7 June 1944
Lewiston, Androscoggin County, Maine, United States
14 July 1973 (aged 29)
Clarence White (born Clarence LeBlanc) (June 7, 1944 – July 14, 1973) was a guitar player for Nashville West, The Byrds and the Kentucky Colonels. His parents were French-Canadians from New Brunswick, Canada. The father, Eric White, 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
Born in Madawaska, Maine, the family followed relatives in 1954 to Burbank, California, and the White children eventually formed a band called the Three Little Country Boys, and soon secured a regular spot on a local radio program, and had 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.
After the dissolusion of the Kentucky Colonels, White found employ 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 Ian Dunlop-led 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 With the Gosdin Brothers; he and Gene Parsons briefly joined Clark's touring band shortly thereafter. Striking up an acquaintence 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. He would also contribute to Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the group's Gram Parsons-led foray into traditional honky-tonk, but much of his work on the album is obscured by Nashville pedal steel.
After the abrupt departure of 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. Never one to abandon his roots, White was infamous 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 in wallowing 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 Farther Along.
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 fufilling 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 Greene and bassist Bill Keith to form the bluegrass supergroup Muleskinner. The group backed up Bill Monroe on a TV broadcast and made some preliminary recordings, all of which were in the vein of contemporary bluegrass or "newgrass". After the death of White, Rowan and Grisman would team up with fiddler Vassar Clements, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead on his original instrument of banjo, and bassist John Kahn to mine similar territory with Old & In The Way.
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 acounts a very acrimonious reacquaintence.
White was tragically killed on July 14, 1973 by a drunken driver while loading his equipment in his car following a spur-of-the moment reunion gig with the Colonels. 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. The driver who hit him, Yoko Ito, received a one-year suspended sentence and lost her driver's license.
Clarence White almost single-handedly legitimized the acoustic guitar as a lead instrument in bluegrass. With few exceptions, before Clarence, the guitar was strictly a rhythm instrument. Tony Rice, arguably the greatest living bluegrass guitarist, cites his friend Clarence as his primary musical influence. Rice owns and plays Clarence's highly-modified 1935 Martin D-28. David Grier and Russ Barenberg are two other highly acclaimed acoustic guitarists who were heavily influenced by White's innovative and highly sophisticated guitar work.
On the electric side of the guitar spectrum, White was similarly influential. With fellow Byrd Gene Parsons, White invented the b-bender device. This device raises the b (second) string of the guitar a whole step by the use of pulleys and levers attached to the upper strap knob and the second string on the guitar. It is activated by pushing down on the neck, and produces a "pedal steel" type sound. Subsequently, his Telecaster sound became at least as revered as his bluegrass playing. Marty Stuart was one player highly influenced by White's playing; he owns and regularly plays White's now-legendary Fender Telecaster.
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