beatles’ “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” caused a profound shift in his musical preferences. In 1964, Clark moved to Los Angeles. While performing the Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That” on a street corner, he ran across Jim McGuinn. The ex-folk musicians David Crosby, Michael Clarke, and Chris Hillman soon formed the Byrds. Although his tenure with the Byrds was problematic, Clark’s lead vocals, ability to harmonize with McGuinn, and acute compositional abilities contributed to the first two albums’ high creative caliber. He didn’t like traveling and had grown afraid of flying because of his job with the Christys. The band itself also experiences tension. Clark, the primary songwriter for the band, received more royalties than the other members, which caused friction. By mutual agreement, Clark left the band in March of 1966.
With the help of the Godsin Brothers, Clark promptly began making an album after signing a solo contract with Columbia. Alex Stimmel of All Music Guide hailed Gene Clark With the Godsin Brothers as “one of the best, if not the best,” of Clark’s recordings, although the disc did not do well commercially. Many would later point out that Columbia had focused its marketing efforts on the already successful Byrds because Gene Clark With the Godsin Brothers was released just a few days after their album, Younger Than Yesterday. But Clark persisted, assembling a second group with drummer Eddie Hoh, bassist John York, and guitarist Clarence White. Due to Clark’s dread of flying, this ensemble was also short-lived. He started to second-guess leaving the Byrds as his career languished, and by October 1967, he had returned. However, old disputes resurfaced, and by November, Clark had once again quit the band.
After taking a break from music, Clark reformed in 1968 and joined up with multi-instrumentalist Bernie Leadon and banjoist Doug Dillard at A&M Records. Their debut album, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark, was a ground-breaking work of country rock with excellent songwriting. However, the album only garnered a cult following and sold a relatively small number of copies, as would be the case throughout Clark’s solo career. Following the release of a second album with Dillard, Clark resumed his solo career and entered its most successful phase. White Light, released in 1971 on A&M, showed Clark at the height of his songwriting prowess. Following Roadmaster in 1972, which was put together from many sessions, Clark released No Other in 1974, which many Clark fans consider their favorite. No Other was a well-produced album.
Clark occasionally took part in Byrds reunions throughout his career. Before recording No Other in 1973, Clark teamed up with his former bandmates for the disastrous Byrds, which received negative reviews from reviewers. In 1977, Chris Hillman and David Crosby occasionally joined Clark and McGuinn on their acoustic-only tour. Although McGuinn, Clark, & Hillman’s Capitol debut album reached number 39 on the American album charts, critics did not enjoy the record’s modern sound.
Over the following 12 years, Clark attempted several musical endeavors but rarely recorded. Despite this, Clark’s career had started to pay off as many upcoming musicians began to recognize his influence as a country-rock pioneer and talented composer. Clark underwent surgery in 1988 to treat an ulcer, during which his stomach and part of his intestines were removed. Despite being involved in a legal dispute in 1989–1990 over the use of the Byrds’ name, he participated in a full reunion with the group in 1991 when it was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Three months later, on May 24, 1991, Clark was discovered dead at his Los Angeles home from natural causes.
The California Music Academy teaches some of Gene Clark’s most notable music releases.
Most Popular Tracks:
- “Mr. Tambourine Man” (with The Byrds)
- “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (with The Byrds)
- “Eight Miles High” (with The Byrds)
- “Feel a Whole Lot Better” (with The Byrds)
- “She Don’t Care About Time” (with The Byrds)
- “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” (solo)
- “Set You Free This Time” (with The Byrds)
- “Here Without You” (with The Byrds)
- “You Showed Me” (with The Byrds)
- “No Other” (solo)