Best known as the drummer for The Byrds from 1964 to 1967, Clarke’s father was an artist and his mother was a musician. Clarke ran away from home when he was 17 years old and hitchhiked to California to become a musician. In legend, Clarke was said to have been discovered by Byrds’ founder David Crosby while playing bongos on a beach. In fact he was discovered by singer-songwriter Ivan Ulz, in North Beach, San Francisco and was introduced to other group members by Ulz.
Clarke was not an accomplished musician prior to joining The Byrds and his only previous musical knowledge was rudimentary piano lessons he received in his youth. He had never played drums and, after joining The Byrds, not having a drum set, practiced on a makeshift kit of cardboard boxes and a tambourine, but he did have real drumsticks. According to lead guitarist Roger McGuinn’s web site, Clarke was hired by McGuinn and Gene Clark (no relation) for his resemblance to Rolling Stones’ guitarist Brian Jones. Clarke’s strength as a drummer is considered to be illustrated by his jazz-oriented playing on The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”, on the “Fifth Dimension” album.
Unlike the other members of The Byrds, Clarke was not a prolific songwriter. His compositional contributions with the band encompass co-writing credits for the songs “Captain Soul”, from the “Fifth Dimension” album, and “Artificial Energy” from The Notorious Byrd Brothers. He was also given an arrangement co-credit for two traditional songs that appeared on Fifth Dimension: “Wild Mountain Thyme” and “John Riley” (although the latter is credited to Bob Gibson and songwriter, arranger Ricky Neff on the album itself).
In August 1967, during the recording sessions for “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” album, Clarke walked out of The Byrds and was temporarily replaced by session drummers Jim Gordon and Hal Blaine. Clarke had recently become dissatisfied with his role in the band and didn’t particularly like the new material that the songwriting members of the band were providing. However, Clarke continued to honor his live concert commitments with the band, appearing with them at a handful of shows during late August and early September 1967. Clarke returned from his self-imposed exile in time to contribute drums to the song “Artificial Energy” in early December 1967, but was subsequently fired from the band by McGuinn and bass player Chris Hillman once “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” album was completed.
After a short stint in Hawaii as a painter and working in a hotel, Clarke played briefly with Gene Clark in Dillard and Clark, before following Hillman to The Flying Burrito Brothers, after their first album. Clarke was with the Flying Burrito Brothers between 1969 and 1973, including appearing with the band at the infamous Altamont Free Concert, headlined by The Rolling Stones, in 1969. During the 1974-1981 period, Clarke was a member of Firefall, followed by a period as the drummer for Jerry Jeff Walker, ending in 1982.
Between 1983 and 1985, Clarke joined former Byrds’ singer Gene Clark in The Firebyrds, a touring band which had been put together to promote Gene Clark’s 1984 solo album “Firebyrd”. In 1985, following the breakup of The Firebyrds, Clarke and Clark again joined forces for a series of controversial shows billed as a “20th Anniversary Tribute to The Byrds”. Other musicians involved in this project were John York, another ex-Byrd from the late 1960s line-up of the group, ex-Firefall singer Rick Roberts, ex-member of The Beach Boys early 1970s line-up Blondie Chaplin, and Rick Danko, formerly of The Band. Many clubs simply shortened the billing to The Byrds, and the pair soon found themselves involved in acrimonious court battles with Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and Chris Hillman over use of the group’s name.
The Byrds set aside their differences long enough to appear together at their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in January 1991, where the original lineup played three songs together: “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”. Gene Clark died less than five months later, of a heart attack, on May 24, 1991.
From 1987 until his death in 1993, Clarke toured as The Byrds featuring Michael Clarke. Skip Battin and John York, who had played with Roger McGuinn in later versions of The Byrds, also played at various points in The Byrds featuring Michael Clarke. Following the failure of McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman to obtain an injunction against Clarke, it was generally accepted that Clarke’s continuing usage of the name was tantamount to ownership, particularly when not used by any other group member and where other group members, particularly Roger McGuinn, had repeatedly denied any interest in performing again under The Byrds name. Roger McGuinn later acknowledged that ownership of the The Byrds name had likely passed to Michael Clarke’s estate on Clarke’s death, but David Crosby soon secured the rights to the band’s name in 2002.
Clarke’s health declined from a lifetime of hard drinking and he fell into the routine of a number of hospital stays before his death. Billy Moore, who had organized a New Year’s Eve concert at a resort where Clarke and his band were scheduled to perform, stated that at the time of his death, Clarke had recently learned that he had become terminally ill due to his liver problems.
During his final days, Clarke had expressed a wish to appear on television in the hope of alerting children to the dangers of alcoholism. Following his wishes, Clarke’s girlfriend Susan Paul started a foundation in Clarke’s name, called the Campaign for Alcohol-free Kids. In 1994, a year after his death, Clarke’s paintings were published in Dick Gautier and Jim McMullan’s book, “Musicians As Artists”.READ MORE: