Stephen Stills: Career Overview of a Life In Music
For those following the trajectory of musicians who came to prominence in the nineteen-sixties, the fact that Stephen Stills is still out there playing searing lead guitar and singing is quite a bonus in these musically stagnant times. He remains one of rock’s greatest guitar players, forging and later refining an approach to the guitar that rings with blues, rock, jazz, country, and folk influences. His is also one of music’s most innovative songwriters, writing tunes over the years that challenged conventional song forms (“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”) or mixed genres and styles long before it was de rigueur (“Rock ‘n’ Roll Crazies/Cuban Bluegrass”). What also tends to not be mentioned is that he’s a first-class bluesman in the truest sense of the term, turning pain into personal expression via an unmistakable voice and a singular guitar style. With his roots musically and personally being in Louisiana and Florida, he soaked up the blues first-hand – witness his still jaw-dropping performance of “Black Queen” on his first solo album, Stephen Stills (1970). Eric Clapton may get more press, but he’s got nothing on Stephen Stills.
For close to forty years, Stills has been playing the music that sometimes expressed his personal anguish (“Run From Tears”), sometimes spoke for a generation (“For What It’s Worth”), or simply displayed a great narrative with inventive arrangements and sterling musicianship (“Black Coral”). As a working musician with much success, Stills has been there and seemingly done it all. On the verge of releasing his long awaited new solo album -– his first in thirteen years –- and after numerous endeavors with David Crosby, Graham Nash, and occasionally Neil Young, Stills appears to be in a pretty good place. Recent shows as part of CSN or CSN&Y have showed him playing and singing with renewed fervor, and with his distinguished goatee and famous (among fans) colorful, short sleeve, button-down print shirts -- he looks trim and in shape, blasting out blues-inflected solos between tastefully percolating guitar rhythms. One can only hope he’ll continue to make new music, and do so with more frequency.
Stephen Arthur Stills was born in Dallas, Texas on January 3rd, 1945. He was the second child of Talitha and William Stills. His father was involved in various businesses and as a result the Stills family moved frequently, settling for a time in Covington, Louisiana and then central Florida where Stills attended Admiral Farragut Military Academy in St. Petersburg. Stephen’s interest in music surfaced at an early age, and his first foray into the world of musical instruments began with the drums. Taking some cues from his grandmother, he later began experimenting with the piano. Before long, after some exposure to some local musicians who were playing blues, his interest turned to the guitar.
In 1961 Stills moved to Costa Rica with the rest of his family, where the indigenous Latin music (as well as jazz) began to seep into his mix of influence. After finishing high school in Latin America in 1963, Stills ventured off on his own to New Orleans for six months, and then to New York. He continued to hone his skills both on the fret board and with his voice, working the Greenwich Village folk circuit and meeting various players on the scene. Both Fred Neil and Richie Havens were very influential to him as guitar stylists and performers.
In 1964 the Beatles exploded onto the American scene, altering both the focus and standards of popular music. The band had an enormous influence on Stephen, as they did on almost every young musician of the era. Fusing an innovative mixture of rock, blues, country and folk, the Beatles changed music and songwriting forever. A seed of all the new possibilities available to creative musicians was planted in the heads of many, including Stephen Stills.
After a stint in the folk-vocal group the Au Go-Go Singers (where he worked with future band-mate Ritchie Furay), Stills traveled to Canada in 1965 with an Au Go-Go Singers offshoot known as The Company. While playing in Ontario, Stills caught a performance by a tall, thin, raven-haired Canadian by the name of Neil Young, who was playing the same type of music that Stills was trying to formulate: folk-rock. Stills and Young hit it off as friends and musical compatriots, but the time was not quite right for the start of their musical collaboration. Said Stills about their respective directions: “… Neil wanted to be Bob Dylan, I wanted to be the Beatles.”
Stills headed back to New York and then headed west to California, where he scrambled to put something together. He wrote a few songs, and then received a letter from Furay in New York, inquiring about what Stills was up to in California. Stills convinced Furay to come to California, which unknowingly set the stage for the formation of Buffalo Springfield.
Neil Young had also heard of the burgeoning scene out in Los Angeles, and with bass player Bruce Palmer in the passenger seat of Young’s unique mode of transportation -- a hearse -- they too headed west to California, unbeknownst to Stills and Furay. Young knew Stills had moved out to Los Angeles somewhere, but had no way of knowing where he was. It was March of 1966.
A few weeks later in April, a traffic jam on Sunset Boulevard resulted in Stills and Furay (in a van headed in one direction) seeing a black hearse with Ontario plates heading the other way. Within minutes the musicians were celebrating and discussing, and with the addition of drummer Dewey Martin just days later, Buffalo Springfield was born.
Their first album, Buffalo Springfield (1967) stands as a classic groundbreaker of the folk-rock genre, influencing countless bands and artists through the years including the Eagles, Tom Petty, Dan Fogelberg, and many others. The band’s unique mixture of musical styles and textures was very much ahead of its time. “For What It’s Worth” -- which subsequently became the group’s only hit -- became an anthem for both the counterculture and the soldiers in Vietnam, whom many were trying to bring home through activism and protest on the home front.
From the start, the Springfield’s existence was tentative at best. Between the artistic and personal differences among band members, to the band's less-than-stellar management, the group never really attained the full recognition and success they deserved. Young quit and rejoined the band on three different occasions, usually at the worst possible times, and bassist Bruce Palmer had drug possession and immigration difficulties, which hindered the group’s efforts. As a result, they somehow managed to be famous, but not successful. Said Stills: “There was this desperation to make it that kind of chewed at us… I could definitely see the end coming… We had too much fame and no money.”
The band’s second album, Buffalo Springfield Again (1967) included such brilliant songs as Stills’ “Bluebird,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman,” and Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul,” but amazingly none became bona fide hits. By May of 1968, the band had unraveled to the point where four additional temporary members had been involved in its short history as temporary replacements for either Young or bassist Bruce Palmer, and they called it a day. Thus 1968 saw the band’s final release, Last Time Around, which contained Stills topical “Special Care” (about racism), “Four Days Gone” (concerning a draft dodger), and “Uno Mundo” (one of Stills’ first forays displaying the influence of his Latin roots). The tumultuous history of Buffalo Springfield was over. Stills was 23 years old.
Free of the artistic entanglements of the band, Stills accepted an offer to jam with Al Kooper, who found himself in a fix when guitarist Mike Bloomfield was forced to abandon him mid-session. Stills stepped in, playing distinctive lead guitar on versions of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” and a phased, blues-rock take of “You Don’t Love Me,” among others. When released in 1968, Super Session (credited to Bloomfield-Kooper-Stills) became one of the year’s biggest sellers, and as a result, Stills received his first gold record (sales in excess of 500,000).
While making his way in the music business as a member of Buffalo Springfield, Stills had also met a rebellious and uniquely talented singer, songwriter and guitarist by the name of David Crosby, who was finding his tenure in the popular folk-rock band the Byrds to be at an end. After differences concerning musical direction as well as personal issues, Crosby was unceremoniously dumped from the band, which was then one of the most successful groups of the era. Thus Crosby and Stills began recording, learning, and exploring each other’s songs, trying to determine what to do next.
Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas was an important social and musical protagonist among many in the music scene, as well as being a great friend. Cass had introduced Crosby to Graham Nash (then of the Hollies), and it wasn’t long before Crosby introduced Stills to Nash. Like Crosby with the Byrds, Nash had seen success with the Hollies turn to acrimony as Nash’s musical and personal direction began to differ from that of his band mates. Within months, Nash defected from the Hollies, seeing clearly that his future lay with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. After months of rehearsing new songs, refining their vocal harmonies, and performing for friends acoustically, Crosby, Stills & Nash entered the studio in February of 1969.
Having been intent on learning all facets of recording since his days in Buffalo Springfield, as well as being multi-talented as an instrumentalist, Stills proceeded to play the bulk of instrumentation on the trio’s new album, overdubbing lead guitar, bass, and organ onto drum tracks laid down by newly recruited drummer Dallas Taylor. His instrumental prowess earned him the nickname “Captain Manyhands,” bestowed on him by Crosby & Nash. From the first flailing acoustic guitar notes of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (written about Stills’ liaison with folk singer Judy Collins), to the stunning, jazzy, roller-coaster electric lead runs of “Wooden Ships” (co-written with Crosby and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane), on to the driving bass work of “49 Bye-Byes,” Stills crafted impeccable music tracks for Crosby and Nash’s inventive songs, as well as his own. The trio’s vocal blend on songs like “You Don’t Have to Cry” was truly fresh, finely crafted, and intoxicating.
The resulting album, Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969) was an incredible tour-de-force that influenced an enormous number of bands and musicians including the Eagles, America, Loggins & Messina, James Taylor, and Seals & Crofts, effectively raising the proverbial bar for songwriting, singing, production and engineering, and musicianship. The album spawned two hit singles, Nash’s “Marrakesh Express,” and Stills’ “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” As the sixties ended, the era of the confessional singer-songwriter came to the fore, with the template for artistry having been clearly forged by CSN with this album.
A few months after the album’s release, the band were trying to assess how to take their new sound and new songs on the road, and the suggestion arose (via Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun, a long-time fan and supporter of Buffalo Springfield) to have Neil Young join the trio as a full member. In spite of previous difficulties, Stills asked Young to join and he agreed, with the understanding that he would continue his solo efforts and collaborations with Crazy Horse as a parallel outlet. Ex-Motown bassist Greg Reeves was hired as part of as part of the backing band, and the ever-expanding line-up became “Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Taylor & Reeves.” The group’s second live appearance was at the historic Woodstock Festival in August of 1969, and from there the sextet toured the U.S., including a date on the bill at the infamous Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert in December of ’69, the antithesis of Woodstock.
The fall of 1969 had seen the band entering the studio to record their first studio album with Neil Young. Stephen Barncard, then an engineer at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco where the album was recorded, worked first-hand with the band on the sessions: “Stills was ‘Captain Manyhands’ indeed. Long after everyone else except (drummer) Dallas Taylor, (engineer) Bill Halverson and myself left, he continued on into the night, often until 5 a.m. He played a lot of instruments and was a ball of fire. Much time was spent by Stills directing Halverson to make edits on ‘Carry On’ and ‘Everybody I Love You’ to get the drums and the transitions just right – he then had a bunch of parts to play (to the amazement of the other guys) the next day. I made a mental note to myself that Stephen looked very young, almost like the 'teenager next door.’ He was way focused. I don't remember him eating or doing anything but music that whole two months.”
After 800 some-odd hours of recording and engineering time, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young unveiled Déjà Vu, released in March of 1970, which was another huge success, and contained the hit single “Teach Your Children” (arranged by Stills), as well as FM radio favorites like “Carry On,” “Helpless,” and a version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” By now, many were comparing the diverse range of talent, personality, and musical influence brought forth by CSN&Y to that of the Beatles.
But after a short yet difficult tour, a series of personal and artistic differences brought the band to the decision that working as solo artists for a while might be in everyone’s best interest, and the group dissolved. What ended up bringing them together again was the murder of four students at Kent State University in May of 1970, who were killed by National Guardsmen when protesting the Vietnam War on campus. Young was so moved by this event -- after seeing Life magazine’s cover story on the killings -- he wrote “Ohio,” which the band recorded immediately, backed with Stills’ somber “Find the Cost of Freedom.” The song was released as a single within weeks of the shootings, and was a brilliant example of the band’s ability to comment on political and socio-political issues in their songs, speaking out as representatives for their generation. After some live shows in late spring and early summer of 1970, the band again went their separate ways.
In early 1970 Stills had moved to England (buying Ringo Starr’s estate, which had previously been owned by Peter Sellers), and in the fall released his first solo album, Stephen Stills. It was a tremendous work that displayed the wide range of his influences, with guest appearances by David Crosby, Cass Elliot, John Sebastian, Graham Nash, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix (among others). “Love The One You’re With” became both one of the staples of FM radio and the Stills/CSN/CSN&Y repertoire, “Church (Part of Someone)” exemplified how well Stills had assimilated his gospel roots, and “Black Queen” (recorded in a nearly blind-drunk stupor, which only added to the performance) illustrated Stills’ knack for morphing into an authentic bluesman, with soulfully dexterous acoustic guitar work and Stills’ rough-hewn vocal (“Performance courtesy of Jose Cuervo Tequila” read the album’s credits). “Old Times Good Times” had Stills burning on B3 organ and jamming with Jimi Hendrix, who played a staggering guitar solo at his usual level of virtuosity. “Go Back Home,” a slow blues, had Stills playing rhythm guitar to Clapton’s lead, with Clapton’s solo being recorded on a practice run-through of the song (unaware he was being recorded, the “warm-up” solo was more than acceptable). Stephen Stills was a powerful work that showed Stills was an artistic force to be reckoned with.
Stills and Hendrix had become friends back when Stills was a member of Buffalo Springfield. The two musicians spent many hours jamming together and experimenting with songs. Stills subsequently credited Hendrix with teaching him much about how to play and approach lead guitar. Numerous studio sessions recorded during their three-year friendship documented their musical collaborations, but only a few tracks have ever been officially released. When Hendrix died suddenly in September of 1970, Stills dedicated the solo album on which Hendrix appeared to his fallen friend.
Stephen Stills 2 (1971) solidified Stills’ position as a major solo artist, and included a guest appearance by Jerry Garcia playing pedal steel guitar on “Change Partners.” Other highlights included the unique strutting blues “Nothing To Do But Today” -- complete with crisp Stillsian lead guitar -- “Fishes and Scorpions,” with a reverb-soaked lead guitar solo by Eric Clapton, “Know You Got To Run,” one of Stills’ best narrative character studies, and “Word Game,” a driving acoustic indictment of racism and intolerance. The tour to support the album included the Memphis Horns, who were also featured on the album. 1971 also saw the release of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s first live album, the two-record-set Four Way Street, which was yet another enormously successful creation.
Deciding once again to start afresh, Stills formed a new seven-member band -- christened Manassas -- that included ex-Byrd and Flying Burrito Brothers alumni Chris Hillman, pedal steel guitarist Al Perkins, as well as drummer Dallas Taylor. What was most impressive about this aggregate was the range of styles they were able to translate with ease and authenticity: rock, country, Latin, folk, and blues-influenced songs were all performed with inherent musicality, understanding, and flair. Stills songwriting, guitar work and candent vocals were the dominant force throughout, but the ensemble’s musical interplay was its essential strength. Stills was clearly on a roll with his composing, as displayed on the resulting double album, Manassas (1972), one of the strongest works in the Stills lexicon, which was another very successful and influential work.
In 1973, Stills married French pop singer Veronique Sanson, moved to Colorado after his stint in England, and completed the second Manassas album, Down the Road. After two years of intensive touring and recording with Manassas, Stills dissolved the band. An effort was also made to complete a new studio CSN&Y album, to no avail.
Early 1974 saw Stills embarking on a solo tour with a tight new backing band, the efforts of which were documented on the solid recording Stephen Stills Live (1975), consisting of one side of electric music, and the other acoustic solo performances. The summer of ’74 finally saw the reunion of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young for what turned out to be rock’s first stadium tour. With artists like Jesse Colin Young, Joni Mitchell, and The Band opening for CSN&Y -- and rapturous audiences snapping up tickets in amazing numbers -- it was clear that the quartet was as popular as ever, with the tour culminating in a sell-out show at Wembley Stadium in England. As no live album or video was ever released documenting this celebrated tour, to this day fans still hold out hope for an “archival” release. After the tour, an attempted CSN&Y studio album was again aborted.
As Atlantic Records were always more interested in CSN or CSN&Y product, Stills defected to Columbia Records in 1975 hoping to get more support and consideration for his solo releases. With Stills (1975), Stephen had a top-twenty album on his hands, and with strong songs like “Myth of Sisyphus,” “Turn Back the Pages,” and “First Things First,” the success of the album was certainly no surprise. The immaculately produced Illegal Stills followed in early 1976, and included potent songs like “Buyin’ Time,” “Different Tongues,” and “Soldier.”
The rest of 1976 was difficult for Stills, even though it saw a reunion of the two guiding lights of Buffalo Springfield. Stills and Neil Young convened at Criteria Studios in Miami to record with Stills’ band, and the record nearly blossomed into a full-blown CSN&Y record when Young invited Crosby and Nash to take part in the project. Later, when it was determined that the timing simply wasn’t right (Crosby and Nash were in the middle of recording their third duo effort, and the Stills-Young aggregate were already committed to a tour), Young suggested removing Crosby and Nash’s vocal contributions and finishing the album as the intended Stills-Young project. The album, Long May You Run (1976), was released and credited to the “Stills-Young Band.” It contained effective works including Stills’ “Black Coral,” “Make Love To You,” and “Guardian Angel.” Things again got difficult when Young abandoned Stills in the first weeks of the Stills-Young tour (allegedly due to a throat ailment), leaving Stills to carry on and assist the beleaguered promoters who were still expecting a string of Stills-Young concerts. Upon arriving home, Stills’ wife of three years informed him she was filing for divorce.
1977 would be a better year.
The release of what many consider to be the finest effort to date by Crosby, Stills & Nash came in 1977, with the superb CSN. Clearly Stills was reeling from the dissolution of his marriage, but in true tortured-artist tradition, this resulted in some of his greatest work. “Run From Tears” is classic Stephen Stills: terse and bluesy, with lyrics containing a direct (if aching) openness, and truly incendiary, smoldering lead guitar work. The unraveling of Stills’ marriage was laid bare:
And I didn’t mean to take you for granted
Only knew that it felt good at home
But you left me so disenchanted
I was blind of course until you were gone…
While a previous take of Stills’ “See the Changes” -- recorded by CSN&Y in 1973 -- was good, here CSN turn it into a truly haunting tale of trying to cope with the changes that take place in life and in relationships. “Dark Star” puts a sunny, tropical spin on the CSN sound, with engaging lyrics and a cool, jazzy electric piano solo before Stills tears up the frets on his acoustic guitar, each note exploring and exploding the melody line. “I Give You Give, Blind” was another of Stills’ most powerful works, with lyrics chronicling the turbulence in his personal life, holding out for a sense of hope in the face of adversity:
You’ve gotta believe in something
If you don’t you will be lost
You’ve gotta believe in someone
No matter the cost…
CSN supported the album’s release with two successful and popular tours, and the album achieved quadruple platinum status. Graham Nash’s “Just a Song Before I Go” was a top ten (#7) single, and CSN were delivering some of the best performances of their careers. Stills recorded and released another solo album, Thoroughfare Gap in 1978, the title track to which was one of his most impressionistic lyrical narratives. 1979 saw Stills being asked to participate in the Havana Jam concerts, the first shows to be staged in Cuba (at the Karl Marx Theatre) involving American musicians. Stills later performed at a benefit for Greenpeace, and undertook a brief east coast tour with the Cuban jazz-rock group Irakere as the opening band. In June of ’79 Stills also participated in the MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) concerts with Crosby and Nash, later released as the concert film, No Nukes.
In 1980, Stills toured the U.S. and Europe with his California Blues Band, and then started sessions for what was to be the first Stills-Nash collaboration. Crosby was asked to participate late in the sessions, and their efforts were released as the first full-fledged CSN studio album since 1977 -- 1982’s Daylight Again. The album spawned two hit singles, Stills’ “Southern Cross” and Nash’s “Wasted On The Way,” and included another celebrated supporting tour. In 1983, CSN released Allies, a live album containing tracks recorded during the ’82 tour, as well as two bonus studio recordings, Stills’ “War Games” and Nash’s “Raise A Voice.”
CSN continued to tour through the early eighties, and Stills released his only solo album of the decade, Right By You in 1984. The album included appearances by Jimmy Page, Graham Nash, Chris Hillman and Michael Finnegan. In July of 1985, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performed at the enormously successful “Live Aid” concert, one of countless shows performed by CSN&Y over the years -- both collectively and individually -- for the benefit of charity.
The eighties ended with the first full CSN&Y studio activity since 1974. With Young having agreed to a new CSN&Y project upon Crosby’s return to health after years of drug addiction and subsequent prison time, David, Stephen, Graham and Neil convened at Young’s ranch studio to record American Dream, which garnered them airplay with both Young’s title track and Still’s “Got It Made.” Without a tour to support it, the album still managed to make it to #16 on Billboard’s top 200, showing the continued interest in the quartet.
In 1989, Crosby, Stills & Nash flew to Germany to perform at the Berlin Wall, commemorating its removal. The following year saw Crosby and Nash working on their first duo project in years, to which Stills added his contributions. Their effort was released as the next CSN undertaking, Live It Up, which contained what was arguably the album’s finest song, Stills’ acoustic “Haven’t We Lost Enough?” In 1991, Stills released Stills Alone, an all-acoustic effort of new material, covers, and reworkings of older songs, while that same year also saw the release of the career overview box-set stunner, CSN -- compiled by Nash -- a treasure trove of unreleased tracks, alternate versions and old favorites. In 1993, Stills was asked to perform at four events in support of the Democratic Party, of which he has been a long-time member and active participant.
1994 saw the release of After The Storm, an enormously overlooked record in the CSN canon, and their last for Atlantic Records (which ended a twenty-five year relationship). Filled with the type of social commentary CSN have long been known for, it included Stills’ reactions to the continuing element of racism in American culture (“It Won’t Go Away”), the slick “Panama,” which was soaked with Stills’ Latin music influences, and a nod to Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” with “Bad Boyz,” which perfectly summed up in a few succinct lines the plight of disenfranchised inner city African-Americans:
Way down yonder on the plantation
Today it’s called the ‘hood
They feel deserted and abandoned
They do the best they can
But life is ruthless…
In the end, the album rocked harder than anything CSN had done in years, and showed the three songwriters were still capable of strong melodic work, both personal and topical. Stills also penned what should have been a hit single in “Only Waiting For You.” 1995 saw Stills embarking on an all-too-infrequent solo tour.
In 1997, Stills became the first double-inductee into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, as both a member of Crosby, Stills & Nash and Buffalo Springfield. The induction was commemorated with a bristling live performance by CSN in the Hall of Fame auditorium that included a guest appearance by Tom Petty. Numerous tours in the late nineties by CSN were well received, with the band continuing to be a durable concert draw.
1999 saw Stills putting together tracks for the Buffalo Springfield box set with Neil Young. After having spent some extended time together, the two old friends reminisced and enjoyed each other’s company. It wasn’t long before Stills invited Young down to the studio to add some guitar to tracks being cut by Crosby, Stills & Nash for their latest (self-financed) album. Before long, the project turned into the first full-fledged Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album in eleven years, Looking Forward, which included Stills’ impressive rocker, “No Tears Left.” Two subsequent tours in support of the album, in 2000 -- the first CSN&Y tour in twenty-six years -- and the second in 2002, were well received, with both making considerable capital for the quartet. In 2001, the long-awaited 4-CD box set Buffalo Springfield was released.
Stills has continued to work on his solo album -- nearly ten years in the making -- which is alleged to include appearances by Herbie Hancock and Graham Nash, among others. He has also founded the Children’s Music Project, created to support music and arts programs for children. Through it all, Stephen Stills has been a formidable singer, songwriter, guitarist, and activist, with much work to be proud of, and hopefully much more work ahead of him.
Copyright © 2004 by Lark Publishing (Randy). All rights reserved. Duplication prohibited.