While Gene Clark will always be best known for his short stint as lead singer for the Byrds from 1964 to 1966, he also carved out a quixotic career that saw the singer/songwriter seeking success in a variety of settings in the years that followed.
He made psychedelic pop singles in the mid-'60s, helped invent country-rock with 1968's Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers album, then teamed with Doug Dillard in the late '60s to make two records that served as a blueprint for Americana. In the '70s, Clark made a pair of solo albums that cemented his place as a visionary singer/songwriter -- the starkly acoustic White Light in 1971 and the slickly baroque No Other three years later -- then continued to make records, both solo and reteaming with members of the Byrds. A late-career highlight was the duet album he cut in 1987 with the Textones' Carla Olson titled So Rebellious a Lover. Through it all and in every setting, Clark's clear and true vocals, his poetic turns of phrase, and his skill at weaving melancholy melodies never wavered. Though small in comparison to many of his contemporaries, his body of work is impressive and, long after his passing in 1991, has remained influential to each new generation of jangle pop artists who followed in his wake.
Gene Clark was born in Tipton, Missouri, in 1944. Clark's father was an amateur musician with a passion for country music that rubbed off on young Gene; he began learning the guitar at age nine and was soon picking out Hank Williams tunes, as well as material by early rockers such as Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. Before long, Clark started writing his own songs, and at 13 he cut his first record with a local rock & roll combo, Joe Meyers & the Sharks, but Clark developed an interest in folk music after the Kingston Trio rose to popularity. Clark began performing with several folk groups working out of Kansas City, which led to a more lucrative position with the New Christy Minstrels, a well-scrubbed folk-pop ensemble who scored a hit single with "Green Green." However, Clark longed to perform his own songs and didn't care for life on the road; after hearing the Beatles for the first time, Clark decided he wanted to form a rock band and he quit the New Christy Minstrels and moved to Los Angeles. There, he met a fellow folkie who had his head turned around by the Beatles, Jim McGuinn (who would later change his name to Roger), and in 1964 they started assembling a band that would, in time, come to be known as the Byrds.
Gene Clark quickly became the Byrds' dominant songwriter, penning most of their best-known originals, including "Feel a Whole Lot Better," "Here Without You," and "Eight Miles High," and was one of the group's strongest vocal presences. However, Clark's less-than-impressive skills as a guitarist often made him look like a backing vocalist on-stage, and the combination of Clark's dislike of traveling (including a fear of flying) and resentment that his songwriting income made him the best-paid member of the group led to tensions within the Byrds, and in 1966 Clark opted to leave the group. Columbia Records, the label the Byrds recorded for, signed Clark as a solo artist, and in 1967 he released his first solo set, Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers, a pioneering fusion of country and rock. However, Clark's album was released almost simultaneously with the Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday, and Clark's set was a commercial bust. With the future of his solo career in doubt, Clark briefly rejoined the Byrds in 1967, but by the end of the year he once again parted ways with the group.
In 1968, Clark signed with A&M Records and, once again following his interest in blending country with rock, he began a collaboration with virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Doug Dillard. Dillard & Clark recorded a pair of fine albums for A&M, but they fared no better at the marketplace than Clark's efforts with the Gosdin Brothers, and in 1969 Clark began work on his first proper solo album, recording a pair of tracks with several members of the Byrds. However, legal problems prevented their release at the time, and it wasn't until 1971 that a Gene Clark solo set finally emerged, entitled White Light. A strong, primarily acoustic set, White Light sold poorly in America but was an unexpected hit in the Netherlands. Clark's next album, Roadmaster, combined new material with the unreleased 1969 tracks cut with the Byrds; while it was a strong album, A&M chose not to release it and it was initially available only in Holland. Clark left A&M just in time for the Byrds to cut a reunion album with their original lineup; Clark contributed a pair of fine songs to the project, "Full Circle" and "Changing Heart," but most of the album sounded uninspired and the reunion quickly splintered.
In 1974, Clark signed to Asylum Records and cut the polished but heartfelt No Other. Clark, however, had hoped to release the set as a double album, which did not please labelhead David Geffen, and the album stalled in the marketplace without promotion. In 1977, Clark returned with a new album, Two Sides to Every Story, and put his fear of flying on hold to mount an international tour to promote it. For his British dates, Clark found himself booked on a tour with ex-ByrdsRoger McGuinn and Chris Hillman; audiences were clearly hoping for a Byrds reunion and while the three men had planned nothing of the sort, they didn't want to let down their fans and played a short set of Byrds hits as an encore for several dates on the tour. This led the three men to begin working up new material together once they returned to America, and in 1978 they began touring as McGuinn, Clark & Hillman. After a well-received acoustic tour, the trio signed a major deal with Capitol Records and released their self-titled debut in 1979. However, the slick production (designed to make sure the group didn't sound too much like the Byrds) didn't flatter the group, and the album was a critical and commercial disappointment. Clark soon became disenchanted with the project, and on their second album, 1980's City, the billing had changed to Roger McGuinn & Chris Hillman, with Gene Clark. By 1981, Clark had left and the group briefly continued on as McGuinn/Hillman.
After splitting with McGuinn and Hillman, Clark stayed on the sidelines of music for several years, assembling a band called Flyte that failed to score a record deal. Clark finally re-emerged in 1984 with a new band and album called Firebyrd; the rising popularity of jangle rockers R.E.M. sparked a new interest in the Byrds, and Clark began developing new fans among L.A.'s roots-conscious paisley underground scene. Clark appeared as a guest on an album by the Long Ryders, and in 1987 he cut a duo album with Carla Olson of the Textones called So Rebellious a Lover. So Rebellious was well-received and became a modest commercial success (it was the biggest-selling album of Clark's solo career), but Clark began to develop serious health problems around this time; he had ulcers, aggravated by years of heavy drinking, and in 1988 he underwent surgery, during which much of his stomach and intestines had to be removed.
Clark also lost a certain amount of goodwill among longtime Byrds fans when he joined drummer Michael Clarke for a series of shows billed as A 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Byrds. Many clubs simply shortened the billing to the Byrds, and Clarke and Clark soon found themselves in an ugly legal battle with Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and Chris Hillman over use of the group's name. The Byrds set aside their differences long enough to appear together at their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in January of 1991, where the original lineup played a few songs together, including Clark's "Feel a Whole Lot Better."
However, Clark's health continued to decline as his drinking accelerated, and on May 24, 1991, not long after he had begun work on a second album with Carla Olson, Gene Clark died, with the coroner declaring he succumbed as a result of "natural causes" brought on by a bleeding ulcer. After his passing, Clark's music was consistently reissued and many collections of rarities were released. Arriving in 1991, Echoes rounded up his '60s records made for Columbia, while 1998's Flying High was a career-spanning collection of his work. And during the 2010s, two sets put out by Omnivore rescued very rare tracks from the vaults: first came Here Tonight: The White Light Demos in 2013; then two demo sessions Clark cut soon after he left the Byrds were reissued under the title Gene Clark Sings for You in 2018. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi