ENCINITAS — Famed musician Chris Hillman, from the ‘60s band The Byrds, is being inducted into the San Dieguito High School Hall of Fame this month and he said one of the first things he did after finding out was tease his older brother about it.
“I called my brother and was kidding him because here was the guy who was a grade A, honor student, honor athlete, and I said, ‘Hey guess what? They’re honoring me!’ and my brother, he’s 80 years old, goes ‘Oh, yeah?’ It’s like we were little kids,” Hillman recalled in a phone call last week.
He added, “I’m very flattered they’re doing this, and they remembered me.”
Hillman, 74, graduated from the school in 1962 and went on to have a huge career in music. In 1964 he co-founded The Byrds with David Crosby and Roger McGinn. They had a number of hit songs including “Turn! Turn! Turn!,”,“So You Want to be a Rock Star” and the Bob Dylan-penned “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Hillman went on to found The Flying Burrito Brothers in the late ‘60s, and play in other bands including Stephen Stills’ band Manassas in the ‘70s and The Desert Rose Band in the ‘80s.
Hillman was born in Los Angeles and his family moved to Rancho Santa Fe when he was 2. He grew up in a modest one-story ranch house on an acre of land with his three siblings — two older and one younger — all of whom also attended San Dieguito High School. He said he wasn’t as studious as he should’ve been in high school, but he did enjoy English Literature and French class, with his favorite teacher Ms. Young.
“She was tall and blonde and addressed everyone in her class by Mr. or Miss, I loved that,” Hillman said. “She was so good. I would make trips to France over the last 50 years and I would remember these obscure things (that she taught me), that’s how good she was.”
Another employee he fondly recalled was the school’s custodian, Bill Smith, who he called one of his first mentors. Smith was a musician who played guitar in a country band on the weekends and he and Hillman became fast friends.
“I would go to Bill’s house on the weekends whenever possible and he was fantastic, he taught me so much about music,” Hillman said, adding that Smith was also there for him after his father died when he was 16.
Their friendship lasted up until Smith died from Parkinson’s disease. Hillman said he spent time with Smith four days before he died.
“I sat with him and I sang to him and I said, ‘Bill, if it hadn’t been for you I would’ve probably not (had a career in music)’. And he said, ‘No, I just showed you the door. I knew you had the goods, I just pointed you to the way to go’,” Hillman said.
After his death, Smith’s widow gifted Hillman one of Smith’s guitars — a Martin D-28 — “which I prize.”
Hillman said he was raised on the rock and roll of the ‘50s and later got introduced to folk music through his older sister, Susan, who turned him on to Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie.
“Then I heard bluegrass and it just hit a nerve,” he said. “It was exciting, it was improvisational, high energy. I loved the singing, the two, three, and four-part harmonies.”
He said he started learning how to play bluegrass from records and he originally started on guitar then went to mandolin, going up to Berkeley for a lesson, he said, since nobody in the area taught the mandolin.
Hillman helped pioneer the genre “country rock” and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.
His most recent work is “Biding My Time,” a solo album recorded in 2017 and produced by the late, great Tom Petty.
Hillman, who’s also celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary this month with his wife Connie, still tours every now and again. Last month he played two sold-out shows at The Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad. The shows were attended by some of his fellow alumni.
“It was great, he was so good and then he was so gracious afterward and we chatted,” said Sue Cooper, San Dieguito High class of ’66 and alumni vice chair.
Hillman will be the fifth person inducted into the high school’s hall of fame. The first inductee, in 2015, was Linda Benson, a professional surfer who also did stunt work for the likes of Annette Funicello and Deborah Walley, followed by Tom Dempsey, an NFL kicker who set a 63-yard field goal record in 1970, then Merna Brown, internationally known, loved, and highly regarded as Sri Mrinalini Mata, the president of the international organization the Self Realization Fellowship, and John Fairchild, a former Los Angeles Laker.
“Chris was a very unanimous decision,” Cooper said of the alumni committee choosing Hillman for this year’s induction honor. “He’s excited, you can see it in his face, he is so excited about the whole thing.”
The ceremony will be held on Oct. 24 in the library of the high school. It is limited to alumni only and is free to attend. To RSVP visit sdafoundation.com/alumni/