Another young man safely strummed
His silver string guitar
And he played to people everywhere
Some say he was a star
But he was just a country boy, his simple songs confess
And the music he had in him,
So very few possess
"In My Hour of Darkness" by Gram Parsons (about Clarence White)
The following is an adapted form of research paper I wrote on White during my freshman year at Ohio University in 1996.
Corrections are always welcome
Clarence White was born in Lewiston, Maine on June 7, 1944. In 1954 Clarence's Dad landed a new job in California and the family packed up and moved there. Once in California, the White children formed a band, calling themselves "The Country Boys." Clarence White was now a professional at age ten! They performed regularly on local radio and TV, and by 1956 had their own radio spot. During this period, Clarence played straight rhythm guitar, which was the standard in bluegrass at the time. Things changed when the Whites met country music stars Joe and Rose Maphis. Joe persuaded them to go the bluegrass route and introduced Clarence to jazz greats like Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. After this event the group released the single "Head Over Heels In Love With You" on the Sundown label.
After a few personnel changes, the group changed its name to 'The Kentucky Colonels' in 1961. They made their first album, "New Sounds Of Bluegrass America", for the Briar label. It was around this time Clarence underwent several profound changes, inspired in part by working with legendary guitarist Doc Watson. To quote Rick Petreysik: "he became intrigued with the idea of incorporating lead guitar breaks within a bluegrass tune, which was a revolutionary concept in the early sixties, since bluegrass guitar was viewed as a rhythm instrument." It was during this time that he mastered the syncopated style, now associated with White.
Clarence's new style was first heard on 1964's "Appalachian Swing" album. The Colonels embarked on a tour to support the album, and gained notoriety in bluegrass circles. Also in 1964, the group played at the Newport Folk Festival. That performance, released by Vanguard Records on CD as "Long Journey Home" is a great album. Even non-bluegrass fans have to admire White's guitar playing.
The folk and bluegrass movement gave way to the British Invasion, and in terms of popularity, was swept under the carpet. Being an innovator, Clarence was ready to move on from pure bluegrass anyway. He wanted to combine, in his own words, "folk integrity and electric rock". This coincidewith his discovery of Bob Dylan, who'd already angered folk purists by going electric.The rest of the band wasn't sold on electric music, so in 1965 The Kentucky Colonels played their last concert together. Clarence was now free to concentrate on his new found love of the electric guitar.
From 1965 to 1968, Clarence concentrated on playing guitar for other artists. He sessioned on many albums by diverse performers such as easy listening artist Pat Boone and blues singer Joe Cocker. In 1968 White formed "Nashville West" with friend and multi-instrumentalist Gene Parsons. They only had one album: "Nashville West". Some consider this the first country-rock album, while others say it was The Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo". Regardless, Clarence had a hand in the first country-rock album. He played guitar on The Byrds' "Younger Than Yesterday", "Notorious Byrd Brothers", and even "Sweetheart".
In 1968 Gram Parsons joined The Byrds. He is considered by many to be the founder of the country-rock movement. Parsons presence inspired the Byrds The Byrds to play country music. Chris Hillman, The Byrds' bassist knew whom to call. Hillman said of White: "I met him when we were 16 years old and he was astounding.......I used him on "Younger Than Yesterday" and he did fabulous solos on "Time Between" and "Girl With No Name". He was now going to add his fine playing to "Sweetheart of the Rodeo".
"Sweetheart" did not achieve chart success. At #72 it was the worst showing of a Byrds album yet, although it is now recognized as an important milestone. Parsons left the Byrds after only 3 months, but his presence was sorely missed. Chris Hillman called Clarence and asked him to take Gram's place. Clarence suggested Gene Parsons take over the drum chair. Hillman left soon after. Roger McGuinn was now the only original member.
In 1969, The Byrds released "Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde" with John York playing bass. The album contains many good tracks, especially "Drug Store Truck Drivin Man" (a Gram Parsons and McGuinn tune)) and the instrumental "Nashville West", which showcases Clarence's guitar ability.
The next album was 1969's "Ballad of Easy Rider." It featured Clarence as a vocalist on the traditional song "Oil in my Lamp". His voice, while not outstanding, has a interesting sound that captivates many listeners. It is a lower and less nasal Bob Dylan drawl. It even sounds like he's mumbling. He is hard to understand, but his voice still amazes me after many years of being a fan.
His guitar work on "Easy Rider" is also great. His solo on the Guthrie song "Deportee" has an eerie quality about it. This is because of his guitar. Clarence used a Parsons/White Stringbender, which he invented with Gene Parsons. The guitar allowed him to raise the note of the B string a full tone resulting in a pedal steel sound. Thus, Clarence's innovations on the guitar transcended playing.
The next Byrds album was "Untitled" a half live, half studio, which came out in 1970. This is one of The latter day Byrds' highest rated albums, and features one of my favorite songs, "Truck Stop Girl."
The live portion of "Untitled" is where Clarence really shines. With low album sales and fading popularity, The Byrds had to tour, and Clarence was in his element. Leaving the constraints of the studio White had more room for improvisation. He reworked older hits, "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Mr. Spaceman" in a country-rock style. His prowess is especially evident in the live version of the Byrds' 1966 hit, "Eight Miles High". The version on "Untitled" clocks in at a little over sixteen minutes. Listeners are treated to fabulous guitar work. Another good example of his playing can be found in "Black Mountain Rag."
Following "Untitled", The Byrds released "Byrdmaniax," a good album including the guitar led "Green Apple Quick Step." Other than instrumentals White was not much of a songwriter. His arrangements, however, demonstrate his incredible creativity. This is most evident on the traditional songs "Oil in my Lamp" and "Farther Along".
In 1972 The Byrds released their last album, "Farther Along." While not perfect it has a few great tracks. One of the highlights is Clarence's lead vocal on the Larry Murray song, "Bugler," which demonstrates Clarence's ability. It has a great arrangement, an interesting guitar line and inspired vocals. Unfortunately, good albums don't always mean sales, and having lost the commercial success they once had, the Byrds disbanded.
Although no longer a Byrd, Clarence kept busy. He played guitar on the albums of three former Byrds; Gene Parsons, Skip Battin, and Roger McGuinn. Clarence also performed at a tribute concert for bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. Those in the tribute were rising stars in the "newgrass" movement, which was made up of younger musicians breathing much needed life into bluegrass. White and the other musicians formed a group and released an album called "Muleskinner." Around the same time as "Muleskinner", Clarence re-formed the Kentucky Colonels for a European tour. While still playing bluegrass, they were closer in sound to the Byrds because of Clarence.
Clarence then embarked on a tour with other country-rock legends, such as Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, The Kentucky Colonels, and former members of the Flying Burrito Brothers. Egos became enlarged and resulted in a fight between Gram and Clarence. The two eventually made up and were friends for the rest of the tour.
On July 14th, 1973, the world lost a great guitarist and a great man. After a gig in Lancaster, California, Clarence White was struck down by a drunk driver while he and his brothers were loading equipment. His death was witnessed by both of his brothers. He left behind a wife and two children
On July 19th a service was held at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Palmdale. He was buried in Joshua Memorial Cemetery in Lancaster. A final and fitting tribute came courtesy of Gram Parsons and Bernie Leadon singing "Farther Along." Sadly Gram Parsons died of an overdose two months later
Jerry Garcia: "Clarence was important in my life, both as a friend and a
David Grisman: "well, this is it. I'm never going to hear this [type of playing] again.
They'll never be another Clarence"
Here's a story told by Gene Parsons:
"One night when we were playing at The Whiskey and we were in the dressing room
this really well dressed black man wearing a feather in his hat walks in and
says "Are You Clarence White? And Clarence says "Yeah". The fellow adds
"I've been listening to you for years, and you're one of my favorite players"
So Clarence says, "Wow, thanks a lot, and what did you say your name was?" The
fellow says, "I'm Jimi Hendrix"
For more links please visit the Clarence White and Byrds Links Page
Or check out the Byrds Page
Disclaimer: Jonathan and Davidís Byrds Page (at www.byrdsnet.com) is not in any form whatsoever associated with, or represents The Byrds, Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, David Crosby, Gene Parsons, John York, or the Estates of Michael Clarke, Gene Clark, Skip Battin, Gram Parsons, Kevin Kelly, Clarence White or any others in or around the band. We act in no way for The Byrds or any of their personnel. We only publish information by fans, intended for other fans.
Essay is © 1997 Jonathan Bennett