BYRDWATCHER: A Field Guide to the Byrds of Los Angeles
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GENE CLARK
The Early Years: 1957-1964


Gene Clark Discography

Gene Clark Bibliography


1944:
Throughout his career, Clark's official bio gave his year of birth as 1941; only after his death did it become generally known that Clark was actually three years younger than previously reported. The age discrepancy may stem from the fact that he was only 18 when he was hired by the New Christy Minstrels; he may have decided his life would be simpler if he were 21. It may even predate that period, since he was apparently performing in clubs before his 18th birthday.





On November 17, 1944, Harold Eugene Clark was born in Tipton, Missouri, a town of about two thousand souls 75 miles from Jefferson City. Clark came from a large family, with twelve siblings, all younger. Clark's father was a music lover, and an avid amateur guitarist. As a child living in Missouri, and then on a family farm in Bonner Springs, Kansas, Clark heard plenty of country and bluegrass during his childhood. He got his first guitar around age nine, and immediately began making up songs for his own amusement. As a young boy, Clark enjoyed Hank Williams and other country musicians, but in his early teen years, he was, like McGuinn and Hillman, galvanized by Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, and other early rockers.


Joe Meyers & the Sharks

Clark's musical career began early. By age 13, he was performing with some fellow students as Joe Meyers & the Sharks. That year, the band recorded one of his songs, a love ballad called "Blue Ribbon," for a local label. The 45 earned them some regional airplay, and the song was played on a television show -- heady stuff for a thirteen-year-old.


The Surf Riders

By the late '50s, Clark, like McGuinn, had grown away from rock and roll and discovered folk music, then enjoying a commercial boom after the success of the Kingston Trio in 1958. Clark's next group was a band called the Rum Runners. Later he formed a new group with Jimmy Glover and Michael Crumm. Despite the dearth of waves on the Missouri River, their band was dubbed the Surf Riders. The Surf Riders weren't a surf music act at all -- the trio sounded like the Kingston Trio, not the Beach Boys or the Ventures. Their name, like the name "the Rum Runners," was intended to evoke images of island life and calyspo music, which at that time was a regular part of the repertoire of folk acts like Harry Belafonte and the Tarriers. The Surf Riders played regularly at a Kansas City club called (for similar reasons) Castaways, and quickly became a popular draw in Kansas City.
In June of 1963, Gene Clark had his first big break. Randy Sparks and a couple members of his popular folk group the New Christy Minstrels came into Castaways to check out the Surf Riders. Sparks was sufficiently impressed that he offered the 18-year-old Clark a spot in the group. Glover and Crumm were also invited to California, where Sparks intended to add them to a sort of farm team for the Minstrels that would eventually be called the Back Porch Majority.


The New Christy Minstrels

The New Christy Minstrels were a group of nine male and female singers who delivered highly-polished versions of folk songs, generally avoiding political material and sticking with a pop vocal style. By the time Clark was hired, the group had released three albums on Columbia, all of which reached the US Top 30. The Minstrels appeared regularly on the popular television variety show hosted by Andy Williams during the 1962-63 TV season, and by June of 1963, were, along with Peter, Paul & Mary, one of the most commercially successful acts of the folk music boom.
Until recently, Gene Clark's tenure with the group was obscure, presumably because of the group's lack of street credibility with both the rock audience and the folk music purists who tend to make up the music press. Christy biographer Tom Pickles shed some welcome light on this phase of Clark's development with a lengthy profile in a recent issue of the Byrdzine Full Circle. The Pickles piece resolves a few mysteries and dispels a number of long-standing misconceptions about Clark's stint with the group.
Founder and impresario Randy Sparks hired Clark to replace the young Doug Brookins, who had been hastily recruited to replace Dolan Ellis only a month before. Ellis had been a featured vocalist in many of the group's numbers before his departure in April of '63. (It was Ellis who suggested that Sparks check out the Surf Riders.) Sparks was unhappy with Brookins and needed a replacement quickly; the group had just released their single "Green, Green," which looked likely to be a hit single, and the album Ramblin' (Columbia, 1963) was ready for release in August. The group had a full schedule of upcoming tour dates and TV appearances in support of the single and the new album, and recording dates for other releases were also planned.
Right away, Clark entered the studio with the Minstrels to record the song "The Wheeler Dealers," which was released in October of '63 as the B-side of "Saturday Night." ("The Wheeler Dealer" was on the soundtrack of a James Garner film by the same name.) In July, the group returned to the studio to record Merry Christmas (Columbia, 1963), which was released in November. On that first B-side, Clark was briefly featured, but on most of his other recording sessions with the group, he was relegated to the background. According to Pickles, the young country boy was never assertive enough to push for a more prominent part. As a result, he never stepped into the limelight that his predecessor Ellis had occupied.
"Green, Green" peaked at #14 on the Billboard singles chart in July and received heavy airplay throughout the fall of '63. With Clark, the Christies recorded German and Spanish versions of the song in August and September. They also recorded the single "Saturday Night" that September. That single was released in October and peaked at Number 29 in November.
In December, the group recorded the album Land of Giants (Columbia, 1964). This project was held in reserve until August of 1964, several months after Clark's departure. In January, the group recorded sessions for another album, Today (Columbia, 1964). According to Pickles, Clark was apparently among the members who missed the sessions due to colds. Ironically, his old bandmate Mike Crumm (aka Crowley) was brought in from the Back Porch Majority to fill in for absent Christies, and actually soloed twice on the album.
On January 14, 1964, seven months of constant touring culminated with an appearance at the White House before new President Lyndon Johnson. But in early 1964, Clark began to chafe in the Minstrels. His role in the group was clearly subordinate, and there was no prospect of the Minstrels singing any of his compositions. Clark was unhappy with the group's pop approach to the its material. And after a demanding schedule of live and TV appearances, Clark had developed the fear of flying and the aversion to road life in general that would periodically plague him throughout the rest of his career. Pickles adds that Sparks was disenchanted with Clark's performance in the group, that he had already lined up Clark's replacement, and that Clark was aware of his impending dismissal.* Then, when the Minstrels were on tour through Canada, Clark heard the Beatles sing "She Loves You."
The song haunted Clark. Soon after hearing it in Canada, Clark stumbled on it again in a jukebox in Norfolk, Virginia, along with "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Overcome with enthusiasm, Clark listened to the songs over and over. It was an epiphany: "I knew, I knew, that this was the future, this was where music was going and that I wanted to be a part of it."* Soon after, in late February of 1964, Clark left the Christies. Clark always claimed to have quit; Sparks says he was fired.
Clark headed to LA to check out the local clubs. One night he showed up at the Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard and heard Jim McGuinn singing "You Can't Do That."



The story of the Byrds will be chronicled in detail in the forthcoming Byrds History Section; the following Chapter, Gene Clark, With the Byrds: 1964-1966 discusses Clark's role in the band.



Notes

Sparks was disenchanted..." Pickles at 21.

"I knew..." Griffin, Echoes at 3.


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Band Members | Gene Clark | 1957-1964

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