You’d be hard pressed to find anyone on the music press who didn’t like The Byrds. The first time I saw them was at the Bath Festival in the summer of 1970 when wet weather forced them to play an acoustic set, and I saw them again at the Fairfield Hall in Croydon on Thursday May 6, 1971, for which Clarence White wore the snazziest Nudie jacket I’d ever seen.
I had always wanted to meet Roger McGuinn, the chief Byrd, and my friend Peter Philbin, now the head press honcho at Columbia International, obliged by driving me out to Roslyn in Long Island to finally meet him in early May of 1974. Afterwards we took in his show at My Father’s Place, a great club nearby that held about 400, and where entry was just two dollars and beer less than 50 cents a glass, cheap by New York standards.
“It’s a far cry from the Byrds’ flights across America in their heyday when they could be expected to fill the massive basketball arenas,” I wrote in MM. “McGuinn isn’t even carrying his own PA system, preferring to rely on that provided by the club rather than pay expensive air freight charges for his own gear. He’s just got a couple of guitars, a banjo, a Pignose amp and some electronic gadgetry that makes one guitar sound like three.”
Dressed in denim with his long, straggly hair parted in the centre, Roger turned out to be a quiet, thoughtful and dignified fellow, friendly enough and happy to discuss the demise of the group he had led since 1964, the year they recorded their magnificent electrified version of Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. “McGuinn’s strange vocal inflections, that distinctive Rickenbacker chime and the sumptuous harmonies all contributed to a record that sounded unlike anything I had ever heard before,” wrote my friend Johnny Rogan in his definitive biography of the group. “It was almost as powerful as hearing ‘Heartbreak’ when I was about four years old.”Now the architect of that remarkable record was sat opposite me on a double bed in an unremarkable Holiday Inn hotel room, telling me all about the group’s demise and defending his decision to perform Byrds classics as a solo performer. “I feel just as qualified to sing the Byrds’ songs as anyone else,” he said. “I was one of the writers on ‘Eight Miles High’ and I feel the same about the Dylan songs. I changed the timing on them and it was my idea for the Byrds to do their versions of them in the first place.”
It had been McGuinn’s decision to finally disband the group the previous year. At this time the original Byrds had got back together to make the album for Elektra/Asylum, and he didn’t want two sets of Byrds on the market – the originals and the newest variation. “It would have been ludicrous to have two Byrds with two albums out at the same time, so I thought it would be best to have the original group and nothing else. There was talk of the original band going out but it wasn’t warranted by the number of album sales on that record. It didn’t sell well at all. I was unhappy about that but in retrospect I can see why the general public didn’t like it.
“It was a bit of an anti-climax, and the last version of the Byrds was the same. Some combinations of musician that made up the Byrds were OK and some weren’t. The last band wasn’t to my liking. Clarence [White] and I fired each other as a joke, but nobody had the right to fire me as I was the leader and I’d fired everybody else by that time anyway.
“The very last dates we did were with Clarence and I, and Chris Hillman and Joe Lala for one weird weekend. The last gig under the Byrds name was with this line-up at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, so we really fizzled out. It was terrible, musically. Chris thought he knew how to do all those old songs, but I’d changed them a lot by this time so the result was awful.”
McGuinn had lost count of the number of different line-ups the Byrds went through. To his mind the best performing band was the version with Clarence White, Skip Battin and Gene Parsons, and the best recording band the original line-up with himself, Hillman, David Crosby, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke, which he hopes will record another album sooner or later.
“Maybe that’ll be an anti-anti-climax. It couldn’t be worse than the last one. That one came out on the Asylum label because David [Crosby] was on Asylum and he was calling the shots and had the most power. Asylum were prepared to give us more money than Columbia, too, so it didn’t make any sense not to go with Asylum.”
Although Roger had told me that his solo act was a cross between new material and old songs that were associated with the Byrds, in actual fact his show that night was 90 per cent Byrds material, with only three new songs. First he played acoustic guitar, then banjo for one number, and then turned to the electric Rickenbacker 12-string that was his trademark in earlier days. With the aid of his electronic gadgets, he produced a whining, droning guitar sound that managed to cover up for the sparse instrumentation.
“It was, however, rather a patchy performance,” I wrote. “The material made up for this – everyone likes hearing those old Byrds hits – and one and all, myself included, had a whale of an evening. Surprisingly, he attempted a solo version of ‘Eight Miles High’, perhaps most electric of Byrds songs. And there were a host of others – ‘Tambourine Man’, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, ‘Easy Rider’, ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’, ‘Fifth Dimension’, ‘Chestnut Mare’, ‘My Back Pages’, ‘So You Wanna Be A Rock and Roll Star’ and ‘Mr. Spaceman’.
“McGuinn was seated for the performance and offered deadpan introductions. The polite claps turned to cheers and he wound up doing around four encores; it was the atmosphere that the grand old Byrd created, rather than the musical output, that made the evening such a success.
“Inevitably it was the old songs that the crowd were rooting for, and they got what they wanted,” I wrote. “At the end he seemed genuinely moved by the ovation which was surely intended as an appreciation of his career as much as for the evening’s performance.”
Earlier in the year, back in the UK, the ruggedly-handsome country singer Charlie Rich had enjoyed hits with ‘’The Most Beautiful Girl’ and ‘Behind Closed Doors’ and this prompted MM’s editor Ray Coleman to request I interview him. Like McGuinn, he was on Columbia and their ever-obliging press department informed me he was playing at Disney World in Florida. Did I fancy a trip a trip to the Sunshine State and a couple of nights in the hotel on the resort complex? Of course I did.
My companion this time was Mike O’Mahoney, the same CBS PR who’d introduced me to Bruce Springsteen earlier in the year, and when we arrived at the Century Hotel he asked for a suite which was duly served up: two huge bedrooms with en suite bathrooms linked by a vast lounge, dining, bar and kitchen area, the sort of hotel room you could settle in for a year. It was, in fact, the best accommodation in the entire hotel and Charlie was not best pleased when he dropped by for our interview. Evidently, he had a slightly smaller suite on the floor below.
“At 41, he’s a distinguished-looking man,” I wrote. “His silver hair – natural, by the way – and his large physique reminded me of that great cowboy Hopalong Cassidy. He has a lived-in look, a face that’s seen much in the last twenty years, and retained I all. He looks tough, but is really a gentle giant. His appeal lies as a father figure but teenage girls actually screamed at him during his performance.Charlie was happy to run through his career for the benefit of MM’s readers, recall a few anecdotes of working at Sun Records which, like Elvis, he left for RCA. Then came Epic, part of Columbia, and success after well over a decade’s worth of effort. During that time, of course, he had changed his style a lot, beginning as a rock’n’roller but gradually moving over to country simply because he prefers it.
Three hours after our chat, a 5,000-strong audience was gathered around Cinderella’s castle in the heart of Disney World awaiting Charlie’s arrival on stage. Over the weekend he was contracted to play six shows, three each afternoon at 2.30, 4.00 and 6.30, but it turned out his throat was bad, so he did one on the Saturday and two on the Sunday instead.
There were two ways to enter Disney World. One was through the main gate and the other, more exclusive, method was to make your way around the back, walk through a series of tunnels beneath the complex and rise up in an elevator to your chosen area. We chose the latter, which afforded an insight into how Disney World operates. Beneath the Magic Kingdom was a vast complex of air ducts, machines generating power, replacement pieces, a giant strong room where the cash was kept and, oddly, costumed staff taking their meal breaks. I resisted the temptation to sit down and have a sandwich with Snow White.
As there was no backstage area, no dressing rooms or similar facilities, Disney security people formed a tunnel for our party from Cinderella’s Castle to the stage. When the show started, it was completely surrounded by fans pressed tight against the front and a host of amateur photographers had their Instamatics ready.
Charlie used a four-piece backing band – two guitars, bass and drums – augmented by four brass and three coloured girl singers called The Treasures, while he played a huge grand piano at the front of the stage. They struck up the opening notes of ‘Most Beautiful Girl’, a few fans shrieked but most clapped, and a local country station D.J. introduced “The Silver Fox, Mr Charlie Rich”, who surprised no one by getting straight into the music, following their cue on ‘Most Beautiful Girl’. A good percentage of the crowd sang along.
Charlie wore shades and a sensible hot weather safari-type outfit with a gold chain and medallion dangling from his neck. With his silver hair blowing in the slight breeze, he had the air of an aging film star, as if Gary Grant had turned to singing in his twilight years. He looked classy, the kind of celebrity who’s seen vaulting between Rolls Royces with stunning blondes on either arm. Still, he’s a rocker at heart and ‘Lonely Weekends’ was essayed as a forceful rock number. He hit the piano keys like Jerry Lee as armed reached out from the front to touch him. At the close he shook a few and drank from a cup of water that more eager arms reached out to grab.
The show lasted about 45 minutes and was very tightly arranged. At one point Charlie left the stage to allow guitarist David Mayfield, a young blonde riff rider, to lead the band in some out and out rock. Then The Treasures got a chance to sing a song on their own. Charlie returned with ‘A Very Special Love Song’, then warmed up through his “evolution medley” – a segued selection from his past – to ‘Behind Closed Doors’. This led to more squealing from the girls in front. At the end he left abruptly, declining to encore.
When he’d gone two girls got into a fight over the beaker from which he was drinking.