Seminal Singer-Songwriter and Co-Founder of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash, David Crosby, Dead at 81

January 19, 2023
Seminal Singer-Songwriter and Co-Founder of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash, David Crosby, Dead at 81

Photo by Anna Webber

Beloved and seminal singer-songwriter and guitarist David Crosby, a founding member of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, has died. He was 81 years old.

Crosby’s wife released a statement to Variety, which reads, “It is with great sadness after a long illness, that our beloved David (Croz) Crosby has passed away. He was lovingly surrounded by his wife and soulmate Jan and son Django. Although he is no longer here with us, his humanity and kind soul will continue to guide and inspire us. His legacy will continue to live on through his legendary music. Peace, love, and harmony to all who knew David and those he touched. We will miss him dearly. At this time, we respectfully and kindly ask for privacy as we grieve and try to deal with our profound loss. Thank you for the love and prayers.”

Crosby began to imprint his mark on the Los Angeles folk-rock scene with bandmates Michael Clarke, Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and Chris Hillman during his tenure with the Byrds from 1964 through 1967. After a tremulous collaboration, Crosby formed a friendship with Stephen Stills and Grahm Nash of Buffalo Springfield and the hollies, respectively and launched Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1968 to a reception of superstardom. The band would eventually welcome Neil Young to their ranks, adding to their commercial success, which swiftly became platinum and would eventually come to a close during the 1970s. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice. His hedonistic, sardonic cadence mixed with a stary-eyed stoner image served as a springboard for many in the freak folk movement who gave acoustic music a contemporary treatment.

Crosby was born Aug. 14, 1941, the son of cinematographer Floyd Crosby. He was raised in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, Calif., and was pulled by the call of music from an early age.

When he was 16, his older brother, Ethan, gave him his first guitar, from his older brother; Crosby started out, performing folk music, like many others in the early ’60s.

“I would learn two chords and go back and forth between them,” Crosby told Mojo, a British music magazine. “What took it to the next level was, my brother started listening to 1950s jazz: Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, people like that. Listening to jazz really widens your world.”

He dropped out of Santa Barbara City College to pursue music and held membership in Les Baxter’s Balladeers for a short period of time. Soon after, he began to work the L.A. circuit as a solo act, attracting the attention of industry professionals with his tenor and crisp vocals.

One of those whose attention Crosby grasped was Jim Dickson of World Pacific Records. Crosby continued to perform at clubs, including the Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard. On one fateful evening, Crosby joined a session between two young folk musicians. The jam would eventually result in the formation of the Jet Set. After changing their name to the Beefeaters, they released an unsuccessful single on Elektra Records. After adding bassist Chris Hillmen and drummer Michael Clarke to the mix, they renamed themselves the Byrds and were signed to Columbia Records in 1964.

Famously Dickson suggested the newly christened band cover a new song penned by his good friend, Bob Dylan. Their first release was an iconic and harmony-fueled cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which swiftly climbed to No. 1 on the U.S. charts in 1965. Though an obvious emulation of the Beatles, the group served as the United States’ response to the Beatles. During that time, all of their work during that period reached the top 25 on the U.S. charts.

Despite their success and Crosby’s pristine presence through his vocals, he found his songs failed to grab the attention of his bandmates. Eventually, following their historic appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in Northern California, McGuinn and Hillman drove to his home in Beverly Glen and booted him from the Byrds.

After his experience at Monterey Pop Festival, Crosby was well acquainted and jamming with Stills, along with Nash, who met the two during a 1966 tour with the Hollies. Following a deal arranged by David Geffen, which freed all three of their contractual obligations, Crosby, Stills & Nash was formed and signed to Atlantic Records.

Their self-titled LP was released in May of 1969, it contained three iconic Crosby-penned songs, including “Wooden Ships,” “Guinnevere,” and “Long Time Gone.” The project climbed with ease to No. 6. on the U.S. charts and sold over 4 million copies. In 1969 they made their second concert appearance, this time with Young at the Woodstock music festival in Bethel, N.Y., in front of half a million people.

With Young in tow, they released their 1970 LP Déjà Vu, which landed at No. 1 and sold 7 Million copies and their following release, 1971’s 4-Way Street, sold 7 million copies.

As a true personification of the 1960s and 1970s rock-and-roll, Crosby dealt with many personal problems, which grew with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young fame; though he was already familiar with cocaine, Crosby turned to heroin after the death of Hilton, who passed after a fatal car accident in 1970.

The eroding addiction caused turmoil within the band, and Young, in particular, began to focus on his solo career though he would return to tour with the other members of the band in 1974.

“You don’t sit down and say, ‘Gee, I think I’ll become a junkie,’” Crosby said to People magazine in 1990. “When I started out doing drugs, it was marijuana and psychedelics, and it was fun. It was the ’60s, and we thought we were expanding our consciousnesses.”

He went on about his perspective, adding, “drugs became more for blurring pain,“ and, “You don’t realize you’re getting as strung out as you are. And I had the money to get more and more addicted.”

Despite his struggles with addiction, Crosby released his solo debut LP, If I Could Only Remember My Name, in 1971, which included support from Young, Nash, members of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Santana and Joni Mitchelle – which peaked at No. 12.

Crosby spent nine months in prison after a drug and weapons charge in Texas in 1982; three years later, he was arrested again for drinking and driving, possession of a concealed pistol and hit and run, which resulted in one year of imprisonment. Crosby quit hard drugs in 1986 but in 2004 was charged with criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree along with possession of marijuana, a hunting knife and ammunition, to which he pleaded guilty and received a fine.

Crosby’s drug use may have added to his health problems over the years, which resulted in a liver transplant in 1994 after a battle with hepatitis C. He also suffered from type 2 diabetes and had to cancel a tour due to a cardiac catheterization and angiogram in 2014.

The tour in 2014 came after Crosby released his first solo album in 21 years, Croz, which debuted in the Billboard Top 40. After the release came one of the most prolific periods in Crosby’s career, during which he released six solo albums. Most recently, he released David Crosby & The Lighthouse Band’s Live at the Capitol Theatre.

Crosby was also the subject of a raw documentary titled David Crosby: Remember My Name, which was directed by A.J. Eaton and produced by Cameron Crowe. During the film, he spoke about his alienation from nearly all his old musical companions, saying, “All the guys I made music with won’t even talk to me,” he said. “I don’t know quite how to undo it.”

Crosby detailed the events of his life in two searing autobiographies, Long Time Gone (1988) and Since Then: How I Survived Everything and Lived to Tell About It (2006), both written with Carl Gottlieb.

In his second memoir, he looked back on his time with his bands, appreciatively looking back on his youth: “I was tremendously lucky, surviving injury, illness and stupidity,” he wrote. “As for the music, I was blessed early and often, from the Byrds to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, singing with Graham, meeting my son and creating CPR” and knowing “the wonderful, exploratory forward motion of new music.”

Just a day before his 80th birthday, Crosby spoke with Relix, saying: “Tomorrow I’m gonna be 80. When you get this old, you’re insecure about it. You think, ‘Golly, am I done?’ For some reason, and God alone knows why I’m the lucky one. It’s still working.”

He went on to add, “Normally, when you get as old as I am, you peter out. Maybe you do some good work, but it’s more occasional and usually lighter weight. But I’ve been writing with great people. I had a really good experience early on writing [Crosby, Stills & Nash’s] ‘Wooden Ships’ with [Stephen] Stills and [Paul] Kantner. That stuck in my head. The chemistry I have with the people I’m writing with now widens the potential. The other guy always thinks of something you wouldn’t—always. And, frankly, if you listen to the records, I think I’m doing really well.”

Crosby was truly a musician’s musician and a lover of music – since his passing, a massive outpour of love, respect and grief has come from his contemporaries. Read more.

Crosby is survived by his wife, Jan Dance, their sons Django and James Raymond, and two daughters, Erika and Donovan.