David Van Cortlandt Crosby was born on Aug. 14, 1941, in Los Angeles into families with deep roots in American history dating back to Dutch rule in New York in the 17th century. His mother, who was born Aliph Van Cortlandt Whitehead, descended from the prominent Van Cortlandt family. His father, Floyd Crosby, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer whose credits included the classic western “High Noon,” was a member of the Van Rensselaer clan.
Crosby briefly studied drama at Santa Barbara City College before dropping out to pursue a career in music. He was 16 when he received his first guitar, from his older brother, Ethan, who had begun playing years earlier. David started out, like so many others in the early ’60s, performing folk music. He performed with singer Terry Callier in Chicago and Greenwich Village, but the duo failed to obtain a recording contract. He also performed with Les Baxter’s Balladeers around 1962. With the help of producer Jim Dickson, Crosby recorded his first solo session in 1963.
He was influenced by 1950s jazz: Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, and the Everly Brothers. He drifted through coffee houses around the country until landing in New York, in the epicenter of the 1960s folk movement, Greenwich Village. He got to know Jim McGuinn (who later changed his name to Roger) and Gene Clark while they were performing as a duo at the Troubadour. Crosby brought in Jim Dickson to become the group’s manager. The band added a drummer, the inexperienced but handsome Michael Clarke, and Crosby took up the electric guitar.
That hybrid found its first recorded expression after Dickson acquired an acetate of a new Bob Dylan song, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” in August 1964. The band’s own demo of the piece, with the new recruit Chris Hillman on bass, helped land them a contract with Columbia Records that November. That record hit number 1 on the Billboard Singles chart.
Crosby and Chris Hillman began to contribute songs beginning with Byrd’s third album, Fifth Dimension in 1966. with the departure of the group’s most prolific writer, Gene Clark. Crosby contributed to the composition of several songs on the album and wrote one himself, “What’s Happening?!?!”
Its lyric introduced a Crosbyesque motif: posing questions that had no answer. More famously, Crosby wrote the band’s smash hit “Eight Miles High” with McGuinn and Clark. It was first released as a single on March 14, 1966. Musically influenced by sitar player Ravi Shankar and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, the song was influential in developing the musical styles of psychedelia and raga rock.
For the Byrds’ next album, Younger Than Yesterday, Crosby contributed “Everybody’s Been Burned,” which idealized the key strategy of his emerging style: to contrast a dreamy melody with dazed lyrics. When the band refused to include his song “Triad” on their fifth album anger ensued. There was anger, too, over political speeches he had made between songs when the band played the Monterey Pop Festival the summer before. All of it led to his firing.
[McGuinn and Hillman said] I was impossible to work with, and I wasn’t very good anyway, and they’d do better without me. It hurt like hell. I didn’t try to reason with them. I just said, ‘It’s a shameful waste. … Goodbye.’ David Crosby – to British music magazine Uncut
Buffalo Springfield had just recently disbanded and Crosby and Stephen Stills had been jamming together. Crosby wrote his first song with Stills (along with Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane) while sailing on a 74-foot boat he had acquired a year earlier. The song, “Wooden Ships,” also recorded by the Airplane, tested out the vocal blend that would become Crosby, Stills & Nash’s signature. They connected with Graham Nash who would leave his commercially successful group the Hollies to play with Crosby and Stills.
Their appearance at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in August 1969 was only their second live performance. Their first album, Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969), was an immediate hit, spawning two Top 40 hit singles and receiving key airplay on the new FM radio format. The songs Crosby wrote while in CSN include “Guinnevere”, “Almost Cut My Hair”, “Long Time Gone”, and “Delta”.
In 1969 Neil Young joined the group, and with him, they recorded the album Déjà Vu, which peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and the ARIA Charts. However, Crosby’s personal problems escalated at the height of CSN&Y’s popularity.
You don’t sit down and say, ‘Gee, I think I’ll become a junkie.’ 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. [But later] drugs became more for blurring pain. You don’t realize you’re getting as strung out as you are. And I had the money to get more and more addicted.David Crosby – People magazine in 1990
Already an enthusiastic consumer of cocaine, he turned to heroin after Christine Hinton (his girlfriend) was killed in a 1970 car accident. Despite his eroding condition, Crosby released a 1971 solo debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name, which peaked at No. 12 in 1971; he received all-star backing from Nash, Young, Joni Mitchell, and members of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Santana. Starting in 1972, Crosby released a series of successful albums with Nash, his closest ally in the band. All three of their first joint albums went gold, buoyed by Nash’s more commercial tunes.
It is with a deep and profound sadness that I learned that my friend David Crosby has passed. I know people tend to focus on how volatile our relationship has been at times, but what has always mattered to David and me more than anything was the pure joy of the music we created together, the sound we discovered with one another, and the deep friendship we shared over all these many long years. David was fearless in life and in music. He leaves behind a tremendous void as far as sheer personality and talent in this world. He spoke his mind, his heart, and his passion through his beautiful music and leaves an incredible legacy. These are the things that matter most. My heart is truly with his wife, Jan, his son, Django, and all of the people he has touched in this world.Graham Nash
Crosby reunited with the four other original Byrds for one album, but it was poorly received. For much of the ’70s, he also worked as a session singer, backing up star friends like Jackson Browne and James Taylor. In the ’80s and ’90s, he did similar work with Phil Collins. He spent nine months in a Texas prison in 1982 on drug and weapons charges.
David and I butted heads a lot over time, but they were mostly glancing blows, yet still left us numb skulls.. 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. I am deeply saddened at his passing and shall miss him beyond measure.Stephen Stills
In 1985, he was arrested on charges of drunken driving, hit and run, and possession of a concealed pistol and imprisoned for a year. By his account, he quit hard drugs in 1986.
But in March 2004, he was charged with criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, as well as illegal possession of a hunting knife, ammunition, and marijuana. He pleaded guilty and got off with a fine. He earned less fraught tabloid headlines in 2000 when he was revealed to be the biological father, via sperm donation, of the two children of the singer Melissa Etheridge and her partner at the time, Julie Cypher.
After a series of breakups and mostly unsuccessful reunions, CSNY performed together at Live AID in Philadelphia in 1985. A former drama major, he has appeared in several movies and TV shows including as a pirate in “Hook,’’ starring Robin Williams, and contributed his own voice to two episodes of “The Simpsons.’’
David is gone, but his music lives on. The soul of CSNY, David’s voice and energy were at the heart of our band. His great songs stood for what we believed in and it was always fun and exciting when we got to play together. ‘Almost Cut My Hair,’ ‘Deja Vu’ and so many other great songs he wrote were wonderful to jam on and Stills and I had a blast as he kept us going on and on. His singing with Graham was so memorable, their duo spot a highlight of so many of our shows. We had so many great times, especially in the early years. Crosby was a very supportive friend in my early life, as we bit off big pieces of our experience together. David was the catalyst of many things. My heart goes out to Jan and Django, his wife and son. Lots of love to you. Thanks David for your spirit and songs, Love you man. I remember the best times!Neil Young
Crosby died Wednesday night January 18, 2023, at the age of 81, according to an in-law of the singer who texted the New York Times at the time of death. He had Type 2 Diabetes, hepatitis C, and had a liver transplant in 1994. In February 2014, he underwent a cardiac catheterization and angiogram, based on the results of a routine cardiac stress test.
- Captain Olof Stevense Van Cortlandt, born in Wijk Bij Duurstede, Netherlands, arrived in New Amsterdam in 1637. He was initially a soldier and bookkeeper who rose to high colonial ranks in the Dutch West India Company service, serving many terms as a burgomaster and alderman. His descendants became involved in politics and married into the best American political and influential families including the Van Rensselaers, Schuylers, and Livingstons. Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, New York derives its name from the family, as well as Manhattan’s Cortlandt Street and Cortlandt Alley. The town of Cortlandt to the north, in Westchester County, New York carries the family name as well. The Van Cortlandt House Museum was initially the residence of Frederick Van Cortlandt. [Back]
- The Van Rensselaers were of Dutch origin, and the family originally migrated from the Netherlands to a large area along the Hudson River in the present-day area of Albany, New York. The Van Rensselaers and other patroons named this young colony New Netherland. Many members of the family were active in politics and in the military. They are best known for the Rensselaerswyck estate of roughly a million acres, which although broken up by the Anti-Rent Revolt in the 1840s, had long cemented the Van Rensselaer family as one of the wealthiest in early America. Herman Melville, a descendant of the Van Rensselaer family, mentioned them in the first chapter of his novel Moby-Dick. [Back]
- Terrence Orlando “Terry” Callier (May 24, 1945 – October 27, 2012) was an American soul, folk, and jazz guitarist and singer-songwriter. He learned piano, was a childhood friend of Curtis Mayfield, Major Lance, and Jerry Butler, and began singing in doo-wop groups in his teens. In 1962 he took an audition at Chess Records, where he recorded his debut single, “Look at Me Now”. At the same time as attending college, he then began performing in folk clubs and coffee houses in Chicago, becoming strongly influenced by the music of John Coltrane. During this period, he briefly performed in a duo with David Crosby in Chicago and New York City. [Back]
- Les Baxter’s Balladeers were a 1960s folk group formed by band leader Les Baxter. They released an album and a few singles during the early 1960s. Some of the musicians to pass through the group were David Crosby, Bob Ingram and Phil Campos. [Back]