Clarence White

1973 – Byrds guitarist Clarence White is buried after being killed by a drunk driver. He was 29.

Clarence White (born Clarence LeBlanc) (June 7, 1944 – July 15, 1973) was a guitar player for Nashville West, The Byrds, Muleskinner, and the Kentucky Colonels. His parents were French-Canadians from New Brunswick, Canada. The father, Eric LeBlanc, Sr., played fiddle, guitar, banjo and harmonica, and his children, Roland, Eric Jr., Joanne and Clarence took up music at a young age.

The Kentucky Colonels

Clarence Joseph White was born on June 7, 1944 in Lewiston, Maine. In 1954 the family followed relatives to Burbank, California from Madawaska, Maine. That year, the White brothers (Roland, Clarence, and Eric Jr.) formed a band called the Three Little Country Boys. They soon secured a regular spot on a local radio program, and attracted the interest of country star, Joe Maphis. In 1958 the band cut their first single, and had become well enough known to land several appearances on the Andy Griffith Show. In late 1962, the Country Boys became the Kentucky Colonels.

Despite their successes, the Colonels were having a harder time making a living playing bluegrass. The folk boom had been staggered by the British Invasion in 1964, but the death blow, ironically, was dealt in mid-1965 with the release of “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds and “Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan. While they did attempt to experiment with electric instrumentation, this was only met with indifference from rock audiences and consternation from their folk and country fan base. By October of ’65, the Colonels dissolved as an ongoing unit after playing their final show on Halloween night.

The Byrds

After the dissolution of the Colonels, White found employment as a session guitarist in Los Angeles, playing on early records of The Monkees, and performed at night with future Byrd Gene Parsons in the group Nashville West. Along with the International Submarine Band and the Flying Burrito Brothers, the band was one of the first to play a seamless blend of country and rock in modern pop music.

White’s association with the Byrds began in earnest in 1966, when he contributed his distinctive playing to former member Gene Clark’s solo album Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers; he and Gene Parsons briefly joined Clark’s touring band shortly thereafter. Striking up an acquaintance with Byrds bassist Chris Hillman (who played mandolin in bluegrass combo the Hillmen before electing to join the rock wave) during the Clark sessions, White contributed twangy lead guitar to two of his songs from the album Younger Than Yesterday: “Time Between” and “The Girl With No Name”. Both of the country flavored songs were a bit of a stylistic departure for the group, who until that point had rarely strayed from folk or psychedelic rock. White was invited back to record a lead guitar solo for “Change is Now” on The Notorious Byrd Brothers. With its utilization of echo and delay and emphasis upon texture rather than melody, the piece has been favorably compared to the later work of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.

White would also contribute to Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the group’s Gram Parsons-led foray into traditional honky-tonk which has become a landmark, iconic recording. White’s innovative and unusual string bending and sense of timing played a key role in the album’s remarkable instrumentation which sounds as fresh and exciting today as when it was recorded. White’s guitar licks on that record, with Lloyd Green’s and Jaydee Manness’s pedal steel playing, have become legendary, particularly his solos on “The Christian Life”, “One Hundred Years from Now”, and “The Blue Canadian Rockies”.

After the abrupt departure of Gram Parsons in 1968, with Hillman following not long after, White was finally invited to join the reconstituted Byrds in September 1968, remaining until the group was finally dissolved by Roger McGuinn in 1973. The White-era group (McGuinn, White, Gene Parsons, and bassists John York & Skip Battin), while never held in the same esteem as the original band and often dismissed as being little more than McGuinn and his backing band, would maintain a loyal following into the early 70s and record five albums to somewhat favorable reception. However, while the original group’s ability to play live was often questioned, the latter-day Byrds – propelled by the intertwining lead/rhythm guitars of White and McGuinn – were considered to be one of the live powerhouses of the epoch (see Live at the Fillmore – February 1969). Never one to abandon his roots, White was well-known for downplaying his onstage virtuosity, maintaining the stern “poker face” composure common amongst bluegrass musicians.

Despite being on the road for the majority of the year (poor business decisions had left the band wallowing in debt, forcing McGuinn to continue to use the Byrds moniker and interminable stretches of road work), White continued to play sessions during his Byrds tenure, alternating with Ry Cooder as guitarist on Randy Newman’s 12 Songs and collaborating with the insurgent singer-songwriter Jackson Browne on his albums. Periodically fronting the group, White sang the Browne composition “Jamaica Say You Will” on Byrdmaniax and the bluegrass standard “Farther Along”, providing the title for the group’s final album.

Post-Byrds and death

By 1972, the pace of the group had slowed down considerably; while they would mount two more tours with percussionist Joe Lala onboard, much of McGuinn’s attentions had been diverted to a possible reunion of the original Byrds, contingient on his disbanding of the “other” Byrds. After fulfilling their final obligations in early 1973, the Clarence White-era Byrds broke up.

White remained busy throughout early 1973. In addition to more Browne sessions, he joined with Peter Rowan, David Grisman, fiddler Richard Green and banjo player Bill Keith to form the bluegrass supergroup Muleskinner. The group was scheduled to back up Bill Monroe on a TV broadcast, but ended up performing on their own when Bill’s bus broke down on the way to the show. The band played anyhow and the live tapes once thought lost have reappeared and been released in recent years. Shortly after the concert, they made some preliminary recordings, all of which were in the vein of contemporary bluegrass or “newgrass”.

His final road jaunt was a three-date “country-rock” package tour with the likes of Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, and Chris Etheridge. Even though they had presumably been acquainted with one another in the past, Parsons and White would develop a fast friendship after what was by all accounts a very acrimonious re-acquaintance.

White died on July 15, 1973. Especially shaken by his death was Gram Parsons, who would lead a singalong of “Farther Along” at the funeral service and conceive his final song before his own death, “In My Hour of Darkness”, as a partial tribute to White.

Clarence White is survived by his brother Roland White, one daughter, Michelle White and her five children. Their names are Brad Adkins, Brandon Adkins, Haley Carver, Victoria Bledsoe, and Taurus Bledsoe.

Musical influence

Clarence White helped popularize the acoustic guitar as a lead instrument in bluegrass music.

On the electric side of the guitar spectrum, White was similarly influential..

In 2003, White was accorded #41 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”.

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