Gene Clark will always be best remembered for his two-year stint as a vocalist with the Byrds between 1964 and 1966. A fine legacy to be sure, but the shame of it is that there was far more to Clark's body of work than that; he was a superb songwriter, one of the founding fathers of country-rock, and recorded a number of fine albums with an impressive array of collaborators whose quality far outstripped their modest sales figures.
Gene Clark was born in Tipton, MO, in 1944. Clark's father was an amateur musician with a passion for country music which rubbed off on young Gene; he began learning the guitar at age nine and was soon picking out Hank Williams tunes, as well as material by early rockers such as Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. Before long, Clark started writing his own songs, and at 13, he cut his first record with a local rock & roll combo, Joe Meyers and the Sharks, but Clark developed an interest in folk music after the Kingston Trio rose to popularity. Clark began performing with several folk groups working out of Kansas City which led to a more lucrative position with the New Christy Minstrels, a well-scrubbed folk-pop ensemble who scored a hit single with "Green Green." However, Clark longed to perform his own songs and didn't care for life on the road; after hearing the Beatles for the first time, Clark decided he wanted to form a rock band and he quit the NCM and moved to Los Angeles. There, he met a fellow folky who had his head turned around by the Beatles, Jim McGuinn (he would later change his name to Roger) and in 1964 they started assembling a band that would, in time, come to be known as the Byrds.
Gene Clark quickly became the Byrds' dominant songwriter, 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. However, Clark's less-than-impressive skills as a guitarist often made him look like a backing vocalist on-stage and the combination of Clark's dislike of traveling (including a fear of flying) and resentment that his songwriting income made him the best-paid member of the group led to tensions within the Byrds, and in 1966, Clark opted to leave the group. Columbia Records, the label the Byrds recorded for, signed Clark as a solo artist, and in 1967, he released his first solo set, Gene Clark With the Gosdin Brothers, a pioneering fusion of country and rock. However, Clark's album was released almost simultaneously with the Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday, and Clark's set was a commercial bust. With the future of his solo career in doubt, Clark briefly rejoined the Byrds in 1967, but by the end of the year, he once again parted ways with the group.
In 1968, Clark signed with A&M Records and, once again following his interest in blending country with rock, he began a collaboration with virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Doug Dillard. Dillard & Clark recorded a pair of fine albums for A&M, but they fared no better at the marketplace than Clark's efforts with the Gosdin Brothers, and in 1969, Clark began work on his first proper solo album, recording a pair of tracks with several members of the Byrds. However, legal problems prevented their release at the time, and it wasn't until 1971 that a Gene Clark solo set finally emerged, entitled White Light. A strong, primarily acoustic set, 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." However, Clark's health continued to decline as his drinking accelerated, 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. ~ Mark Deming