Formed in Los Angeles in 1964, the Byrds are credited as the first Folk Rock group, pioneering a sound that bridged the gap between popular Folk acts like the Kingston Trio and the bands of the British Invasion.
The core members of the band — Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby — all had roots in the Folk world, having put their time in playing in coffee houses with groups like the New Christy Minstrels and Les Baxter's Balladeers. As with so many musicians in the early 60s, it was the wake-up call of hearing the Beatles that inspired the trio to contemporize their Folk sound.
The band, then called the Jet Set, added bassist Chris Hillman, who had been playing in Bluegrass bands, and drummer Michael Clarke. After seeing the Beatles playing similar instruments in the film Hard Day’s Night, McGuinn bought a Rickenbacker 12-string electric guitar, and the instrument’s jangly sound became a Byrds trademark. In a final nod to the Beatles the band changed their name to the Byrds – also an animal name, similarly misspelled.
Signed to Columbia Records, the band scored a No. 1 hit in 1965 with their first release, a reworked version of Bob Dylan’s then-unreleased song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which they heard on a demo recording. The press coined the term “Folk Rock” to describe the band’s combination of layered harmonies, shimmering guitars, and driving beat.
The Byrds churned out five LPs between 1965 and 1968, returning No. 1 with the single “Turn, Turn, Turn.” As the 60s counterculture gained momentum, the sound of the band became increasingly psychedelic, as is evident on their 1966 single “Eight Miles High.” The changing musical direction contributed to tensions in the band and by 1968 Clark, Crosby, and Clarke had all left.
McGuinn (who changed his first name to Roger around this time) and Hillman invited North Carolina native and Country music fan Gram Parsons to join the band. Although he was in the Byrds less then a year, Parsons’ influence was substantial on their next album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” which was another groundbreaking achievement — the first Country Rock effort by a mainstream Rock band, and one that would influence many bands over the following decade and beyond.
McGuinn kept some version of the Byrds together through multiple lineups and reunions until the group finally disbanded in 1973. McGuinn and Gene Clark went on to solo careers; Crosby found great success in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Parsons and Hillman formed the influential Country Rock band the Flying Burrito Brothers.