David Crosby: Musician who helped shape the sound of the Sixties

The untamed Crosby tasted success with The Byrds before transferring his songwriting chops and sparkling vocals to folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash

Marcus Williamson
Saturday 04 February 2023 12:42 GMT
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Crosby performs at a benefit in California in 2018
Crosby performs at a benefit in California in 2018 (Getty)

The music of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young provided so much of the soundtrack to the era of late Sixties and early Seventies, particularly in the group’s home country of America.

David Crosby, who has died aged 81, was the musician and songwriter best known for being a member of this folk-rock supergroup that was such a crucial part of the musical scene of the time. Crosby’s seminal lyrics and inimitable sparkling vocals were essential to the success of both CSNY, and his earlier band The Byrds.

Crosby had first come to fame with the folk-rock band Jet Set – which soon became The Byrds – in the mid-Sixties, forming a trio with Gene Clark and Jim McGuinn. Michael Clarke, the drummer, was added in mid-1964. Their first album, Mr Tambourine Man, was a compilation of their own songs and covers, featuring hit singles including the iconic title track, originally penned by Bob Dylan, that spent two weeks at number one in 1965.

Although Crosby did not play on that iconic track, McGuinn later ascribed its musical accomplishment to him, saying “We sang together well… I give the credit to Crosby. He was brilliant at devising these harmony parts that were not strict third, fourth, or fifth improvisational combination of the three. That’s what makes The Byrds’ harmonies.”

But Crosby’s career with the band was short-lived. As he later confessed to audiences of the music documentary Echo of the Canyon (2018), “Ladies and gentleman... They threw me out of The Byrds because I was an a-hole”, explaining further, “If you give kids millions of dollars they’ll screw up...”

He soon went on to form Crosby, Stills & Nash, together with friends Stephen Stills and Graham Nash. The band released their eponymous debut album in 1969 on Atlantic Records. The LP – and a live performance at the Woodstock festival – rapidly established the group as a new musical force, bringing them overnight fame and fortune. The single Woodstock, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s anthem to the festival, remains one of their most popular and best-known hits.

So you want to be a rock’n’roll star? Crosby, left, with The Byrds in London, 1965
So you want to be a rock’n’roll star? Crosby, left, with The Byrds in London, 1965 (Getty)

A second studio album, Déjà Vu, released in March 1970 – with Neil Young – built on their renown and became their best-selling record, reaching No 1 in the US charts. Rereleased in 1977 and 2021, for its 50th anniversary, it has since sold more than 8 million copies worldwide.

Crosby had long struggled with drug addiction and its consequences, including several encounters with the police. In 1985, after spending time on the run, he turned himself in and went cold turkey. He recalled in a 2021 interview with The Guardian: “They locked me in a box and I got off drugs, and believe me, it changes you totally. You go from not wanting to live to being very proud of living because you’re no longer killing yourself and you’re taking care of your family again, being a decent guy and making music.”

Crosby performing with Graham Nash, centre, and Stephen Stills in 1983
Crosby performing with Graham Nash, centre, and Stephen Stills in 1983 (Getty)

CSNY last played as a foursome in 2013 but each member had continued their own solo careers and record releases. Crosby was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 for his music-making with The Byrds and with Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1997, together with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash.

David Crosby was born in Los Angeles in 1941, the son of the cinematographer Floyd Crosby and Aliph Van Cortlandt Whitehead, a salesperson at the department store Macy’s. He had studied drama at Santa Barbara City College for a brief period before moving back to Los Angeles to begin the musical career that would define his life.

Having lived with Hepatitis C for many years, he underwent a successful liver transplant in 1994. In 2021, during the global coronavirus pandemic, Crosby negotiated a deal with Iconic Artists to sell his music catalogue, saying at the time: “Given our current inability to work live, this deal is a blessing for me and my family and I do believe these are the best people to do it with.”

He had recently been planning a large concert with Christopher Stills, son of Stephen, when he succumbed to Covid-19.

Stills senior paid tribute, saying, “David and I butted heads a lot over time, but they were mostly glancing blows, yet still left us numbskulls. I was happy to be at peace with him. He was without question a giant of a musician, and his harmonic sensibilities were nothing short of genius. The glue that held us together as our vocals soared, like Icarus, towards the sun.”

He is survived by his wife, Jan Dance, whom he married in 1987, and four children.

David Van Cortlandt Crosby, musician, born 14 August 1941, died 18 January 2023

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