Gene Clark - Biography
By Eric Brightwell
Both as a founding member of The Byrds, with other collaborators and as a solo artist, Gene Clark helped pioneer several forms of music, including folk-rock, psychedelia, baroque pop, and country-rock. In his short tenure with The Byrds, he proved the band’s best and most prolific songwriter but his contributions were often overshadowed by those of his higher profile bandmates. His work after leaving The Byrds is characterized by consistently high quality, critical praise and resounding commercial indifference exacerbated by his unwillingness to promote his releases. Since his premature death at 46, a growing number of music fans have begun to recognize his key role in changing the pop-rock landscape.
Jeanne Faherty and Kelly Clark may outwardly have seemed an odd match when they were set up on a blind date. Jeanne was a strict Catholic working as a servant for a wealthy family that played golf at the Milburn country club in Overland Park, Kansas. Kelly Clark was an amateur musician who was a groundskeeper at the course and who had a bit of a reputation as a wild man. Nonetheless, their date led to marriage and produced thirteen children. The third child, Harold Eugene Clark, was born November 17, 1944. He was named after Kelly’s brother, who’d died in Operation Market-Garden in World War II. Harold Eugene, or Gene, was born in Tipton, Missouri where Jeanne and the children had relocated. There she stayed at her grandparents’ whilst Kelly was in the army. When he returned home in 1945, the Clark family moved to a home on Mission Road, in Kansas City, Kansas before moving in 1946 to Oldham, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri.
In 1949, the Clarks moved to a small, converted trolley barn furnished by the KC Parks and Recreation Department in then-rural Swope Park where they lived for a while on a large acreage without running water. Clark’s bucolic, carefree childhood soon crashed headlong against draconian nature his strict religious schooling when he was enrolled at Our Lady of Lourdes in Raytown and both would influence his songwriting in later years. Meanwhile, Gene’s father played banjo, guitar and harmonica, sometimes performing as a one-man-band at barn dances in nearby Lenexa, Kansas. In 1954, the family got its first television and an Elvis appearance captivated nine-year-old Gene. His father taught him to play Hank Williams, Elvis and Everly Brothers tunes on mandolin when Gene was nine – his dad played banjo, guitar and harmonica. Soon after, Gene began writing his own tunes, one of the first was titled “Big Chief Hole in Pants.”
At thirteen, in 1958, Clark joined his first band, with one of his classmates from Our Lady of Lourdes, Joe Meyers. With Joe on lead guitar, his brother Mike on bass, Eddie Hitchcock on drums and Gene on rhythm and vocals, the rock ‘n’ roll act The Sharks played sock hops, the Coke Bar and The Catholic Youth Organization’s basement in the rough-and-tumble, hick-greaser town of Raytown, where they all attended high school. It was there that they were invited by Bill Godden, an engineer at WDAF-AM, to record one of their songs, the Elvis-influenced “Blue Ribbons” on a reel-to-reel in his living room in 1959. At the same time, Gene played in another band, The Royals, about which less is remembered. His future with both bands ended when the Clarks moved to Bonner Springs, Kansas in 1960.
In 1962, Clark graduated from Bonner Springs High where he had sung in both high school choral groups and a choir made up of boys from the Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholic diocese. Around the same time, his musical interests began to shift toward folk music. Inspired by the Kingston Trio, he formed his own folk threesome, The Rum Runners. One Saturday in 1963, Clark sang at a the weekly hootenanny at Castaways Lounge and musician Michael Crowley convinced him and Jim Glover to join his locally popular folk act, The Surf Riders. In August, Randy Sparks of The New Christy Minstrels caught one of their performances and hired the members of the band on the spot. Crowley and Glover were sent to Sparks’ other act, The Back Porch Majority. Clark became a New Christy Minstrel. Sparks operated a club in Westwood, California that acted as the band’s base of operations.
After a Clark family picnic on August 12th, Gene told his family of his intention to move with the band to Los Angeles. After doing so, he called his mother from a stop in Hawaii where he seemed to be enjoying himself in the Andy Williams-discovered band despite being a somewhat poor fit for the squeaky-clean, nine member act (the inspiration for The New Main Street Singers in Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind) whose stagey and hammy performances the shy, reserved Clark couldn’t believably pull off. On his sole album with them, Merry Christmas!, the then 18-year-old looks embarrassed and out-of-place as the rest strike corny poses and grin improbably. Clark also quickly felt stifled by the travel and his minor position within the act. In early 1964, at a stop in Canada, he heard The Beatles’ “She Loves You” on a jukebox and promptly quit the band to pursue a new direction in Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles, he played solo shows at the Ash Grove and the Troubadour where he found another folkie-cum-Beatles convert in Jim McGuinn, who mixed folk and Beatles covers in his performances. The two soon began working together, initially as a Peter & Gordon-styled duo. Soon they were joined by David Crosby, first referring to themselves as The Jet Set. When they added drummer Michael Clarke and bassist Chris Hillman, they became The Beefeaters and released “Please Let Me Love You” b/w “Don’t Be Long” in October 1964. In November, the band’s manager Jim Dickson got them an audition with Columbia, where they signed as The Byrds. For the next two years, Gene Clark sang lead, wrote and co-wrote many of their best originals, including "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better," "Set You Free This Time," "Here Without You," "If You're Gone," "The World Turns All Around Her," "She Don't Care About Time" and "Eight Miles High." For the band, billed as America’s Beatles thrust into stardom, the pressures and rewards were no doubt enormous. For a while, Clark seemed to enjoy their teen idol status, indulging in rock star trappings like drugs and a Ferrari. But he surprised many by suddenly quitting. Many reasons have been given for Clark leaving the band. A management decision gave lead vocals to McGuinn for most of the Dylan covers and singles, Crosby convinced him that his guitar playing wasn’t good (so he often just played tambourine), he hated flying (attributed by some as stemming from witnessing a plane crash at KC Municipal whilst hanging out on Cliff Dr. as a youth) and other members resented him for his disproportionate income from songwriting. Whatever the factors, he left in March 1966 and returned to Kansas City where he entertained buying some land and returning to his former life. There he was mobbed by autograph hounds upon arrival.
Clark’s pop star ambitions won out and he returned Los Angeles where he assembled a folk-rock supergroup known as The Gene Clark Group with Chip Douglas (ex-Modern Folk Quartet), Joel Larson (ex-Grass Roots), and Bill Rhinehart (ex-Leaves). His former bandmates in The Byrd’s released Fifth Dimension. Though less commercially successful than its predecessors and relying heavily on covers, it also showed his former bandmates’ songwriting abilities growing and spent twenty-eight weeks on the charts. Meanwhile, The Gene Clark Group, aside from appearing as guests on The Dating Game and a small number of performances, amounted to little and recording sessions were abandoned.
In 1967, Clark signed as a solo artist to The Byrds’ label, Columbia. He released Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers in February (The Gosdin Brothers being an under-recognized folk/country duo from Woodland, Alabama). Other musicians who collaborated on the album were former bandmates Hillman and Clarke, future Byrd Clarence White and Doug Dillard of Salem, Missouri’s progressive bluegrass act, The Dillards. The results merged elements of bluegrass, country and rock as well as featuring lush, baroque pop. Most of the songs were typically downbeat, apparently addressing the end of his relationship with Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas (and wife of John Phillips). The same month, The Byrds released Younger than Yesterday on which his former bandmates fully came into their own and created their strongest work yet. Both albums were considered commercial disappointments, although The Byrds far outsold Clark. In October, Clark rejoined The Byrds, after Crosby’s dismissal. However, after three weeks in which he joined them on The Smothers Brothers and several live dates, Clark experienced a panic attack before boarding a flight out of Minneapolis and left the band again.
Clark next signed with A&M Records, at first collaborating with Laramy Smith (ex-The Fugitives) and formed the group Phoenix with Aron Vanderwort on bass and Wayne Bruns on drums. Phoenix broke up after writing a few songs over disagreements between the members in the band’s direction. Clark next reteamed with Doug Dillard and guitarist/songwriter Bill Leadon in Dillard & Clark. Their debut, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark (1968-A&M) was another innovative, gorgeous, well-received/poorly-selling fusion of bluegrass, country and rock. By the time of its follow-up, Through the Morning through the Night (1969-A&M), Dillard’s girlfriend Donna Washburn was brought on as a back-up singer (and lead vocalist on "Rocky Top"), and Leadon departed during the proceedings. Having lost one of their co-songwriters, they fleshed out the album with numerous covers. Other contributors were, Chris Hillman, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Byron Berline, David Jackson, Jon Corneal and Michael Clarke. The album was considerably less well-received and Clark departed leaving Dillard to soldier on as The Doug Dillard Expedition.
Recognizing a need for change, Clark began riding and driving up the California coast and finding solace in the communities around Mendocino. His life seemed to stabilize when he met and began dating Carlie McCummings, a former go-go dancer. Not long after, they moved north and were married in June of 1970. Back and forth between the coastal community and Los Angeles, Clark began collaborating again with David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Michael Clarke and Chris Hillman. Together they recorded his "She's The Kind Of Girl" and "One in a Hundred" but they weren’t released at the time due to legal issues. That year and the next, Clark contributed vocals and two numbers, “Tried So Hard" and "Here Tonight," to The Flying Burrito Brothers.
In the spring of 1971, Clark recorded some music for his friend Dennis Hopper’s film, American Dreamer. By the time of White Light (1971-A&M), Clark's backing band included bassist Chris Ethridge (The Flying Burrito Brothers), organist Mike Utley, and drummer Gary Mallaber and pianist Ben Sidran (the latter two of The Steve Miller Band). It was produced by and featured the slide-guitar of Jesse Ed Davis and the results were once again stellar but Clark resisted promoting it with performances, interviews, &c. Subsequent recording sessions were undertaken but terminated by A&M due to their high costs and slow progress. The eight songs from the aborted sessions, the unreleased tracks from 1970 and ’71 (written with Clark’s former bandmates) and The Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Here Tonight” were compiled and released as Roadmaster (1972-A&M) in The Netherlands, one of the few countries where Clark had a substantial following (White Light had been named Album of the Year by a number of Dutch critics). Clark left A&M and once again joined the original Byrds for their final release, 1973’s Byrds, one of their most reviled albums although Clark’s “Full Circle” and “Changing Heart” are usually singled out for praise. Following its disastrous reception, The Byrds ended for good.
Impressed by Clark’s contributions to The Byrds’ swansong, David Geffen invited Clark to Asylum, which he joined in early 1974. After returning to Los Angeles, Clark moved to a house in the Hollywood Hills where joined by Doug Dillard and Jerry Jeff Walker, he resumed his abusive lifestyle and added cocaine to his list of preferred substances. As a result, Carlie and their by then two sons moved to Northern California, inspiring the album’s closer, “Lady of the North.”Joined by an enormous amount of characters and produced by Thomas Jefferson Kaye, No Other (1974-Asylum) was a soaring, mystical, cosmic opus that cost $100,000 to make. The packaging is worth noting. The front cover features a collage of 1920’s imagery and the back photo shows Clark in drag posing at John Barrymore’s estate. Nonetheless, backed by The Silverados, Clark embarked on his first solo tour, playing small venues. Although critics were divided, he promoted like no other solo album before and it just reached #144.
Asylum wasn’t happy with the cost and results and rejected the demos for his planned follow-up, which were described as “cosmic Motown.” On the other hand, RSO liked what they heard and they bought out Clark’s contract. January 1977’s Two Sides to Every Story (RSO) was a return to more conventional songs featuring guest musicians including Jeff Baxter, Emmylou Harris, Byron Berline, Al Perkins, and John Hartford. Songs, like “Kansas City Southern” reflected both his enduring love of country and his childhood. The cover showed him in front of his northern California converted stagecoach house and once again, he seemed to be returning to his roots. Unfortunately, his relationship with Carlie ended in divorce, she and their sons moved into the house and he resumed his relationship with actress/drug connect Terri Messina, whom he’d first gone out with in 1966.
On the musical front, he later that year joined McGuinn and Hillman in McGuinn, Clark & Hillman. With The Byrds still popular in Europe, the trio planned an overseas tour. The media coverage and fan response were strong and although it didn’t go off without a hitch, it was a positive enough experience that McGuinn and Clark continued performing back in the US as a duo (on occasion joined by Hillman and Crosby). It led to McGuinn and Clark being signed to Capitol and Hillman, after the release from his Asylum contract joined them. Their album, McGuinn, Clark and Hillman (1979) was widely seen as a disappointment, with Clark mostly fading into the background on a set of slick, faceless yacht rock that barely sounded like The Byrds fans expected, however unrealistically. With McGuinn's "Don't You Write Her Off" reaching #33, the record was enough of a commercial success to generate a follow-up. Rechristened, Roger McGuinn & Chris Hillman Featuring Gene Clark, City (1980), reflected Clark’s reduced role within the trio. After routinely failing to turn up for performances, he exited the tour giving his deteriorating health as a reason. Nonetheless, one of his two contributions the self-reflexive “Don’t Let You Down” was generally held to be the highlight.
In another attempt to get clean, Clark moved to Hawaii to live with Jesse Ed Davis where he stayed till 1981. When he returned to the mainland, he formed a new band who recorded a set that was ultimately released as Firebyrd. While waiting for the release of that album, Clark again teamed with Hillman as Flyte, though their efforts failed to produce anything. Firebyrd (1987-Takoma) came out during a resurgence in popularity of The Byrds following the rise in number and popularity of a new generation of jangle-rockers and the paisley underground. A short set with two covers of Byrds songs and questionable production, the results divided opinion. In 1984, he sang “Ivory Tower” on The Long Ryders’ debut, Native Sons. Toward the end of the year, Clark, Clarke, York and some non-ex Byrds began touring as “A 20th Anniversary Tribute to the Byrds.” Initially reluctant to tour as The Byrds, after several promoters took to referring to them as such, by 1985 they were willfully complying.
Toward the end of 1986, Clark collaborated with Carla Olson (ex-The Textones), So Rebellious a Lover (1987-Razor & Tie) was more successful but Clark’s health began to worsen. In 1988 he underwent surgery, with much of his stomach and intestines removed. A extended period of being clean was a necessity, but an influx of royalty money following Tom Petty’s 1989 cover of his “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” was followed by a reversion to drug abuse. The entire line-up of the original Byrds reformed to play at their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in January, 1991. On May 24, Gene Clark died of a heart attack at 46 in his Sherman Oaks home. His body was returned to Tipton where his headstone reads “Harold Eugene Clark – No Other.”
After his death, two more collaborations with Carla Olson followed, Silhouetted in Light (1992-Demon) (recorded the year before his death) and the two disc In Concert (2007-Collector’s choice), containing a 1988 taping from West Virginia’s Mountain Stage radio show and some previously released material. Silverado '75 - Live & Unreleased (2008-Collector’s Choice) followed. Under the Silvery Moon (2003-Delta Deluxe) was a collection of previously unreleased material from the mid-‘80s that sounds very mid-‘80s. Meanwhile, Clark’s timeless material continues to be appreciated and covered by a growing number including This Mortal Coil, Paul Weller, Alison Krauss & Robert Plant, Chris & Rich Robinson, Dinosaur Jr and others. Teenage Fanclub may’ve paid the ultimate compliment with their homage, “Gene Clark,” from their album, Thirteen.