The Byrds have had more than their fair share of band members in their various incarnations over the years. However, one member enjoyed the shortest tenure—Gram Parsons. The multi-instrumentalist joined the seminal group in 1968 and didn’t even see the year out, quitting the group after refusing to play to segregated audiences in apartheid South Africa.
Parsons immediately tried to thrust his creative vision upon his bandmates when he joined, attempting to persuade the group to change their sound to fit into his love of country music whilst marrying this with the rock genre. Despite being their newest member, he wasn’t happy to sit back and not contribute, Parsons ended up being the creative force behind their 1968 country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
There were alleged ‘legal’ issues surrounding the band’s use of Gram on lead vocals on the songs ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’, ‘The Christian Life’, and ‘One Hundred Years from Now’. This came after music businessman Lee Hazlewood said he was still under contract to his LHI record label, which created legal complications for Columbia Records forcing Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman to replace his vocals.
Some years later, however, album producer Gary Usher dispelled this by saying that Parsons’ vocals were removed because of creative concerns, not legal ones.
After finishing the final touches on the upcoming record in Los Angeles, The Byrds then flew to England for an appearance at a charity concert at the Royal Albert Hall on July 7th before heading on a controversial tour of South Africa after the concert but sans Parsons who abruptly refused to play in the apartheid country — something both McGuinn and Hillman dispute was his real reason for leaving.
“Gram didn’t quit, he was let go because he didn’t want to go to South Africa with us (July 1968),” they said previously. “He said he wouldn’t play to segregated audiences. We went down there as a political thing, to try to turn their heads around but he didn’t want to participate in that, but it wasn’t for political reasons.” Roger McGuinn told Vincent Flanders in 1969, adding: “It was because he wanted to stay in London. He dug it there, dug Marianne Faithfull and The Rolling Stones and he wanted to stay in that scene.
“He refused to go to South Africa and his reasoning was sound from one point of view, but he didn’t understand, or he was unwilling to comprehend my point of view.”
This opinion was shared by his bandmate Chris Hillman who downright refused to buy into Parsons’ sudden political awakening. “I thought he was going to go – but all of a sudden, three days before that he starts hinting: ‘I can’t go over there because of their apartheid laws, and I grew up in the South.’ Well, the man grew up in opulence in the South with black servants, for god’s sakes.”
Hillman later stated, continuing: “That was garbage. What he really wanted to do was hang out with Mick and Keith. They were in his ear: ‘Don’t go to South Africa, Don’t go to South Africa’.”
“McGuinn and I in hindsight were fools to do that tour, but we were professional. Both of us were probably the two most professional out of the original five guys. We felt, ‘Well, we have a contract – we’d better go.’ And we were assured, ‘Oh, you’ll play for black and white audiences’, which was not true. And we shouldn’t have gone.” — Hillman confessed.
Tragically, Parsons died aged just 26 in 1973 following an accidental overdose and leaving behind a legacy as one of the pioneers of country-rock music that inspired generations — who the world lost way too soon.