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. He was the Byrds’ principal songwriter between 1964 and early 1966, writing 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“, “Eight Miles High” and “Set You Free This Time“. Although he did not achieve commercial success as a solo artist, Clark was in the vanguard of popular music during much of his career, prefiguring developments in such disparate subgenres as psychedelic rock, baroque pop, newgrass, country rock, and alternative country.
Clark was born in Tipton, Missouri, the third of 13 children in a family of Irish, German, and American Indian heritage. His family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where as a boy he began learning to play the guitar and harmonica from his father. 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 songs at the age of 11.
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, and he recorded two albums with the ensemble before leaving in early 1964. After hearing the Beatles, Clark quit the New Christy Minstrels and moved to Los Angeles, where he met fellow folkie and Beatles convert Jim (later Roger) McGuinn at the Troubadour Club. In early 1964 they began to assemble a band that would become the Byrds.
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 initially played rhythm guitar in the band, but relinquished that position to David Crosby and became the tambourine and harmonica player. Bassist Chris Hillman noted years later in an interview remembering Clark, “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 gave McGuinn the lead vocals 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 album, Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers. The Gosdin Brothers were selected to back him because they shared the same manager, Jim Dickson, and because 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 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 because of his 18-month absence from public attention) 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; following an anxiety attack in Minneapolis, he left after only three weeks. During this brief period with the Byrds, he appeared with the band on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, lip-synching the group’s current single, “Goin’ Back“; he also performed “Mr. Spaceman” with the band. 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” for the forthcoming Byrds’ album The Notorious Byrd Brothers and was an uncredited co-author, with McGuinn, of “Get to You”, also from that album.
In 1968, Clark signed with A&M Records and began a collaboration with the banjo player Doug Dillard. Guitarist Bernie Leadon (later with The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Eagles), bassist Dave Jackson and mandolinist Don Beck joined them to form the nucleus of Dillard & Clark; in addition, Michael Clarke briefly drummed for the group before joining The Flying Burrito Brothers.They produced two albums, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark (1968) and Through the Morning, Through the Night (1969).