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Dec 152016
 

July 14, 1973 – Clarence White was born Clarence LeBlanc on June 7th 1944 in Lewiston, Maine. The LeBlanc family, later changing their surname to White, were of French-Canadian ancestry and hailed from New Brunswick, Canada. Clarence’s father, Eric LeBlanc, Sr., played guitar, banjo, fiddle, and harmonica, ensuring that his offspring grew up surrounded by music. A child prodigy, Clarence began playing guitar at the age of six. At such a young age he was barely able to hold the instrument and as a result, he briefly switched to ukulele, awaiting a time when his young hands would be big enough to confidently grapple with the guitar.

In 1954, when Clarence was ten, the White family relocated to Burbank, California and soon after, Clarence joined his brothers Roland and Eric Jr. (who played mandolin and banjo respectively) in a trio called Three Little Country Boys. The family group was occasionally augmented by sister Joanne on double bass. Although they initially started out playing contemporary country music, the group soon switched to a purely bluegrass repertoire, as a result of Roland White’s burgeoning interest in the genre. Early on, the group won a talent contest on radio station KXLA in Pasadena and by 1957, they had managed to attract the interest of country guitarist Joe Maphis. With Maphis’s help, the Three Little Country Boys made several appearances on the popular television program Town Hall Party.

In 1957, banjoist Billy Ray Latham and Dobro player LeRoy Mack were added to the line-up, with the band renaming themselves the Country Boys soon after. By 1961, the quartet had become well known enough to appear twice on the The Andy Griffith Show. That same year the Country Boys also added Roger Bush on double bass, as a replacement for Eric White, Jr., who had left the band to get married. Between 1959 and 1962, the Country Boys released three singles on the Sundown, Republic and Briar International record labels.

In September 1962, the Country Boys recorded their debut album ‘The New Sound of Bluegrass America’ released in early 1963 and changed their name to the Kentucky Colonels. Around this time, Clarence’s flatpicking guitar style was becoming a much more prominent part of the group’s music.

After meeting while attending a performance by Doc Watson at the Ash Grove folk club in Los Angeles, Clarence began to explore the possibilities of the acoustic guitar’s role in bluegrass music. At that time, the guitar was largely regarded as a rhythm instrument in bluegrass, with only a few performers, such as Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and Don Reno, exploring its potential for soloing. White soon began to integrate elements of Watson’s playing style, including the use of open strings and syncopation, into his own flatpicking guitar technique. His breathtaking speed and virtuosity on the instrument was largely responsible for making the guitar a lead instrument within bluegrass. In addition to being accomplished musicians, the Kentucky Colonels’ music often featured close harmony vocals.

Following the release of their debut album, the Kentucky Colonels played a multitude of live appearances throughout California and the United States, including an appearance at the prestigious Monterey Folk Festival in May 1963. Between these bookings with the Colonels, White also made a guest appearance on Eric Weissberg and Marshall Brickman’s New Dimensions in Banjo & Bluegrass album, which would be re-released in 1973 as the soundtrack album to the film Deliverance (with Weissberg and Steve Mandell’s version of “Dueling Banjos” added to the album’s track listing).

In 1964 the Kentucky Colonels were signed to World Pacific Records by producer Jim Dickson, who would later became the manager of folk rock band The Byrds and by the close of the year, the Kentucky Colonels were considered by fans and critics to be one of the best bluegrass groups in the United States.

Although they were now a successful bluegrass recording act, it was becoming increasingly hard for the Kentucky Colonels to make a living playing bluegrass. The American folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which had helped facilitate the Colonels’ commercial success, had been dealt a serious blow in 1964 by the popularity of the pop and beat music of the British Invasion. However, it wasn’t until mid-1965, with the release of The Byrds’ folk rock single “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, that the folk revival’s popularity began to seriously wane. Before long, many young folk performers and some bluegrass acts were switching to electric instrumentation. The Kentucky Colonels followed suit, plugging in with electric instruments and hiring a drummer in mid-1965, in order to keep a concert booking as a country dance band at a bowling alley. The band added fiddle player Scotty Stoneman to their line-up in mid-1965, as a replacement for Sloan, but some months later, the Kentucky Colonels dissolved as a band after playing their final show on October 31, 1965.

As 1965 turned into 1966, White met Gene Parsons and Gib Guilbeau at a recording session for the Gosdin Brothers and shortly after, he began to perform live with the duo in local California clubs, as well as doing regular session work on their records, which were released under the moniker of Cajun Gib and Gene.

1966 also saw White begin playing with a country group called Trio, which featured drummer Bart Haney and former Kentucky Colonel Roger Bush on bass. In autumn of that year, as a result of his friendship with Gilbeau, Parsons and the Gosdin Brothers, White was asked to provide lead guitar to ex-Byrd Gene Clark’s debut solo album, Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers. White also briefly joined Clark’s touring band shortly thereafter.

During the Clark album sessions, White reconnected with mandolin player and bassist Chris Hillman, who he had known during the early 1960s as a member of the bluegrass combo The Hillmen. At the time Hillman was  a member of The Byrds and in December 1966, he invited White to contribute countrified lead guitar playing to his songs “Time Between” and “The Girl with no Name”, which both appeared on The Byrds‘ Younger Than Yesterday album.

Together with Gene Parsons, he invented the B-Bender, a guitar accessory that enables a player to mechanically bend the B-string up a whole tone and emulate the sound of a pedal steel guitar. 

The country-oriented nature of the songs was something of a stylistic departure for the group and can be seen as an early indicator of the experimentation with country music that would color The Byrds’ subsequent work. White also contributed guitar to the band’s follow-up album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and to their landmark 1968 country rock release, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

Early in 1968, White joined Nashville West, which also featured Gene Parsons, Gib Gilbeau, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Glen D. Hardin, and Wayne Moore. Nashville West recorded an album for Sierra Records, but the record didn’t appear until 1978.

Finally White was invited to join the Byrds in the fall of 1968 as Roger McGuinn was rebuilding the Byrds’ lineup after the departure of Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons, who went on to form the Flying Burrito Brothers. Clarence White fit into the revamped Byrds’ country-rock direction. He played on the group’s untitled album, which spawned the single “Chestnut Mare.” While he was with the band, he continued to work as a session musician, playing on Randy Newman’s 12 Songs (1970), Joe Cocker’s eponymous 1969 album, and the Everly Brothers’ Stories Would Could Tell (1971), and others, appearing on recordings by Ricky Nelson, Pat Boone, Randy Newman, Linda Ronstadt, Arlo Guthrie and Jackson Browne.

Once the Byrds disbanded in 1973, Clarence White continued his session work and joined bluegrass supergroup Muleskinner, which also featured David Grisman, Peter Rowan, John Guerin, Bill Keith, John Kahn, and Richard Greene. Muleskinner only released one album, which appeared later in 1973.

After the Muleskinner record was finished, White played a few dates with the Kentucky Colonels and began working on a solo album. He had only completed four tracks when he was killed by a drunken driver shortly after 2am on July 14, 1973, while he and his brother Roland were loading equipment onto a van, following a spur-of-the moment reunion gig of the Colonels. He was just 29.

• His guitar playing was sort of like a combination of Jerry Garcia, Roy Buchanan, and James Burton. He plays with the melody of Jerry, the tone and brilliance of Roy, and the conciseness and sweetness of James.

• White was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame in 2016.

• Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him 52 in its 2015 line-up of the 100 Most Influential Guitar Players in Rock and Roll.

Clarence White helped shape two genres: His acoustic flatpicking, first displayed as a teenager when he and his brother formed the Kentucky Colonels band, was key in making the guitar a lead instrument in bluegrass. Later, he set the stage for country rock and transferred that dynamic precision and melodic symmetry to the electric guitar. A top session man in the Sixties, he played on the Byrds’ 1968 landmark, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. After he joined the band later that year, White brought a full-bodied rock elation to his California-inflected Nashville chops. “He never played anything that sounded vaguely weak,” said the Byrds’ leader, Roger McGuinn. “He was always driving… into the music.” White had returned to bluegrass with the acclaimed Muleskinner album when he was killed by a drunk driver in 1973. He was 29. “Clarence was immersed in hard country and bluegrass,” said Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. “He incorporated those elements into rock & roll, and it totally blew people’s minds.”