Monday, 16 February 2015

The Byrds: Pre-Fame Recordings In Different Bands




The Pre-Fame Byrds:
Almost uniquely for an Alan's Album Archives band, almost all the Byrds shot to fame in some band or another or making their own solo recordings before taking full flight together in 1965 and beyond. Some of these bands are covered in full later on in the text - bands like 'The International Submarine Band' (Gram Parsons) and 'Nashville West' (Clarence White and Gene Parsons) where you can hear the 'early' sound of their respective eras of The Byrds taking place. However some Byrds weren't taking part in these early recordings to take their place in the spotlight or to test out the new sound in their head but simply to pay their bills. None of the following recordings are truly essential and mainly have the Byrds lost in the crowd (they did tend to hang out with rather lage sized folk groups after all) rather than taking charge but each of these recordings is interesting in it's own way to see what the band were up to. So before we start with what The Byrds did together here's a summing up of what they did apart:

Roger McGuinn:
The former Jim McGuinn's first recorded performance came with a folk group known as 'The Limeliters'. By 1960 McGuinn had been playing solo sets in coffee-clubs for a while in between college courses when he was spotted by Limeliter Alex Hassilev who was keen to add a fourth member to the group and promised him an audition for the following day. The group never did get any big hits but were had been making regular appearances on TV and radio since 1959 so this was a big break for McGuinn, who spent a nervous night borrowing all his friend's Limeliter records and learning as many of the chords as he could. Amazingly the practical 18-year-old McGuinn passed the audition then turned them down, claiming he needed to finish his studies first. The band agreed but contacted him again during the traditional summer break, asking him to bulk out their sound on  LP 'Tonight In Person' (released on RCA in January 1961). You can't really hear McGuinn (and he doesn't appear on the cover), but he is there on both the studio and live recordings, helping with the mixture of serious earnest songs like 'The Monks Of St Bernard' (a Hassilev original) and the whimsy of Flanders and Swann's 'Maderia My Dear'. Perhaps looking forward to the time when The Byrds channel the sound of The Beatles, it's also a peculiarly 'English' album, less Pete Seeger than The Seekers. Full track listing: There's a A Meetin' Here Tonight/Molly Malone/The Monks Of St Bernard/Seven Daffodils/Hey Li Lee Li Lee/Headin' For The Hills/The Far Side Of The Hill/Rumania Rumania/Maderia M'Dear/Proschai)

McGuinn had made an impact and his name didn't go by un-noticed on the record sleeve and when fame came calling a second time he said 'yes' much quicker. This time the head-hunters were The Chad Mitchell Trio which McGuinn joined for two and a half years - for context twice the length that Gene Clark was in The Byrds. It was here that McGuinn turned his hand to composing for the first time (the middle section of 'Chestnut Mare' being generally accepted as his first work) but none of his songs made the two Mitchell albums he plays on. The first is the student-friendly live album 'Mighty Day On Campus' (Kapp Records, February 1962) which features a very short-haired 19-year-old McGuinn far right on the cover, a shot of the band walking away from Brooklyn College. Jim was a mere musician on this record, backing the trio of singers with guitar and banjo, but the wider space this leaves him gives you a much better chance to hear him and you can already hear...'something' of the folk-end of The Byrds sound without being quite able to put your finger on it. Given the times, this is a 'brave' record, full of 'comedy' tales about axe-murderers and the prohibition movement! Listen out too for 'Puttin' On Style' - no, not the skiffle song - especially, which is almost rock and roll in its adults-don't-get-us lyrics (McGuinn may have been the youngest band member but they're all in their early 20s). This record peaked in the US charts at #39, the first time one of The Byrds made the top 40. (Full track listing: Mighty Day/Rum By Gum/The Whistling Gypsy/Super Skier/Donna Donna Donna/Whup! Jamboree/Lizzie Borden/Tale Toddle/Johnnie/Puttin' On Style/Hang On The Bell Nellie/On My Journey).

McGuinn hung around for one more album with the trio, 'At The Bitter End' (Kapp Records, July 1962), another live record this time recorded at a club of the same name in Greenwich Village. McGuinn can again be seen on the cover, hidden away at the back, an embarrasing grin plastered over his face. This album is less broad, played to a smaller crowd who can hear the acoustics better and features less traditional material and more songs by 'contemporary' folkies like Woody Gurthie (seven years before The Byrds start covering his songs), although surprisngly perhaps no Pete Seeger (see 'Turn! Turn! Turn!') A bit of trivia for you though: this was one of fellwo AAA star Paul Simon's favourite records and he adored the Chad Mitchell (and McGuinn guitar) arrangement of 'Last Night I Had The Strangesat Dream' so much he and Garfunkel recorded it for their debut 'Wednesday Morning 3 AM'.  Many fans prefer this album, but for me the first is funnier and better performed. (Full track listing: The John Birch Society/Hello Susan Brown/The Unfortunate Man/Blues Around My Head/James James Morrison Morrison/The Great Historical Bum/Alberta/Moscow Nights/Come Along Home/You Can Tell The World/Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream). Incidentally many of the Chad Mitchell Trio's TV appearance with McGuinn backing them still survive and can at the time of writing be seen on The Byrds' Youtube channel - the future Roger looks both nervous and serious, as well as seriously young!

 While McGuinn said later that he loved most of his time with the band he flet restricted as just their guitar player and wanted to write and sing so once again he left to return to the coffee houses as a solo folkie act, briefly interrupted by a spell backing Bobby Darin who wanted to move away from rock and roll and into folk (sadly his ill health meant the project dwindled before the pair ever recorded anything together, although they did play live at a few gigs). Thereafter McGuinn really did become a solo act...which is where he met up with Gene Clark, then David Crosby and then eventually formed The Byrds...

David Crosby:

His future partner Crosby, meanwhile, came from a similar background, preferring the life of a solo folk artists who could play in coffee houses (interrupted by a brief fleeing from the law after getting his grilfriend pregnant with the son who later became a member of Crosby's group CPR...everything about Crosby winds up sounding like the plot of a soap opera!) However Crosby struggled to live off his meagre earnings and jumped at the chance to join Les Baxter's Balladeers. A more commercial, less serious group than The Chad Mitchell Trio, they even came with their own red uniform - which Crosby, predictably, hated and often refused to wear. The band only lasted long enough to make a handful of live recordings which came out on the rare various artists record which 'pretended' to tie in with the popular 'Hootenany' folk Tv programme thanks to the name and likeness of the presenter: 'Jack Linkletter Presents A Folk Festival' (Link Records, 1963). The band only sing four songs but unlike McGuinn, Crosby is very much audible on all of them, his distinctive high harmonies including 'Linnin' Track' (a rare early song by Fred Neil before he became famous - Crosby's future partner Stephen Stills will become a huge fan) and 'Baiion', an early example of Crosby's love of unusual jazz tunings. (The full track listing for the Balladeers: Ride Up-Lonesome Traveller/Midnight Special/Linnin' Track/Baiion (Banks Of The Ohio)'). Neither Crosby nor the Balladeers appear on the sleeve. Following these Crosby also made the solo folk recordings later heard on the 'Preflyte Sessions' credited to The Byrds (2001) and covered elsewhere in this book in greater detail.

Gene Clark:

Gene had perhaps the most interesting ride of all the pre-fame Byrds. Gene's first band was more of a rock combo, Joe Meyrs and The Sharks (Gene wad the guitarist and back-up singer) but like many school bands collapsed when the members left lower education and went their separate ways. The band did last long enough to revord a single, however, and it's significant that the B-side is the first known publioshed Clark song 'Blue Ribbon' - sadly if you know someone who says they've heard it then they're either incredibly rich or quite possibly lying and this recordings has yet to leak into thew hands of the general collector nor been granted an official release. Shockingly Gene was all of 14 when the song was recorded. His next bands The Rum Runners and The Surf Riders were more into folk, despite their unusual names and neither made any records. However they made a lot of friends, including The New Christy Minstrels who used the band as the support act during an appearance in Kansas' 'Castaway Club'.

The Minstrels were then at their commercial peak, with a hit single in 'Green, Green' released early in 1963 and were looking to build on their early repertoire (they started as a spin-off from the UK's Black and White Minstrel Show, though taqhnkfully without the blackface makeup). Always keen to add talent to the band, founder and lead writer Randy Sparks hired Gene to sing on the band's seasonal 1963 record 'Merry Christmas' (Columbia, November 1963), alongside his other new nsigning Barry McGuire, meaning that the first time Gene could be heard singing by the average man on the street was on a long line of Christmas songs - hardly befitting his later serious downbeat image! Not that you can really hear Gene properly, although I think I can detect him at the bottom of the group's sound here and there, usually holding his notes longer than the others and soaring off into the middle distance - good practice fort what's to come, actually. In fact this is quite an interesting festive album all round for the times, with Randy Sparks writing almost everything on an entirely original record - though none of the songs by their most junior member get a look in. Like many a Christmas record, this one was actually recorded in a heatwave, back in July! The front cover of the album features a three-tier sleigh full of the nine band members offering up presents - that's Gena t the bottom of the middle basket, caught halfway between a grin and looking as if he's about to be sick (note too that Gene is pictured on the cover of previous Minstrels LP 'Ramblin' hanging off the back of a train - his first professional photo, although he had merely joined the band in time for the cover shot and didn't actually appear on the album).(Meanwhile back to 'Christmas' - Full track listing: Beautiful City/Tell It On The Mountain/One Star/Christmas Wishes/The Shepherd Boy/Sing Hosanna Hallelujah!/ Sing Along With santa/It'll Be A Merry Christmas/Tell Me/A Christmas World/Parson Brown/Our Christmas Trees).

Gene stayed long enough to record a second, more normal album with The New Christy Minstrels, 'Land Of Giants' (Columbia, August 1964), a Johnny Cash-style 'concept' album about how the American workers living off the fat of the land are the true American patriots. Or something like that - in truth it jiust means another load of generic Randy Sparks song by earnest folkies in earnest voices without even the seasonal good cheer to get you through. Once again Gene is only a bit player but you can still tell it's him - or at least I think I can - every so often down the bottom of the band's singing spectrum. (Full track-listing: Land Of Giants/Joe Magarac/John Henry And The Steam Drill/Paul Bunyan/Casey Jones/Stormy/Mighty Big Ways/Mount Rushmore/Blacksmith Of Brandywine/Natural Man/Appleseed John/El Caminmo Real/My Name Is Liberty). In a sign of things to come, Gene found himself getting worn out by the constant touring, travelling and TV appearances (the Minstrels were busy boys - and girls, rivalling even the first year of The Byrds for hard work) and left the band to go solo, citing his fear of flying as his main reason for quitting. This bit rather rings a bell...

Chris Hillman:

It's a sign of how integral a part Hillman was to his first band 'The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers' that they ended up changing their name to 'The Hillmen' in honour of their 16-year-old star (who was still at school when he first joined them). Back in the early days, though, The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers released a hard-to-find LP 'Bluegrass Favourites' in 1962 (Crown Records), full of traditional covers that sound not unlike the recordings Chris will make at the other end of his career with The Desert Rose Band, the Rice Brothers and Herb Pedersen. There's certainly nothing from The Byrds there - not even the folk that will become a key part of their early sound and the label Crown were best known for selling their wares in places other than record shops (ie they sold to curious supermarkets and people after groceries rather than music lovers). For all that I rather like this album, though, with Hillman already a star on mandolin and of all The Byrds he's the one who looks most like himself on the album cover, standing bottom left a serious look on his short-haired face. This is quite a hard, fast paced album too, compared to the oh-so-slow folk albums the rest of the band did in their early days. There are no original songs, however and at just 18 minutes it seems there weren't that many bluegrass favourites oiut there people wanted to hear...(Ful track listing: Shady Grove/Home Sweet Home/Katie Cliner/Swamp Root/The Willow Tree/Hand Me Down My Walking Cane/Three Finger Breakdown/Cripple Creek/Crown Junction Breakdown/Reuben's Train).

Thereafter the band transformed into 'The Hillmen', the group losing some members but gaining future Flying Burrito Brother Bernie Leadon and brothers Vern and Rex Gosdin, who'll go on to get co-biling on Gene Clark's first 'solo' LP. Perhaps even more importantly the band also gain a new manager: Jim Dickson, who'll be so impressed with Chris in particular that he'll pit his name forward as bass player for his next band The Byrds - even though for now Chris is simply a mandpolin player. Chris also plays a more prominent role here, as can be guessed from the new band name, although despite all this effort the band's one and only album under their new moniker ('The Hillmen', Together Records) was never issued in their lifetime; instead it's one of the first things Chris worked on after leaving The Byrds in 1969 (before forming the Burritos) and was later re-issued again alongside Hillman's first album 'Morning Sky' for Sugar Hill Records in 1981. Chris stands second left on this cover, facing the camera much more in the band's distinctive uniform of black trousers, white shirts and half tuexedo jackets. This time around the Gosdin Brothers have already started writing and doing a bit of singing as well, while Hillman is quiet for now, making this a much more original - and longer - affair than the debut. Note too a coupkle of early Bob Dylan covers - the first ever made by one of the Byrds although they sound more bluegrass than folk-rock - the first appearance ofr 'Fair and Tenderr Ladies', a song later covered by future partner McGuinn. Somehow, though, it's all a bit stilted and not quite as enjoyable. (Full track listing: Brown Morning Light/Ranger's Command/ nSangaree/Bluegrass Chopper/Barbara Allen/Fair and Tender Ladies/Goin' Up/Wheel Hoss/When The Ship Comes In/Fare Thee Well/Winsborough Cotton Mill Blues/Priosner's Plea/Black Road Fever/Copper Kettle/Roll On Muddy River). With the non-appearance of the album, the band broke-up and Hillman was left to play some grudging solo shows - however thankfully he only had a year to wait before getting a call from his old manager that would change his life...

Kevin Kelley:

What a line-up this is ladies and gentleman: Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and a future Byrd drummer all in the same band together! It's a surprise, actually, that this band The Rising Sons didn't make more of a splash - they clearly had the talent, judging not just by the name but the rough and ready songs recorded in 1966 but left in the vaults for some 26 years (as 'The Rising Sons', out on Columbia/Legacy alongside the second batch of Byrds album re-issues in September 1992).The album is of most interest to fans of the future Taj Mahal and features several of his early blues favourites like 'Corrina Corrina' and 'Candy Man', although note the first appeareance of future Byrds covers 'Baby What Dpo You Want Me To Do?' and  'Tulsa County', recorded one and two albums on from Kelley's stint with the band respectively (did this era of the band jam them first? Erm, probably not, given how fully in control country-loving Gram Parsons is by then). There's even a Dylan cover, although chances are ';Walkin' Down The Line' is here mainly because the success of The Byrds in 1965 has made it almost inevitable in every young band's set (it may have helped that Kelley was Hillman's cousin). Kelley is very much a minor part of the proceedings but acquits himself well on yet another style alien to his natural work (I'd still love to hear him play on a 'rock' album, as he seems to have a real feel for it rather than blues as per here and country as per his one and only Byrds album). (Full track listing: Statesboro Blues/If The River Was Whiskey/ By and By/Candy Man/2:10 Train/Let The Good Times Roll/44th Blues/ 11th Street Overcrossing/Corrina Corrina/Tulsa County/Walkin' Down The Line/Girl With Green Eyes/Sunny's Dream/Spanish Lace Blues/The Devil's Got My Woman/Take A Giant Step/Flyin' So High/Dust My Broom/Last fair Deal Gone Down/Baby What You Want Me To Do?/Statesboro Blues Reprise/I Got A Little).

Clarence White:

Clarence was all of ten years old when he joined his family band The White Brothers on guitar playing country and bluegrass favourites. He's a little older on the 1960s recordings although still a mere 18-years-old on most of the ones that have come to light. By and large this band's recordings sound much like you'd expect: it's basically The Byrds' reportoire in their fainl days circa 1970-1972 with The Byrds hits taken out: fast and furious instrumentals and lots of shaky country cover songs. Like the fried chicken the band are jokingly named after (none of them are colonels, by the way, but they do come from Kentucky!) the first taste is glorious but becomes more and more nausteaing the further down the bucket of recordings you get. To date these records have been released a ridiculous amount of times in different covers and sometimes with unreleased songs and live recordings added from the vaults so we won't list then all or even the contents but we will list the titles and dates for you: 'The New Sound Of Bluegrass' (Briar, 1963), 'Appalachian Swing' (World Pacific,1964), 'The Kentucky Colonels' (United Artists, 1974), 'Livin' In The Past' (Briar, 1975), 'Kentucky Colonels' (Rounder, 1977), 'Still Livin' In The Past' (Briar, 1978), 'Live In L.A.' (Briar, 1978), 'Kentucky Colonels' (Shiloh, 1979), 'Clarence White and the Kentucky Colonels' (Rounder, 1980), 'On Stage' (Rounder, 1984) and 'Long Journey Home' (Vanguard, 1995). Of these the last is easily the best and - happily - the most readily available, with a longer set-listing and a deeper exploration of country and bluegrass music than the usual same old boring standards, although 'On Stage' is worth a listen too for the stilted brotherly banter as much as the precocious playing. None of these released is truly worthy of Clarence's reputation but you can tell well why he was already being seen as a 'star' and can already hear the different styles he's trying to gradually build into his act.

Skip Battin:

Most of Skip's releases came from his really early days pre-Byrds, dating back to the 1950s as part of the duo 'Skip and Flip' with friend Gary Paxton. Annoyingly to date there still hasn't been a decent collection of the pair's early hits, which seems strange because unlike some of the obscure records in our list that have become important simply because they feature future Byrds, these songs really were hits: 'It Was I' and 'Cherry Pie' both peaked at #11 on the Billboard charts - which incidentally means they did better than future Byrds singles 'Eight Miles High' and 'Chestnut Mare', albeit with rather more competition around by the sixties. Skip's first actual album is almost equally as hard to find, a record by a band given the very 'Skip' name 'The Evergreen Blueshoes' (and titled 'The Ballad Of The Evergreen Blueshoes'). By the time this album appeared (on the Amos/London label in 1969), Skip was an aging 35 and had already quit the music business twice. The band were knocked on the head after Skip was hired to join The Byrds at the end of the year, which on this evidence is something of a shame, for the band at least, as they have a nicely laidback psychedelic side that allows Skip's wackier ideas to bear full fruit without sounding as at out of place as with The Byrds. Primarily, though, they're a country-folk-rock band hybrid who very much modelled themselves on ears of The Byrds - probably a good reason why Skip was hired in the first place. Kim Fowley, Skip's writing partner, is also along for the ride even this early and the pair make a formiddable writing team on this album which is easily the most eclectic in this list of 'pre-fame' records, merging country picking with novelty folk songs and a cover of Johnny B Goode'. (Full track-listing: Life's Railway To Heaven/Walking Down The Line/Line Out/Amsterdam In 1968/Everything's Fine Right Now/Johnny B Goode/The Hedgehog Song/Mrs Cohen's Little Boy/Moon Over Mount Olympus/ Jewish Teahouse/The Evergreen Express)

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