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Folk-rock pioneer David Crosby dies at age 81 after long illness

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member David Crosby, founding member of the Byrds and Crosby Stills & Nash, performs in 2019. (Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member David Crosby, founding member of the Byrds and Crosby Stills & Nash, performs in 2019. (Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

David Crosby, one of the architects of the 1960s’ folk-, psych-, and country-rock scenes as a founding member of both the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, and one of the most influential singer-songwriters of all time, has died. The two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee was 81 years old.

“It is with great sadness after a long illness, that our beloved David (Croz) Crosby has passed away,” read a statement released Thursday by Crosby’s wife of 36 years, Jan Dance. “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.”

David Van Cortlandt Crosby was born Aug. 14, 1941, in Los Angeles, into a privileged family that included his father, Oscar-winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby. In 1964, he formed seminal folk-rock band the Byrds with Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Chris Hillman, and Roger McGuinn; while his tumultuous time in the group only lasted three years, his alternative guitar tunings, angelic harmonies, and unique phrasings established the template for a classic California sound that influenced countless musicians for decades, including Tom Petty, Robyn Hitchcock, Big Star, and R.E.M. Among the Byrds songs Crosby co-wrote were “Eight Miles High,” “Renaissance Fair,” “Mind Gardens,” “Lady Friend,” “Everybody's Been Burned,” “Dolphin's Smile,” “Why,” “I See You,” and “It Happens Each Day.”

Ironically, Crosby’s firing from the Byrds partially stemmed from an incident when he joined Buffalo Springfield onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, filling in for an absent Neil Young, yet that opened the door to his next project, formed in 1968: the supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash (sometimes Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) with Buffalo Springfield’s Stephen Stills and the Hollies’ Graham Nash. Among the songs Crosby co-wrote while in CS&N(Y) were “Guinnevere,” “Almost Cut My Hair,” “Long Time Gone,” “Delta,” “Wooden Ships,” and “Déjà Vu.”

Crosby, Stills & Nash’s self-titled debut went to No. 6 on the U.S. album chart and sold quadruple-platinum, and CS&N won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1969. That same year, they joined forces with new on/off member Neil Young and played their second-ever gig in front of 500,000 revelers at the Woodstock festival. The subsequent CSN&Y albums Déjà Vu and live LP 4-Way Street both went to No. 1 and sold a combined 11 million copies, but Crosby’s personal issues, including a heroin habit formed after his girlfriend Christine Hinton was killed in an automobile accident, led to Crosby parting with this group as well.

Over the years, Crosby participated in various reunions with both the Byrds (in 1972-73) and with CSN&Y, most notably with latter at Live Aid in 1985, various Bridge School Benefits, and full tours in 2000, 2002, and 2006. The final Crosby, Stills & Nash performance took place in 2015 at an ill-fated National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony in Washington, D.C., after which Nash announced that CSN&Y would never perform together again because of a falling-out with Crosby. However, in recent years, Crosby expressed a willingness to consider another reunion.

Crosby’s well-publicized personal and legal issues often overshadowed his impressive body of work. For instance, his nine-month Texas prison sentence on various drugs and weapons convictions, his 1994 liver transplant, and the 2000 revelation that he was the sperm donor of Melissa Etheridge’s two children made huge headlines. But throughout his career, Crosby also recorded eight acclaimed solo LPs, as well as two studio albums with CPR, a jazz-rock band he formed with session guitarist Jeff Pevar and keyboardist James Raymond, the latter being his son who’d been placed for adoption in 1962 and with whom Crosby reunited in the ‘90s. In 2014, Crosby released his first solo album in 20 years, Croz, recorded at Raymond’s home studio, and that project unexpectedly reignited his creativity. Between 2014 and 2021, Crosby released four albums, the most recent being 2021’s For Free.

Speaking to Yahoo Entertainment in 2019 to promote his Cameron Crowe-produced, warts-and-all documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name, Crosby seemed more surprised than anyone by his late-in-life career resurgence, saying, “I'm supposed to be wandering off into the sunset hand-in-hand with my wife. But I'm not. I've made four records in the last four years. I'm full of songs. I'm full of life. I'm having a blast. I'm singing as well as I've ever sung in my life. I'm writing really well. I've got tons of really great writing partners. The music is just flowing out of me. So, that's an aberration. That's a really unusual circumstance. …I did have a head of steam built up, because the last 10 years when I was in CS&N, we weren't really friends, and I didn't feel I could take songs there. But it's really more I think about the people that I've been working with: Michael League, my son James Raymond, Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis. … They’re as good of writers as I can find in the world, and that is inspiring stuff, man. That brings out the very best in me. I love what I do. I love making music, but I love even more teaming up with somebody who thinks of stuff I didn't think of.”

In that same Yahoo Entertainment interview, Crosby, then age 77, said he was “a little baffled” that, despite his many drug and health issues, he had outlived so many of his peers, and admitted that he had “survivor's guilt. … It's not just that they were my compatriots. They were my friends. Cass [Elliot] was maybe one of my best friends in my life. Janis [Joplin], Jimi [Hendrix] — really good friends. Those are the first three that jump out of my mind, but there were a lot. You wonder, ‘Why me?’ I don't have an answer to that, but I figure the answer is, ‘OK, well, I don't know why, but I'm here.’ So then, if you are given the lifetime to do something with it, then do something worthwhile.”

Crosby is survived by his wife, Jan Dance; James Raymond, his son with Celia Crawford Ferguson; his two daughters from respective relationships with Jackie Guthrie and Debbie Donovan, Erika and Donovan Crosby; and his son with Dance, Django Crosby.

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