The Flying Burrito Brothers - Biography
The Flying Burrito Brothers didn’t officially disband until 2001, but the Los Angeles group is best known and most cherished for its first two albums, released in 1969 and 1970. The group was originally the brainchild of two former members of The Byrds – founding bassist Chris Hillman and Florida-born, Georgia-bred, (briefly) Harvard-educated singer-songwriter Gram Parsons – and the Burritos would remain a Byrds offshoot for most of their existence. The Parsons-Hillman edition was the one that staked the band’s claim in rock history.
In their initial incarnation, the Burritos were the most nearly perfect incarnation of Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music” – essentially soulful American music, a rocking crossbreed of country and R&B. The inspired notion of such a fusion got lost in the shuffle somewhere along the way – mainly because Parsons never quite managed to successfully nail his ideas down in the recording studio -- and today The Flying Burrito Brothers are viewed as a keystone of the hybrid known as country-rock.
There was a precedent for the music that the Burritos made on their debut album, the now-classic The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969), and that precedent had been set by Parsons and Hillman themselves. In 1968, The Byrds were in a state of personnel upheaval, and Hillman drafted Parsons – who had arrived in LA from the east in 1967 with his group The International Submarine Band – ostensibly to play piano in the group, which also included singer-guitarist Roger McGuinn, its putative leader, and drummer Kevin Kelley, Hillman’s cousin.
Parsons had recorded an unreleased album that fused rock and Bakersfield-style country with his old band, and he pushed The Byrds in a similar direction. The group recorded its Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) in Nashville with veteran Music City session men. The collection was recognized as the first full-blown country-rock fusion. But the Sweetheart lineup of the Byrds was short-lived: In July 1968, Parsons abruptly quit the group on the eve of a tour of South Africa. He ostensibly left in protest of the nation’s apartheid policies, but Parsons also hankered to hang out in London with a newfound friend, guitarist Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones.
Hillman stayed on board with The Byrds long enough to complete the South African tour, but exited himself in the fall of ’68 in a rage over management’s mishandling of the jaunt. Though Hillman had been angered by Parsons’ precipitous exit from The Byrds, the two musicians mended their fences; for a time, the two musicians shared a house and wrote material for a new group. Hillman would play guitar and sing in the new unit; Mississippi-born Chris Ethridge, who had played with Parsons on The International Submarine Band’s album sessions, was drafted on bass. To play pedal steel guitar – a must in any country band, but a rarity in a young rock group – they hired Sneeky Pete Kleinow, a well-known Hollywood stop-motion animator (he worked on Art Clokey’s “Gumby” cartoons) and country sideman who brought an aggressive sound to his playing by using a fuzz box with his instrument.
Even without a permanent drummer, the new band – dubbed The Flying Burrito Brothers, a name concocted by Parsons’ onetime bandmate Ian Dunlop – attracted record company interest, and, after initial wooing by Warner Brothers, they signed with the pop-friendly Hollywood label A&M Records. The Burritos immediately invested their record company advances in a little flash: They went to Nudie Cohen, North Hollywood’s cowboy tailor, for some glittery stage wear. Parsons’ white suit, made by Manuel Cuevas, was immediately famous for its outrageous design: It was festooned with marijuana leave and pills, with a naked woman on each lapel. (The suit is in the Country Music Hall of Fame today.)
The Burritos recorded The Gilded Palace of Sin with producers Henry Lewy and Larry Marks and a coterie of session drummers in late 1968. Generally recognized as the band’s finest work, it was much influenced by the genre-hopping style of Parsons’ friends Delaney & Bonnie, the Southern-styled fusioneers then playing in the San Fernando Valley north of LA. The album included such emblematic Parsons-Hillman compositions as “Sin City,” “Christine’s Tune (Devil in Disguise),” and “Wheels”; the indelible Parsons-Ethridge songs “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2”; and the band’s countrified covers of James Carr’s “The Dark End of the Street” and Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman” (both authored by Southern soul writers Dan Penn and Chips Moman).
Gilded Palace rose no higher than No. 164 on the album chart and sold an estimated 40,000 copies, but it made no difference – the Burritos were intent on living like rock stars. With former Byrd Michael Clarke enlisted as full-time drummer, they set out on an early 1969 train tour more notable for drugging, drinking, and dissolution than for noteworthy shows. Soon thereafter, they appeared with The Grateful Dead at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom; those shows were taped, and form the basis of Amoeba Music’s own outstanding live release Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969 (2007).
The band’s original lineup proved short-lived. Chris Ethridge, bored and discouraged by the Burritos’ usually under-rehearsed and slovenly live shows, quit in mid-1969. Hillman moved back to bass, and Bernie Leadon, an old colleague from Hillman’s bluegrass days who more recently played with the country-psychedelic band Hearts & Flowers and the Dillard and Clark Expedition, joined as guitarist.
Sessions for a second album continued through the fall of 1969. When The Rolling Stones arrived late in the year to prepare for their first American tour in several years, they were frequent guests at Burritos shows, and Parsons grew closer to Richards. The Stones’ guitarist gave his American friend an unreleased song, “Wild Horses,” to record for the sophomore Burritos album.
On Dec. 6, 1969, The Flying Burrito Brothers were the opening act at the Stones’ day-long free concert at Altamont Speedway in Northern California. By nightfall, violence had broken out all over the crowded speedway grounds, and several Hell’s Angels stabbed a gun-wielding young concertgoer to death. In the confusion that followed, Parsons escaped the site on the Stones’ chartered helicopter, leaving his band mates Leadon and Clarke to fend for themselves.
The second Flying Burrito Brothers album, Burrito Deluxe, was released in early 1970. “Wild Horses” proved to be the most successful track on this largely threadbare collection. The Hillman-Parsons writing partnership had come up with little, and “High Fashion Queen” and “Cody, Cody” couldn’t hold a candle to the best of Gilded Palace. One Parsons solo number, “Lazy Days,” dated back to his Byrds era. Recognizing the LP’s deficiencies – it failed to make the charts -- A&M pushed the band back into the studio in early 1970 for some abortive sessions at which several country classics were covered; these tracks would not see release until years later on the album Sleepless Nights (1976).
By mid-1970, Parsons’ tenure in the Burritos was clearly nearing its end. He was involved in a serious motorcycle accident that spring that laid him up in the hospital for weeks. When he was actually able to show up for a gig, he was often seriously impaired by drugs and alcohol. Finally, that June, during a show at the Valley club the Brass Ring, a furious Hillman broke Parsons’ acoustic guitar and summarily fired his band mate from the group.
Parsons was soon in France, hanging out with Richards during sessions for the Stones’ Exile On Main St. Florida-born singer Rick Roberts was brought in to replace the group’s co-founder. The modestly successful The Flying Burrito Brothers (1971) included Roberts’ “Colorado” and a cover of Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever” that found some favor at FM radio. Following the live album Last of the Red Hot Burritos (1972), Roberts exited to front the lightweight Colorado country-rock group Firefall (which also featured ex-Burritos drummer Michael Clarke, who became something of a country-rock Zelig). Some of the Burritos’ latter-day sidemen founded Country Gazette, while Leadon went on to fame as a member of the Eagles.
In 1975 – two years after Parsons’ overdose death in Joshua Tree, California – Kleinow and Ethridge formed a new edition of The Flying Burrito Brothers with former Byrds drummer Gene Parsons, Bakersfield multi-instrumentalist Floyd “Gib” Guilbeau, and journeyman LA rocker Joel Scott Hill. Another ex-Byrd, bassist Skip Battin, later signed on. This edition released two poorly received albums on Columbia: Flying Again (1975) and Airborne (1976).
Kleinow, Guilbeau, Battin, and guitarist John Beland (formerly partnered with Guilbeau in the early-‘70s band Swampwater) were all members of an early-‘80s incarnation of the group, known simply as The Burrito Brothers. This edition failed to chart any pop albums or singles, but they enjoyed several country chart 45s, including five Top 40 entries; their biggest hits were “Does She Wish She Was Single Again” (No. 20, 1981) and “She Belongs to Everyone But Me” (No. 16, 1981). With a continuously shifting lineup, the group developed a cottage industry in live albums until Beland broke up the group in 2001.
Kleinow fronted his own outfit, Burrito Deluxe, until failing health forced him to fold the group in 2005. He died of cancer in January 2007. Of the original Burritos, Hillman enjoyed the strongest ongoing career, attaining a measure of success in Souther, Hillman & Furay and The Desert Rose Band.
The original Flying Burritos Brothers played out their brief time on the musical stage without reaping any major hits. But their influence was far-reaching. Their druggy glamour set the stage for the biggest commercial act of the ‘70s, The Eagles, and served as a blueprint for countless other country-rock acts of the decade. A generation later, Parsons’ glittering example was a principal flashpoint for the alt-country movement. Prophetic? Most assuredly, yet these prophets remain without honor: To date, neither The Flying Burrito Brothers nor Gram Parsons has been granted entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.