Jim McGuinn grew up in Chicago and attended the Old Town School of Folk Music. He played guitar as a side-musician for the Limeliters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Joan Collins, and other folk music groups.
Gene Clark had been a member of the New Christie Minstrels, and he joined with Jim to form a duo. They performed in small clubs singing covers of Beatles songs and traditional folk music.
David Crosby joined them, and the trio began performing as the Jet Set. Elektra Records released a single featuring the group but billed them as the Beefeaters to make the group look like part of the British Invasion. The tactic failed.
The group added drummer Michael Clarke in 1964 and Chris Hillman on mandolin a few months later. They acquired a copy of Bob Dylan’s unreleased recording of Mr. Tambourine Man and reworked the folk song into more of a rock mix. In January 1965, Jim went into the studio and, with the aid of the Wrecking Crew, recorded the instrumental backing for the song. Jim, Gene, and David then sang the lyrics over the music. Columbia Records released the single in April, and it topped the Hot 100 in December. You can thank the Beatles for nearly monopolizing the top spot for most of the year.
The group continued to experiment with folk-rock and then expanded into early psychedelic music and even some Country music. Six more top forty singles followed. Their last single to make the top forty came with the release of another Dylan song, My Back Pages. The album version of the song was over three minutes long, but Columbia cut the single version down to two-and-a-half minutes. The record peaked at #30 and then fell off the chart.
The group disintegrated shortly after the release of the album that contained that song. Gene left because of problems with anxiety. Jim changed his name to Roger. Michael quit the group in August because of dissatisfaction with the direction of their music. The group chased David away, and he began working in a new group with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash. Gene left the group, rejoined, and Roger removed him again, all in a matter of only weeks. This left only Roger and Chris in the group. They recruited Gram Parsons and other musicians and continued making music.
The Byrds recorded Sweethearts of the Rodeo, a 1968 album that was an important turning point for Country-Rock.
The group eventually broke up in 1972. Over the next few decades, various combinations of members led bands performing as the Byrds (or, more accurately, sometimes as tribute bands).
The five original members reunited for a performance when the group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1991. Gene died shortly after that. The last appearance of the Byrds as a group came in 2000.
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