May 24, 1991 – Harold Eugene Gene Clark was born November 17, 1944 in Tipton, Missouri, the third of 13 children in a family of Irish, German, and Native American heritage. His family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where as a boy of 9 he began learning to play the guitar and harmonica from his father. He was soon playing Hank Williams tunes as well as material by early rockers such as Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. He began writing songs at the age of 11. By the time he was 15, he had developed a rich tenor voice, and he formed a local rock and roll combo, Joe Meyers and the Sharks. Like many of his generation, Clark developed an interest in folk music because of the popularity of the Kingston Trio. When he graduated from Bonner Springs High School, in Bonner Springs, Kansas, in 1962, he formed a folk group, the Rum Runners. Inspired by the Kingston Trio and playing with several folk groups he began working with the New Christy Minstrels. They hired him, and he recorded two albums with the ensemble before leaving in early 1964 after hearing the Beatles.
He moved to Los Angeles, where he met fellow folkie and Beatles convert Jim (later Roger) McGuinn at the Troubadour Club. In early 1964 they began to assemble a band that would become the Byrds. Longing to perform his own songs in the sixties and now turning to a more rocky genre, they started assembling a band that would, in time, come to be known as the Byrds. Even though the Byrds gained initial fame with newly arranged cover of Bob Dylan songs, Gene became the Byrds’ dominant songwriter in the mid sixties, penning most of their best-known originals, including “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” “Here Without You,” and “Eight Miles High,” and was one of the group’s strongest vocal presences.
He initially played rhythm guitar in the band, but relinquished that position to David Crosby and became the tambourine and harmonica player. Bassist Chris Hillman noted years later in an interview remembering Clark, “At one time, he was the power in the Byrds, not McGuinn, not Crosby—it was Gene who would burst through the stage curtain banging on a tambourine, coming on like a young Prince Valiant. A hero, our savior. Few in the audience could take their eyes off this presence. He was the songwriter. He had the ‘gift’ that none of the rest of us had developed yet…. What deep inner part of his soul conjured up songs like ‘Set You Free This Time,’ ‘I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,’ ‘I’m Feelin’ Higher,’ ‘Eight Miles High’? So many great songs! We learned a lot of songwriting from him and in the process learned a little bit about ourselves.”
A management decision gave McGuinn the lead vocals for their major singles and Bob Dylan songs. This disappointment, combined with Clark’s dislike of traveling (including a chronic fear of flying) and resentment by other band members about the extra income he derived from his songwriting, led to internal squabbling, and he left the group in early 1966. He briefly returned to Kansas City before moving back to Los Angeles to form Gene Clark & the Group with Chip Douglas, Joel Larson, and Bill Rhinehart.
After leaving The Byrds he released 2 solo albums “Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers” and “The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark” before rejoining The Byrds just for a short time. Although he did not achieve commercial success as a solo artist, Clark was in the vanguard of popular music during much of his career, prefiguring developments in such disparate subgenres as psychedelic rock, baroque pop, newgrass, country rock, and alternative country.
With the future of his solo career in doubt, Clark briefly rejoined the Byrds in October 1967, as a replacement for the recently departed David Crosby, but left after only three weeks, following an anxiety attack in Minneapolis. During this brief period with the Byrds, he appeared with the band on the television program Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, lip-synching the group’s current single, “Goin’ Back”; he also performed “Mr. Spaceman” with the band. Although there is some disagreement among the band’s biographers, Clark is generally viewed as having contributed background vocals to the songs “Goin’ Back” and “Space Odyssey” for the forthcoming Byrds’ album The Notorious Byrd Brothers and was an uncredited co-author, with McGuinn, of “Get to You”, from that album.
In 1968, Clark signed with A&M Records and began a collaboration with the banjo player Doug Dillard, guitarist Bernie Leadon (later with the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Eagles), bass player Dave Jackson and mandolin player Don Beck joined them to form the nucleus of Dillard & Clark. They produced two albums, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark (1968) and Through the Morning, Through the Night (1969).
The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark was an acoustic adventure in country rock; it included the songs “Train Leaves Here This Morning” (covered in 1972 on the album Eagles) and “She Darked the Sun” (covered by Linda Ronstadt on her 1970 album Silk Purse. Through the Morning, Through the Night was more bluegrass in character than its predecessor and used electric instrumentation. It also included Donna Washburn (Dillard’s girlfriend) as a backing vocalist, which contributed to the departure of Leadon and it marked a change to a traditional bluegrass direction, which caused Clark to lose interest. The song was used in Quincy Jones’s soundtrack of the 1972 Sam Peckinpah movie The Getaway. This song, along with “Polly” (both from the second Dillard & Clark album), was also covered by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on their 2007 album Raising Sand. Both albums by Dillard & Clark fared poorly on the charts, but established them as pioneers of country rock and newgrass crossovers.
The collaboration with Dillard rejuvenated Clark’s creativity but greatly contributed to his growing drinking problem. Dillard & Clark disintegrated in late 1969 after the departures of Clark and Leadon. Clark, along with Leadon, Jackson and Beck provided backup on the debut album of Steve Young, Rock Salt & Nails, released in November 1969.
In 1970, Clark began work on a new single, recording two tracks with the original members of the Byrds (each recording his part separately). The resulting songs, “She’s the Kind of Girl” and “One in a Hundred”, were not released at the time, because of legal problems; they were included later on the album Roadmaster. In 1970 and 1971, Clark contributed vocals and two compositions (“Tried So Hard” and “Here Tonight”) to albums by the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Frustrated with the music industry, Clark bought a house in Albion, California, near Mendocino, married a woman named Carlie and fathered two sons (Kelly and Kai) while subsisting in semiretirement on his still-substantial Byrds royalties throughout the early 1970s, augmented by income from the Turtles’ 1969 American Top Ten hit “You Showed Me”, a previously unreleased composition by McGuinn and Clark from 1964.
He was now ready to cut some solo work. A strong, primarily acoustic set, the album White Light sold poorly in America but was an unexpected hit in the Netherlands. Clark’s next album, Roadmaster, combined new material with the unreleased 1969 tracks cut with the Byrds; while it was a strong album, A&M chose not to release it and it was initially released only in Holland. Clark left A&M just in time for the Byrds to cut a reunion album with their original lineup; Clark contributed a pair of fine songs to the project, “Full Circle” and “Changing Heart,” but most of the album sounded uninspired and the reunion quickly splintered.
In 1974, Clark signed to Asylum Records and cut the polished but heartfelt No Other. Clark, however, had hoped to release the set as a double album, which did not please labelhead David Geffen, and the album stalled in the marketplace without promotion. In 1977, Clark returned with a new album, Two Sides to Every Story, and put his fear of flying on hold to mount an international tour to promote it.
For his British dates, Clark found himself booked on a tour with ex-Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman; audiences were clearly hoping for a Byrds reunion and while the three men had planned nothing of the sort, they didn’t want to let down their fans and played a short set of Byrds hits as an encore for several dates on the tour. This led the three men to begin working up new material together once they returned to America, and in 1978, they began touring as McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman. After a well-received acoustic tour, the trio signed a major deal with Capitol Records and released their self-titled debut in 1979. However, the slick production (designed to make sure the group didn’t sound too much like the Byrds) didn’t flatter the group, and the album was a critical and commercial disappointment. Clark soon became disenchanted with the project, and on their second album, 1980s City, the billing had changed to Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, with Gene Clark. By 1981, Clark had left and the group briefly continued on as McGuinn/Hillman.
After splitting with McGuinn and Hillman, Clark stayed on the sidelines of music for several years, assembling a band called Flyte that failed to score a record deal. Clark finally re-emerged in 1984 with a new band and album called Firebyrd; the rising popularity of jangle-rockers R.E.M. sparked a new interest in the Byrds, and Clark began developing new fans among L.A.’s roots-conscious paisley underground scene.
Clark appeared as a guest on an album by the Long Ryders, and in 1987, he cut a duo album with Carla Olson of the Textones called So Rebellious a Lover. So Rebellious was well-received and became a modest commercial success (it was the biggest selling album of Clark’s solo career), but Clark began to develop serious health problems around this time; he had ulcers, aggravated by years of heavy drinking, and in 1988, he underwent surgery, during which much of his stomach and intestines had to be removed.
Clark also lost a certain amount of goodwill among longtime Byrds fans when he joined drummer Michael Clarke for a series of shows billed A 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Byrds. Many clubs simply shortened the billing to the Byrds, and Clarke and Clark soon found themselves in an ugly legal battle with Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and Chris Hillman over use of the group’s name. The Byrds set aside their differences long enough to appear together at their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in January of 1991, where the original lineup played a few songs together, including Clark’s “Feel a Whole Lot Better.”
A period of abstinence and recovery followed until Tom Petty’s cover of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”, on his album Full Moon Fever (1989), yielded huge royalties to Clark, who quickly began using crack cocaine and alcohol. Consequently Clark’s health continued to decline and on May 24, 1991, not long after he had begun work on a second album with Carla Olson, Gene Clark died, with the coroner declaring he succumbed as a result of “natural causes” brought on by a bleeding ulcer.
He was 49.