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Mr Tambourine Man – The Byrds

Early rehearsals of this seminal US band included John Denver…

Mr Tambourine Man – The Byrds

Columbia 43271 (USA) / CBS 201765 (UK)

Recorded at Columbia Studios, Hollywood, 20th January 1965

Released May 1965 (Europe)

Writer Bob Dylan

Producer Terry Melcher

USA #1   26/6/65   1 week    UK #1  22/7/65   2 weeks


Formed in Los Angeles in 1964, The Byrds initial line-up consisted of Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke. Crosby, McGuinn and Clark first assembled as the Jet Set and were almost joined by later country star John Denver who rehearsed with the trio in early 1964 with a view to forming a band. However, the shy Denver didn’t get on with Crosby who he called, ‘the most arrogant, obnoxious person I’d ever met’ and the Jet Set continued without him, recording a one-off single for Elektra Records as The Beefeaters before changing their name yet again in late 1964 and getting a deal with Columbia on the strength of a demo of an as-yet unreleased Bob Dylan song. (This initial Columbia deal was a one single make-or-break deal, so it’s lucky it was a hit!)



The Byrds electric/folk version of Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ in early 1965 can certainly be one of the reasons why Bob decided to turn “Judas” and go electric later that same year. Another often cited reason is his hearing of the Animals ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, ironically an electric copy of a song earlier recorded by Dylan, though not his own composition. Be that as it may, the Byrds re-working of  ‘Tambourine Man’ certainly brought Robert Zimmerman’s music to the ears of a wider “pop” audience. The Byrds recorded many other Dylan songs during their lengthy career, but had they never recorded another song they would still have been immortalised in the halls of rock’n’roll for this two and a half minute gem. It was Byrds manager Jim Dickinson who got hold of an acetate of an early take of the then un-released Dylan song.

Recorded in one three-hour recording session on 20th January 1965 at Columbia’s Hollywood studio, Roger McGuinn’s jangling Rickenbacker 12-string guitar sets the scene, while the vocal harmonies of McGuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark lift the song ever skywards. McGuinn (who performed as Jim McGuinn at the time, but changed his name to Roger later in the 1960s) was the only ‘Byrd’ to actually play on the hit, professional session players and legendary ‘wrecking crew’ members Leon Russell, Hal Blaine and Larry Knechtell receiving a small session fee for the major part of the work. It’s also rumoured that Glen Campbell, an in demand session guitarist at that time (and another ‘wrecking crew’ member), was also present at the session, though he apparently did not participate in the recording of ‘Tambourine Man’, which was produced by Columbia Records staffer Terry Melcher, son of Doris Day.

In defence of using session musicians on the recording Melcher has recalled, “They had a very thin arrangement – they sounded terrible – even if they’d played it well it wouldn’t have worked. McGuinn asked me what I’d do. I told him who I’d bring in to play, and he acknowledged that these people were probably better than his band mates. He had no problem with that at all.” In further defence of using session musicians for a quick and satisfactory recording, Roger McGuinn has joked that when the band themselves recorded their third hit ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ they needed about 77 takes to get it right!

Terry Melcher had himself been a Columbia recording artist, before turning to producing for artists such as Pat Boone and his mother. Moving into pop, in addition to much of the Byrds material he produced for Paul Revere & The Raiders who had a lengthy series of hits in America during the 1960s. In 1969 Melcher, via his association with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, auditioned hippie sect leader Charles Manson. Soon after Melcher decided not to sign him, a deranged Manson and his disciples took their revenge in a sadistic massacre of the inhabitants of 10050 Cielo Drive, which included actress Sharon Tate. This had previously been the residence of Melcher, and it seems likely that he had been the intended victim of Manson’s wrath.

Strangely, the Byrds decided to use only one verse from Dylan’s original recording of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, from Bringing It All Back Home, which had run to five verses – they used one verse (the second) spilt into 2 verses plus the chorus. (The Byrds taped their version some 3 months before Dylan’s was released, though it was held back for release until 1 month after Dylan’s.) When he first taped the song Dylan had knocked off three long songs in a row in one take, hardly pausing for breath between them! Known for his lengthy songs, but not always so forthcoming regarding their meaning, His Bobness had a less than illuminating reply to a journalist’s query in 1965, “But what are your songs about?” “Oh, some are about ten minutes long, others five or six…” he replied. In another interview the same year, a clearly hostile Dylan was asked if he painted. Receiving an affirmative reply, the hopeful hack followed up by asking, “What sort of painting?” to which the bemused songwriter replied, “I painted my house“.

It’s interesting to note how everybody influenced each other during the 1960s pop boom. While Roger McGuinn has never denied he was much influenced by the Beatles, the father of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ must surely be British beat band the Searchers 1964 recording of Jackie DeShannon’s ‘When You Walk In The Room’, while the Byrds own influence on the Beatles can be clearly heard in their recordings of late 1965, early 1966. (Particularly on Revolver) Similarly, the Byrds pioneering work in the country/rock field undoubtedly inspired and was later reflected in the work of Neil Young, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Jackson Browne, Poco and the king of all country/rock acts, the Eagles.


The Byrds had several further hits during the middle 1960s including ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’, ‘Mr Spaceman’ and ‘So You Wanna Be A Rock’n’Roll Star’ and recorded many other Dylan covers. They are now looked upon as one of the most important and influential American bands of the period (still gathering fans in the new Millennium), though while ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ were both US Number 1’s, their most revolutionary piece, ‘Eight Miles High’, was not, due to alleged drug references that restricted radio play.


(As a matter of interest, David Crosby, who was ceremoniously sacked from the band in September 1967 with a $10,000 payoff, acquired the rights to ‘The Byrds’ name in 2002 from the estate of former drummer Michael Clarke, who died in 1993)


Copyright © 2017 SongStories/Tony Burton


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