More than simply a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band the Byrds, Roger McGuinn helped the sun rise over the ’60s music scene, primarily with his distinctive vocals and hugely influential 12-string Rickenbacker guitar, the instrument that launched a million “jingle-jangle mornings” on the band’s No. 1 hit version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1965. He’s been on the road and in the studio for the five decades since, keeping the flame of American folk music alive, whether playing as part of Dylan’s famed Rolling Thunder review or just him and his guitar. Which is where he started and Variety first name-checked him (as Jim McGuinn) in early 1963 playing guitar for the legendary Bobby Darin in Las Vegas.
Bobby Darin is much less remembered for his folk music than for his big pop hits like “Mack the Knife.”
You have to remember that there was a huge folk music fad. It was more than just the music. It was like an alternative lifestyle. I had gotten into it years earlier because it was the music that represented the Beatniks, beat poetry, Kerouac, wearing sunglasses indoors, being a bohemian. In 1957, when it first hit, it was as big as hip-hop in its impact.
You were still so young when it was clear that music was going to be your profession. Was your family shocked?
Not really since there was music in my family. My grandmother wrote music and had a disc recorder in her living room and my grandfather Frank Sullivan was a riverboat musician.
So folk music was your first love?
No, we all started with rock ’n’ roll, Elvis Presley, the whole Sun Records gang.
But folk music quickly stole your heart.
I loved the stories, the histories, the melodies. For instance, I’ve always loved sea shanties.
Did Darin take folk music seriously or was it just a whim for him?
No, he was really dedicated to doing the folk music as authentically as possible. So he really dedicated himself to it. It became part of his Las Vegas show.
How did Darin happen to find you?
He discovered me when I was playing with the Chad Mitchell Trio. He saw us when we were the opening act for Lenny Bruce at the Crescendo. Chad Mitchell Trio
was a big act. Bobby was a step up. He offered to double my salary and he created a folk segment in his show and let me sing harmony with him in the spotlight. He became a real mentor to me.
He was one of the biggest stars in the business.
Bobby was a great performer, but he also had a 360-degree vision of music and the business. He told me, “Get into rock ’n’ roll and then you can do anything you want after that.”
So the road leads back to rock, which is where Darin started. Did you pick up any performing lessons from Darin?
I’m sure I did, but I also absorbed so much from folk music. I had been playing since I was 14 and practically grew up at the Gate of Horn in Chicago.
I never learned a better “gimmick” for an arist than what I saw Josh White do many times. He’d be in the middle of “Strange Fruit” and he’d always “break” a b string on his Martin D-21 guitar. So while he was “fixing” the string, he’d smoke a cigarette and have a little impromptu conversation with the audience that was totally transfixing and then he’d go back into the song. It didn’t take long for me to realize, “Aha, he’s an actor.”