Chris Hillman, formerly of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and more, has a new autobiography available from November 17. Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond sees the Los Angeles musician detail his eventful career, as he effortlessly blended folk and country with rock to great effect. He kindly sent us the following excerpt…
The spring of 1965 was a whirlwind for The Byrds. Columbia released “Mr. Tambourine Man” in April. It debuted on the Billboard pop chart in May and was sitting at number one by the end of June. Even before the single was released, the word was out that we were signed to a major label. We were creating great buzz over at Ciro’s. The Byrds were a huge success, not only with the younger crowd who were starting to transform the Sunset Strip for a new era, but with other musicians, an assortment of aging beatnik artists and writers, and even several well-known actors. I was out in front of the club, smoking a cigarette, one night when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around to see actor Lloyd Bridges standing next to me. “I love your music,” he told me. “You guys have a great career ahead of you.” Many years later, I told that story to his son, Jeff, who laughed and said, “Lucky my dad didn’t grab that cigarette out of your mouth and stomp on it. He hated smoking.”
It was during that era that we began experimenting with our onstage appearance. In fact, we had to figure it out quick after our matching velvet-collar suits disappeared in a perfect rock and roll moment. After the humiliation of our first Troubadour performance, we weren’t so sure about those matching suits anyway. It was after our first or second night at Ciro’s that we left them hanging in the dressing room. Little Richard and his band were booked there for a weekend show. As soon as we found out that one of my early idols was going to be playing, Mike Clarke and I made it down for opening night. Hearing Richard was unforgettable, but we were also blown away by his amazing lead guitar player who was over to the side of the stage. His name was Jimi Hendrix, and he possessed a magnetic presence that was irresistible. We ran into him again at the Monterey Pop Festival just as his solo career was exploding, and he remembered meeting us at Ciro’s. As for our suits? Richard’s band stole them. It was for the best. We all had a great laugh when providence intervened, saving us from convincing Dickson that the suits, along with the dance lessons, were not the direction The Byrds should be going.
I look back on that whole period now as a magical time. Bob Dylan came into Ciro’s one night and played harmonica with us. Knowing how much he loved our rendition of “Mr. Tambourine Man” made it an incredible experience. I’m sure we may have been an inspiration for Bob to plug in with a band. In fact, I recall seeing Sonny and Cher sitting in one of the booths at Ciro’s one night and grabbing everything they could from our performance—including our take on Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do,” which was our follow-up single after “Mr. Tambourine Man.” By the time Columbia released our version, however, Imperial Records had already put out a version by Cher. Both records hit the national charts on the same week, but she already had the head start on us and climbed higher up the rankings than we did in the US. It was the opposite in the UK, where ours became a Top 5 hit.
In addition to our shows at Ciro’s, we started playing other cities around California, including a short tour on a bill with The Rolling Stones. Once we started getting known, The Byrds were occasionally hired to play at celebrity parties. We played a Fourth of July celebration in Malibu for Jane Fonda when she was still with French film director Roger Vadim. Guests included Steve McQueen, Lauren Bacall, Warren Beatty, Mia Farrow, and Sidney Poitier. It was all of twenty minutes into our set when I felt a tug on my pantleg. It was Henry Fonda who politely asked me if we wouldn’t mind turning down the volume a bit. Fabulous! Here was the great Henry Fonda talking to the shy guy in The Byrds. We didn’t turn down the volume. We also played a party for Lance Reventlow, heir to the Woolworth fortune and designer of the Scarab race car. The morning after the concert, he took us out on his racing catamaran, with Bob Dylan along for the ride.
Chris Hillman’s Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond is available from November 17 via BMG Books.