Fifty years ago, in 1964, a group of musicians – Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark – came together in Los Angeles, California, calling themselves the Beefeaters. By December of 1964, the Beefeaters had recruited Chris Hillman on bass guitar and Michael Clarke on drums, and changed their name to the Byrds. Far more than a name change, the group charted a new course in rock and roll history, pioneering the folk rock sounds that would become so emblematic of an era and influential generations later.
Folk rock didn't necessarily begin with the Byrds' "Mr Tambourine Man" – four months before they recorded it, the Animals were topping the pop charts with "The House of the Rising Sun" – but its combination of song and performance epitomized the genre, with the happy effect of giving Bob Dylan (as songwriter, at least) a Number One hit. The only Byrd playing on it, though, was electric 12-string guitarist McGuinn. Producer Terry Melcher, doubtful of the new band's abilities, hired session musicians to back up the vocals of McGuinn, Crosby and Clark. Perhaps Melcher had heard the group's originally private 1964 recording of the tune, which sounds like an arrangement for a music box. The Byrds recorded and released "Mr. Tambourine Man" neck and neck with Dylan's own (album-only) acoustic version.
"We didn't really like [the song] or even understand it at the time," bassist Chris Hillman later admitted. Their manager had pushed it on them. Its presence on mid-Sixties AM radio, however, indicated that the times, indeed, were a-changin'.
Elsewhere in Los Angeles, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, Dewey Martin and Bruce Palmer came together as Buffalo Springfield in 1966, taking their name from a heavy-machinery manufacturer. Their first album was released in 1967 and included “For What It’s Worth.” Stills wrote "For What It's Worth" following a L.A. police department crackdown on young people converging on Sunset Strip. The song soon became an anthem for civil rights advocates, antiwar protesters and anyone else who felt threatened by the paranoia beginning to grip mainstream America. While it helped unify the counterculture, the tune didn't have the same effect on its creators. Unable to handle success and conflicting egos, the group broke up only a year later.
With Stills done with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby out of the Byrds and Graham Nash exiting the Hollies, the musicians formed something of a folk-rock supergroup in 1969 with Crosby, Stills and Nash. Their first, self-titled album contained two hits: “Marrakesh Express” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” The latter featured the vocal harmonies and acoustic textures that would become the CSN trademark. The song, which Stills wrote about folk singer Judy Collins, shares two elements with many 1960s pop anthems: length (over seven minutes) and a cool guitar solo. The difference was the presence of acoustic guitars. Stills' lead vocal gives the song its emotional spine, but all three voices are integral to an ambitious arrangement that introduced the distinctive blend of Crosby and Nash with the very first lines. Stills opens the tune with a rhythmic guitar lick and adds an exotic raga-esque flavor to his lengthy solo. "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" turned heads as a vocal tour-de-force, while the song's vocal coda proved to be an enduring contribution to pop's great history of tuneful wordless singing. Decades later, in 2014, Crosby, Stills and Nash appeard on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, doing a sendup of Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" invoking the familiar coda of "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes."
Neil Young joined CSN for their second album, Déjà Vu, which sold seven million copies and included three hit singles: “Teach Your Children,” “Our House” and “Woodstock.” Crosby, Stills and Nash have continued to perform over the ensuing decades, sometimes with Young and sometimes without him.
The Beefeaters, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, Crosby, Still and Nash, and Neil Young are all among the artists featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio's Los Angeles collection, part of the Cities and Sounds exhibit. See it today!
Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
Check out this exclusive interview with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee Graham Nash: