In the early Sixties, Roger McGuinn had been playing with David Crosby and Gene Clark, billing themselves as the Beefeaters. When Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke joined that group in December 1964, they changed their name to the Byrds. Folk rock pioneers, the Byrds were once described by McGuinn as "Dylan meets the Beatles.” Fittingly, the group's first single, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” was written by Bob Dylan and reached Number One. They'd score another Number One hit in 1966 with "Turn! Turn! Turn!," based on a Bible passage set to music by Pete Seeger, but it was McGuinn's inspired reframing of a traditional folk song that made a poignant statement on 1965's Turn! Turn! Turn! album, transforming "He Was a Friend of Mine" into a eulogy for John F. Kennedy, two years after he was assassinated on November 22, 1963.
In 1965, the Byrds were charging forward, building their sound around the three-part harmonies of McGuinn, Clark and Crosby, and McGuinn's shimmering, jangling 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. Their album Turn! Turn! Turn! was released at the end of the year and its title track would go to Number One, but “He Was a Friend of Mine” remains among its most emotionally resonant moments. Dylan was singing a version of the song in the early Sixties, but the Byrds' version went in a different direction thanks to a significant reworking by McGuinn. Traditionally, “He Was a Friend of Mine” expresses grief following the death of a friend who died penniless, but McGuinn's new melody and lyrics candidly spoke about the Kennedy assassination: "He was in Dallas town / From a sixth floor window a gunner shot him down / He died in Dallas town / He never knew my name, he never knew my name / Though I never met him I knew him just the same / Oh, he was a friend of mine / Leader of a nation for such a precious time"
In The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited, McGuinn recalled: "I wrote the song the night John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I suppose you could say it's one of the earliest Byrds songs.”
The Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 and are featured in the Los Angeles Music Scene section of the Museum’s Cities and Sounds exhibit.