Harold Eugene “Gene” Clark (November 17, 1944 – May 24, 1991) was an American singer-songwriter and founding member of the folk rock band The Byrds. Clark was The Byrds’ dominant songwriter between 1964 and early 1966, penning most of the band’s best-known originals from this period, including “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”, “She Don’t Care About Time”, and “Set You Free This Time”.
Although he failed to achieve commercial success as a solo artist, Clark remained on the vanguard of popular music throughout his career, prefiguring developments in such disparate subgenres as psychedelic rock, baroque pop, newgrass, country rock, and alternative country.
Gene Clark was born in Tipton, Missouri, the third of 13 children in a family of Irish, German, and Native American heritage.
His family moved to Kansas City where he began learning the guitar and harmonica from his father at a young age. He was soon playing Hank Williams tunes as well as material by early rockers such as Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. He began writing his own songs at age 11. By the time he was 15 he had developed a rich tenor voice and he formed a local rock and roll combo, Joe Meyers and the Sharks.
Like many of his generation, Clark developed an interest in folk music because of the popularity of the Kingston Trio. When he graduated from Bonner Springs High School in Bonner Springs, Kansas in 1962, Clark formed a folk group, the Rum Runners.
Clark was invited to join an established regional folk group, the Surf Riders working out of Kansas City at the Castaways Lounge, owned by Hal Harbaum. On August 12, 1963, he was performing with them when he was discovered by The New Christy Minstrels. They hired him for their ensemble and he recorded two albums with them before leaving in early 1964.
After hearing the Beatles, Clark quit the Christys and moved to Los Angeles where he met fellow folkie/Beatles convert Jim (later Roger) McGuinn at the Troubadour Club. In early 1964 they began to assemble a band that would become The Byrds.
Gene Clark wrote or co-wrote many of The Byrds’ best-known originals from their first three albums, including: “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”, “Set You Free This Time”, “Here Without You”, “You Won’t Have to Cry”, “If You’re Gone”, “The World Turns All Around Her”, “She Don’t Care About Time” and “Eight Miles High”.
He and McGuinn also composed “You Showed Me”, which was recorded but not released by the Byrds, and became a hit for the Turtles when they recorded it in 1969. He initially played rhythm guitar in the band, but relinquished it to David Crosby and became the tambourine and harmonica player.
Bassist Chris Hillman noted years later in various interviews remembering Gene: “At one time, he was the power in the Byrds, not McGuinn, not Crosby—it was Gene who would burst through the stage curtain banging on a tambourine, coming on like a young Prince Valiant. A hero, our savior. Few in the audience could take their eyes off this presence. He was the songwriter.
He had the “gift” that none of the rest of us had developed yet…. What deep inner part of his soul conjured up songs like “Set You Free This Time,” “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” “I’m Feelin’ Higher,” “Eight Miles High”? So many great songs! We learned a lot of songwriting from him and in the process learned a little bit about ourselves.”
A management decision delivered the lead vocal duties to McGuinn for their major singles and Bob Dylan songs. This disappointment, combined with Clark’s dislike of traveling (including a chronic fear of flying) and resentment by other band members about the extra income he derived from his songwriting, led to internal squabbling and he left the group in early 1966.
He briefly returned to Kansas City before moving back to Los Angeles to form Gene Clark & the Group with Chip Douglas, Joel Larson, and Bill Rhinehart.
Columbia Records (The Byrds’ record label) signed Clark as a solo artist and, in 1967, he released his first solo LP, Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers. The Gosdin Brothers were selected to back Gene because they shared manager Jim Dickson, and Chris Hillman, who played bass on the album, had worked with the Gosdin Brothers in the mid-1960s when he and they were members of the Southern California bluegrass band called The Hillmen.
The album was a unique mixture of pop, country rock and baroque-psychedelic tracks. It received favorable reviews but unfortunately for Clark, it was released almost simultaneously with the Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday, also on Columbia, and (partly due to his 18-month-long public absence) was a commercial failure.
With the future of his solo career in doubt, Clark briefly rejoined The Byrds in October 1967, as a replacement for the recently departed David Crosby, but left after only three weeks, following an anxiety attack in Minneapolis. During this brief period with The Byrds, he appeared with the band on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, miming to the group’s current single “Goin’ Back”, as well as to “Mr. Spaceman”.
Although there is some disagreement among the band’s biographers, Clark is generally viewed as having contributed background vocals to the songs “Goin’ Back” and “Space Odyssey” from the then forthcoming Byrds’ album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, as well as being an uncredited co-author, with Roger McGuinn, of “Get to You” from that album.
In 1968, Clark signed with A&M Records and began a collaboration with banjo player Doug Dillard. Guitarist Bernie Leadon (later with The Flying Burrito Brothers and the Eagles), bass player Dave Jackson and mandolin player Don Beck joined them to form the nucleus of Dillard & Clark.They produced two albums: The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark(1968), and Through the Morning Through the Night(1969).
The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark was an acoustic adventure into country rock and included songs like “Train Leaves Here This Morning”, covered in 1972 on Eagles and “She Darked the Sun”, covered by Linda Ronstadt on her 1970 album, Silk Purse.
Through the Morning, Through the Night was more bluegrass in character than its predecessor, and used electric instrumentation. It also included Donna Washburn (Dillard’s girlfriend) as a backing vocalist, which contributed to the departure of Leadon, and a change to a traditional bluegrass direction that caused Clark to lose interest.
The Dillard & Clark song “Through The Morning Through The Night” was used in Quincy Jones’s soundtrack of the 1972 Sam Peckinpah movie The Getaway. This song, along with “Polly” (both from the second Dillard and Clark album), was also covered by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on their 2007 album Raising Sand. Both Dillard & Clark albums fared poorly on the charts, but they are now regarded as pioneers of country rock and newgrass genres.
The collaboration with Doug Dillard rejuvenated Clark’s creativity but greatly contributed to his growing drinking problem. Dillard & Clark disintegrated in late 1969 after the departures of Clark and Leadon. Clark, along with Leadon, Jackson and Beck provided backup on the debut album of Steve Young, Rock Salt & Nails, released November 1969.
In 1970, Clark began work on a new single, recording two tracks with the original members of the Byrds (each recording his part separately). The resulting songs, “She’s the Kind of Girl” and “One in a Hundred”, were not released at the time due to legal problems and were included later on Roadmaster. In 1970 and 1971, Clark contributed vocals and two compositions (“Tried So Hard” and “Here Tonight”) to albums by the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Frustrated with the music industry, Clark bought a home at Albion near Mendocino, California, married a woman named Carlie and fathered two sons (Kelly and Kai) while subsisting in semiretirement on his still-substantial Byrds royalties throughout the early 1970s; these were ballasted by The Turtles’ 1969 American Top Ten hit “You Showed Me”, a hitherto unreleased McGuinn-Clark composition from 1964
In 1971, Gene Clark released his second solo album. It was titled White Light, although the fact that the name was not included on the cover sleeve led some later reviewers to assume mistakenly that it was titled ‘Gene Clark’.
The album was produced by Native American guitarist Jesse Ed Davis with whom Clark developed great rapport, partly due to their common Indian ancestry. An intimate, poetic and mostly acoustic work supplemented by Davis’ slide guitar, the album contained many introspective tracks such as “With Tomorrow”, “Because of You”, “Where My Love Lies Asleep” and “For a Spanish Guitar” (which Bob Dylan supposedly hailed as one of the greatest songs ever written). All of the material was written by Clark, with the exception of the Dylan and Richard Manuel composition, “Tears of Rage”.
Launched to considerable critical acclaim, the LP failed to gain commercial success, except in the Netherlands where it was also voted album of the year by rock music critics. Once more, modest promotion and Clark’s refusal to undertake promotional touring adversely affected sales.
In the spring of 1971, Clark was commissioned by Dennis Hopper to contribute the tracks “American Dreamer” and “Outlaw Song” to Hopper’s film project American Dreamer.
A re-recorded, longer version of the song “American Dreamer” was later used in the 1977 film The Farmer, along with an instrumental version of the same song plus “Outside the Law (The Outlaw)” (a re-recording of “Outlaw Song”).
In 1972, Clark attempted to record a follow-up album. Progress was slow and expensive and A&M terminated the project before completion.
The resulting eight tracks, including “Full Circle Song” and “In a Misty Morning” were added to those recorded with The Byrds in 1970/71 (“She’s the Kind of Girl” and “One in a Hundred”) and with The Flying Burrito Brothers and released in 1973 as Roadmaster in the Netherlands only.