Barry McGuire was born on October 15, 1935 in Oklahoma City. His parents divorced when he was two years old, and Barry moved to California with his mother, who later remarried. Barry’s stepfather worked construction in and around Los Angeles. “Every time he’d finish a job,” Barry remembers, “we’d move to a different community. I went to nine or ten grammar schools and two high schools.” When Barry was ten years old, his family was living in San Pedro, where he started working on fishing boats at the age of fourteen. At sixteen, Barry joined the Navy, lying about his age in order to get in. After ten months in the service, he was faced with the possibility of going to the brig, having shown up late for duty after a date that ran a bit long. Preferring freedom to the brig, Barry showed the Navy his birth certificate and was discharged for being under age.
During his late teens and early twenties, Barry led the life of a drifter, working all kinds of jobs. The folk scene was catching like wildfire in the late 1950s, and it really sparked something deep inside Barry’s soul. He had been to some live folk performances at Laguna Beach, thought it was great fun, and in 1960 he bought his first guitar and started singing. He says he never dreamed that anyone would actually pay him to do it, though.
Barry’s first paid gig came about as a result of happenstance rather than a calculated career move. Barry recalls, “I had a date with a girl, and she thought I was supposed to be there at seven. I thought I was supposed to be there at eight. When I got there, she was gone. My uncle, Sterling Mount, had a bar in Santa Monica, and I went over to get soused. Bill, the bartender in there, was a great piano player, singer. I was sitting there, and he played something. I knew some of the words, so I sang a little, and he says, ‘Hey, you sing pretty good.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I play the guitar and sing.’ He said, ‘You got your guitar?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, it's out in the car.’ ‘Well, go get it.’ So, I went out and got it and brought it in, and I'd sing a couple, and he'd sing a whole bunch, and I'd sing a couple more.
“By the time the evening was over, the waitress was having a birthday party at her house, and they invited Bill over to play the piano. He says, ‘Can my friend come with me?’ and they said, ‘Bring your friend.’ So we went over to the house, and I played the guitar and sang songs until the sun came up. About two, three days later, the phone rang, and a guy says, ‘Listen, I was at the party at so-and-so's house, and I own a bar here in Santa Monica. Can you come and sing? My piano player's sick.’ I said, ‘I only know about four or five songs all the way through.’ He said, ‘Just do what you did at the party the other night. I'll give you fifty dollars cash. You can keep all your tips.’ I said, ‘Man, I'll be there.’ I called my friends, told them what was happening. They all showed up, and by the end of the evening, the place is packed. I couldn't believe it. People were calling their friends and telling them to come down and listen to this guy - which is me! By the end of the evening, I made about eighty dollars in tips and fifty dollars in cash, and the guy says, ‘Come back next week, and we'll do it again. I'll give you a hundred dollars a night.’ I thought, ‘Man, it's like going to a party and they pay you.’”
Barry quickly learned more songs, expanding his repertoire, and found himself singing five nights a week. One night while taking a break between sets, producer Fred Briskin approached Barry. He said, “Miss Lee would like to speak with you.” Barry said, “Sure!” and followed Briskin to his table. Awaiting their arrival was the great singer, Peggy Lee, but Barry didn’t realize who she was. Peggy Lee told Barry she thought he had a great voice and that she felt he should be singing in better places. She and Fred would help get him into those places, she said. Not realizing who these people were, Barry thought it was just another case of someone promising to hook him up and never coming through. Later, someone at the club came up and asked him, “So how did it go with Peggy Lee?” Barry’s response was, “Oh, was she here?” Incredulous at his reply, they said, “McGuire! That was Peggy Lee you were talking to!”
Within a very short period of time, Barry got a call from Fred Briskin telling him he had a gig at Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills. Before he knew it, Barry was playing other uptown venues like the Troubadour. He also made his first record around this time. The song was called “The Tree.” It was a 45 rpm record released around 1961. Barry doesn’t even remember who the guy was that recorded it, and says they sold maybe ten copies of that record. That same year, Barry formed a duo with Barry Kane, a singer-songwriter he had met at the Troubadour after closing time. “We all used to sit around when they locked the doors, and a few of us used to sit there and sing songs. Art Podell was there, Barry Kane, Hoyt Axton and people like that. Barry Kane was singing a song, and I knew it. We started harmonizing, and we just couldn’t believe what it felt like. So, we said, ‘Let's get together and work on a couple of tunes.’ We did, and the following week, we sang at the hootenanny. But we were both under some kind of dumb contract, and we weren't supposed to be singing together. So, we sang in silhouette so nobody could see who it was.”