For Clarence White (second from left), 1969 began with the release of his first album as a member of The Byrds, Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, and ended with the release of that album’s follow-up, Ballad Of Easy Rider. In between, the band played over 70 dates throughout the US, many of those gigs featuring multiple sets (early and late shows, e.g.).
Despite the heavy workload, White contributed to an eclectic number of sessions because in case you forgot, CW was a total badass. His first recording date of note in ’69 was with a young singer by the name of Linda Rondstadt. She was fresh off her stint with The Stone Poneys and was laying down tracks for her first solo album, Hand Sown…Home Grown, scheduled to be released in March. Where the Poneys were folkies that flirted with rock and pop, Rondstadt’s new batch of songs were essentially country music with rock musicians. In fact, this is probably the first country-rock album featuring a female lead singer. If anyone knows of a predecessor, I’d be curious to know what it is. Interesting, too, that in this groundbreaking era of country and rock co-mingling, Clarence White was again in the mix.
Linda Ronstadt – We Need A Whole Lot More Of Jesus
Aside from his signature nut pulls at 1:10 and 2:17, Clarence’s work is fairly subdued, at least relative to his pyrotechnics on Fillmore West (covered last time on Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Men: 1968-69. White’s lightning wouldn’t be entirely out of place on a Buck Owens record. What jumps out at me in this song is steel player, Red Rhodes, who streaks into the break at 1:26. It sounds like King Curtis wailing on a Coasters tune and the only other steel player in Los Angeles who wailed in a similar way was Sneaky Pete Kleinow, but Rhodes was less fuzz pedal and more space junk. And don’t worry, we’ll have more on Rhodes later.
In mid-April, Clarence and Gene Parsons entered the studio with The Everly Brothers, to record an absolute gem of a single: “I’m On My Way Home Again” b/w “Cuckoo Bird”. According to this Clarence White fan page, he and Parsons played all instruments. The drums and banjo are obviously Gene and I’d venture a guess that it’s him plucking away on bass. The various lead guitars are no doubt Clarence, but I’d be slightly surprised if all the acoustics were him. I say that because Phil and Don were no slouches on acoustic guitar, their propulsive strumming being a secret weapon on many of their early singles.
For Clarence, these songs indeed brought him home, as both recordings reconciled his rock guitar work with the bluegrass and old-timey sounds he cut his teeth on in The Kentucky Colonels. In that sense, he was mirroring to some degree what the Everlys accomplished in the late ’50s and early ’60s. I love his StringBender on “Cuckoo Bird,” especially the solo, as much for his virtuoso command of the instrument, as for the way he complements his own flatpicking on acoustic and electric guitar.
“I’m On My Way Home Again” seems to echo his earlier playing on “Time Between” and “Pushin’ Too Hard.” His Bender work isn’t particularly flashy, but the way it floats above the train beat chug of the acoustic guitar is awesome. On both songs, no note is wasted, the spacing between the many voices and instruments is perfect, this is certainly one of the era’s finest, if lesser known, country-rock moments. Following these sessions, Clarence would again work with the Everlys, but we’ll tell that story in due time.
On May 1, White re-entered the studio with Wynn Stewart and unleashed this firestorm of a performance. “Goin’ Steady” would appear on Wynn’s Yours Forever LP later that year, and like “Man, Man, Mr. Sandman” — which you can hear in my From Bakersfield To Byrdland: 1967-68 post — Clarence elevates what would probably be a rote honky-tonk song to absolute essentialness. His wild, syncopated playing, especially between :48-1:01 and 1:42-1:55, is stunning.
Equally memorable is the great Ralph Mooney on steel (1:00-1:28), Wynn’s steel player in the ’50s and early ’60s. As Merle Haggard has noted, “Wynn’s sound was what influenced Buck (Owens) and me both, and in a strange twist of fate, his band was the heart of the old (Lefty) Frizzell band. Roy Nichols was part of the Lefty band, and he went to Wynn Stewart and ran into Ralph Mooney, who played the steel, and they were the basis of the modern West Coast sound.”
“He was just one of the most innovative players around. He always used the right notes. It seems like everybody who starts out (playing guitar) tends to slug measures with thousands of notes, but the older and more seasoned you get, the more you tend to underplay it. Clarence did just that and his sense of timing was just amazing.”
—Chris Hillman to Rick Petreysik, “Echoes of a Country Rock Legend,” Guitar Player, September 1992, page 82
SING ME BACK HOME
June was a busy month for Clarence. In addition to nine dates in California and one in New York City, sessions for the next Byrds album commenced in earnest. He also had time to sit in with some friends whose band he was once asked to join. The Flying Burrito Brothers (pictured above) released their debut album, The Gilded Palace Of Sin, in February and clearly the record-buying public was so awestruck by the visionary effort that they didn’t buy the album out of a sense of unworthiness. Well, either that or it was ahead of its time. Thus, the “Cult of Gram” was pretty much restricted to a handful of west coast clubs, like The Palomino Club in North Hollywood, the same honky-tonk where The Reasons once held court. That’s where Clarence hooked up with the Burritos following a Byrds gig at what is now John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, but in 1969 was known as Pilgrimage Theatre.
Flying Burrito Brothers – Sing Me Back Home
The Palomino, North Hollywood
June 9, 1969
Flying Burrito Brothers – Sing Me Back Home
In the quote above, Hillman says Clarence “always used the right notes.” While that is basically correct, it’s also misleading. Clarence’s genius, especially evident on stage, was that he used notes no one expected to be right. It’s one thing to play a solo, even a great solo, that’s essentially a variation on a song’s basic melody. However, White was so fearless and unpredictable in his musicality that he freely took off on explorations other guitarists — including many great players — wouldn’t have the imagination (or balls, let’s be honest) to undertake. It’s at these moments, when he was operating without a net, where his genius was truly revealed. The solo following the first chorus (1:35-2:15) is almost violent in its delivery, threatening to secede from the band, and yet CW falls back into line at the turnaround into the second verse, and in a new key! Throughout the rest of the song, he adds colors and accents that occasionally sound like surgical strikes on the Palomino audience, especially that juke-and-jive from 2:49-2:57.
Two weeks after sitting in at The Palomino, Clarence’s audience increased by 50,000ish when The Byrds played the final day of the Newport Pop Festival in Northridge, California. The festival, known informally as “Newport ’69,” was held at Devonshire Downs, at the time a racetrack, but now part of the Cal State Northridge campus. As it happens, rare (albeit brief) video footage of The Byrds set has been unearthed and uploaded, so please enjoy this priceless historical artifact:
Byrds – Newport ’69
June 22, 1969
Newport took place on the weekend following the initial sessions for Ballad Of Easy Rider (pictured below), the album that reunited the band with new manager and former producer, Terry Melcher. It was an obvious attempt to appease their old fanbase by theoretically tapping into the old mojo. Did it work? Well, it was their highest charting album in the U.S. since Younger Than Yesterday, it sounded far better upon release than had Dr. Byrds, and like every Byrds album to this point, there’s a few undeniable classics. However, given the high quality of material left unused, I can’t help but feel that Ballad represents a lost opportunity to better redefine the band. And ultimately, responsibility for that loss has to be laid at the feet of the bandleader. With sympathetic production from Melcher and the other three band members putting forth solid efforts, it’s upon McGuinn’s shoulders that any blame must be hoisted.
WAY BEYOND THE SUN
The released version of this traditional gospel tune features KILLER guitar from Clarence, heavy drums and bass, and good vocal harmonies, so it would seem to be a natural fit here. Unfortunately, I don’t think the arrangement really works. It’s arranged like it can’t decide whether it wants to be the Stanley Brothers or Chambers Brothers and listlessly falls somewhere between. The alternate version, by contrast, picks up the tempo and allows the music to support the voices, two decisions that better serve the song and would’ve, in turn, better served the album.
Incidentally, “Oil” is generally credited as Clarence’s first lead vocal with The Byrds, but I’m not sure that’s entirely correct. That is, I’m not sure there is a lead singer. He may be slightly higher in the mix, but there’s never a point where he and Gene aren’t harmonizing, and with overdubs, I’m guessing there’s never fewer than four vocals going at one time.
On June 23, the day after The Byrds played Newport, Clarence laid down perhaps his two finest guitar performances from the Ballad sessions. And symbolic of the curious decision-making that went into the record’s sequencing, both tracks were omitted. I still find it slightly bewildering that “Jack Tarr The Sailor” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” merited inclusion, but these songs were tossed in the afterthought pile. “Build It Up” is a Parsons-White instrumental that sounds like it’s singlehandedly trying to create the prog-tonk genre. Clarence’s heavily syncopated guitar picking fuses wonderfully with Gene’s syncopated drum beats, while York’s burly bassline holds down the bottom end.
“Way Beyond The Sun” (a.k.a. “Way Behind The Sun”) was a traditional blues number sung by York and was a regular part of the band’s set at the time. While it sounds like it’s not quite finished, it’s another great showcase for Clarence’s versatility. It sounds like it’s hinting at the kind of song Jerry Reed and Albert Lee perfected, country-blues slathered in a mess of gravy and chicken pickin. Again, how is this song not good enough to make the cut? Who knows.
A month later, The Byrds recorded my favorite song on Ballad, Pam Polland’s wistful classic, “Tulsa County.” While I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone preferring the released version because of Byron Berline‘s fiddle playing, I’m not sure the song needs fiddle. The alternate version sung by York captures the simple beauty of “Tulsa,” with Clarence’s StringBender wizardry and John and Roger’s vocal harmonies the only embellishments needed.
Byrds – Mae Jean Goes To Hollywood
Byrds – Mae Jean Goes To Hollywood
By comparison, Berline’s fiddle is an essential component of “Mae Jean Goes To Hollywood,” Jackson Browne’s great hoedown inexplicably left in the can. That the track fades out just as Berline and White get ready to jam only adds insult to injury. Why do The Byrds hate me???
Whatever your opinions on Ballad Of Easy Rider, I think, at worst, it’s a good album with several top-notch songs. And I’m sure we can all agree that Clarence’s playing is above reproach. In this video, York, Parsons, and a critic who looks like a Bond villain discuss the making and fallout of The Byrds’ eighth studio album.
Ballad Of Easy Rider – An Overview
Though unmentioned in the video, having Skip Battin replace John York in The Byrds in late ’69 was strangely congruous. In the late ’50s, Battin was part of the duo Skip & Flip, who charted with doo-wop-influenced pop songs like “It Was I” (click for YouTube) and “Cherry Pie” (click for YouTube). Flip was the pseudonym of Clarence’s former boss at Bakersfield International, Gary S. Paxton. Small world, this LA country-rock scene. Then again, aren’t they all?
PICKIN’ ‘EM OFF WITH THIS GUN OF MINE
The following songs were all recorded in 1969, but until they remove the restraining order and let me search through the studio logs, the dates will be nothing more than guesses. Considering that The Byrds hit the road in earnest after Ballad‘s release in late October, I’d be surprised if any of these were recorded after that. So, I’m going with mid-to-late 1969 until someone definitively tells me otherwise.
Released in October, almost simultaneous with Ballad, was the new single by Clarence’s old buddy and former bandmate, Gib Guilbeau. A cover of Johnny Cash’s Sun single, “Home Of The Blues,” the song boasted all four Reasons, as well as Red Rhodes on steel guitar, and possibly Glen D. Hardin on piano.
Featuring Clarence’s jaw-dropping intro riff, “Home Of The Blues” was backed with CCR’s “Lodi,” and is one of the obscure country-rock gems from this era. Sadly, its obscurity stems from the fact that it was released on a label (Strawberry Records) that even the principals involved might have trouble remembering. Too bad, because White’s StringBender work is exemplary, especially in concert with Rhodes’ steel parts.
Speaking of Rhodes (pictured below right), like Clarence he was a hired gun on Notorious Byrd Brothers, though they didn’t actually play together. Rhodes also designed the fuzz box that Clarence played through and his impact on White’s gear at this time may have been more significant.
According to the same Clarence White fan page linked above, “After recording the Ballad Of Easy Rider album, the neck pickup was replaced by one from a Strat. It may have been rewound by Red Rhodes who was a well known Steel player in California as well as being an amplifier expert. Red rewound the neck pickup which may have included an extra boost coil. There a number of theories about Clarence’s pickups and how he changed them but not much has been confirmed. It seems that he used Red’s Velvet Hammer pickups for some time.”
Johnny Darrell – These Days
Johnny Darrell – These Days
Johnny Darrell was kind of a proto-outlaw country singer positioned somewhere between the amiable outsiderness of a Bobby Bare and the feisty rebellion of a Merle Haggard — though he couldn’t sing as well as either. In mid-1969, he recorded the album, California Stop-Over, for United Artists. The first track on the album was “These Days,” another Jackson Browne song, and one of the album’s highlights. CW’s accompaniment reminds me a bit of Lowell George’s great road tune, “Willin’.” That might not be coincidental, as Stop-Over includes the first released version of “Willin’,” as well as that Browne song The Byrds passed on, “Mae Jean Goes To Hollywood.”
Joe Cocker – Dear Landlord
Joe Cocker – Dear Landlord
Joe Cocker’s second LP led off with this Bob Dylan track and it’s propelled by the combined forces of White and Sneaky Pete Kleinow (pictured left), both men mixed all the way over in the right channel. They turn that segregation into a virtue by deftly trading leads, especially in the instrumental break (1:27-2:07) and outro (2:40-end). As far as Dylan covers go, this is one of the more underrated efforts, especially considering that Clarence was in a band that specialized in said covers.
The cornerstone track on Arlo Guthrie’s third record, Running Down The Road, “Los Angeleeez” also features some of Clarence’s most spectacular playing. Again panned into the right channel, White swoops, swerves, and strafes, wielding his StringBender like a machine gun, and giving the song about a transatlantic dope smuggler a needed sense of urgency. In fact, given the subject matter, this could’ve been titled, “Drug Store Plane Flyin’ Man.” As if that weren’t enough, CW’s mentor, James Burton, is holding down the left channel. Talk about heavyweight guitar talent! Thanks to Michael Varhol for the heads up.
The album where Randy Newman became Randy Newman, it again features White and Cooder on guitar (though not on this particular recording), and is the third track in this list produced by Lenny Waronker, who helmed the Arlo and Everly tunes. “Kentucky” also features Gene Parsons on drums, though I’m guessing the lyrical reference to Brother Gene being big and mean is purely coincidental and not a reflection of Parsons’ in-studio demeanor. For an artist who specialized in satirical narrative, the decision to employ the talents of White and Parsons was inspired. They bring the honky and the tonk to bear on this amusing tale of white trash alcoholica.
NEXT TIME: AS YET UNTITLED
Clarence again hits the road with the newly reconstituted Byrds and the band offers its greatest sustained year of live performance. There’s the usual session badassery and, as always, a bevy of surprises both acoustic and electric. Please stay tuned.