One of the greats

By Sergio Ariza

Stephen Stills is, in the words of his friend and companion Neil Young, "a musical genius". And I’m not going to disagree with the Canadian. It would be difficult to do so with someone who has traded solos with Young, Hendrix and Clapton, has a vocal register as high as Graham Nash, harmonizes with David Crosby and writes songs like For What It's Worth and Suite: Judy Blue Eyes ...  

Stills was born on January 3, 1945 in Dallas. He always had a special affinity for music and his father ended up buying a drum kit after the lad had hit all the furniture in the house to a rhythm. But that would not be his definitive instrument and, after learning to play the ukulele, his parents bought him his first guitar at age eight. He learned to strum along listening to old blues records but started playing folk when he got to Greenwich Village in New York. It was there where he got his first great guitar, a Martin Herringbone. His idyll with the acoustic brand would last a lifetime. His tremendous voice led him to sing in a vocal harmony group, during which time he met another young singer named Richie Furay. But the explosion of the Byrds led him to form a folk rock band in 1965 called Company. And on a tour of Canada he met and befriended a young Canadian guitarist who played a Gretsch like him; Neil Young.

Back in New York Stills started working as a session musician and even auditioned to become one of the Monkees. In 1966 he decided to move to California and convinced Furay to accompany him. At the same time, in Canada, Young and bassist Bruce Palmer decided to also go to Los Angeles, where they would meet on April 6, 1966, to form Buffalo Springfield. A few days later they were joined by drummer Dewey Martin and started to play at the Troubadour. Stills and Furay were the main vocalists, while Young and Stills shared the task of composing and doing guitar solos with their Gretsch: a White Falcon Young and a Chet Atkins orange Stills, as he was an avid follower of the fingerpickin'. In a short time they were one of the leading bands in the city and began a tour opening for the Byrds.

After signing up with Atlantic they started to record their first LP. However before finishing it, Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing by Young was chosen as the first single, with Go And Say Goodbye by Stills as side B. This latter track represents a first stab at country and contains some intricate guitar work. But, despite its brilliance, the record went unnoticed. On December 5 the LP went on sale, but that day something much more important happened. The band recorded For What It's Worth, a song by Stills that was destined to become an anthem against the Vietnam War. Stills plays acoustic on it and created the bass riff but when they recorded it, Young contibuted the wonderful harmonics and a couple of excellent solos to round out one of the best songs of the decade.

The song was released three weeks later and became a major hit, meaning that, when the album was reissued in March 1967, the song was incorporated into it. This debut represents one of the best folk-rock albums in history and Stills contributed other classics like Sit Down I Think I Love You and Hot Dusty Roads, turning him into the virtual leader of the band. The million copies sold of For What It's Worth was the first large sum of money he saw in his life, so he decided to gift himself two whims, a Ferrari and a Martin D-45.

The band then headed to the studio to record their second album, but it was not a calm recording period, because in January Palmer was deported to Canada and at the end of May Young left the band. The main reason was the struggle over the band’s leadership and his inclination for a solo career. Stills would say "I wanted to be in the Beatles and Neil wanted to be
Bob Dylan". The fact is that the moment that Young chose to leave could not have been worse, as it was days before the band’s performance at the Monterey Festival. However, David Crosby, a good friend of Stills, appeared on stage that day. And, as is well known, it was not going to be the last time they coincided.

However Young returned and they finished the album. Rock, country, soul and psychedelia blend perfectly on a record that saw the appearance of the band’s third composer, Furay. But, despite the quality of his contributions, the best comes from the struggle between the two band leaders, who deliver the best songs. Stills flirts with jazz on the all-encompassing Everydays, anticipates the sound, listen to that acoustic riff at the beginning, and the harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash with Rock & Roll Woman and also delivers two of his best songs ever with Bluebird and Hung Upside Down. These latter two tunes provide him with incredible guitar duels with Young: on the first with his Martin and on the second with his Gretsch. On the other hand Young delivers the powerful Mr. Soul and the psychedelic and orchestral, Expecting to Fly and Broken Arrow. In short, a masterpiece.

But the problems continue and in January 1968 the authorities deport Palmer again, leading to him being replaced by Jim Messina. Even so one last album was released, Last Time Around, which was composed of songs recorded by its composers almost on their own. Stills is, once again, the main composer with five more songs; including some as interesting as Special Care and Questions, in which his enormous progress on the guitar is noticeable. However by the time the album was released, the band had already separated. Stills had already started building his own career, in May he received a call from Al Kooper telling him "I'm making a 'jam sessions' álbum  and Mike Bloomfield has cleared off, can you come?" With no group, and no clear future, Stills said yes and went off to record what would turn out to be Super Session, a record where he shone on guitar with his wah-wah in the 11 minute plus version of Season Of The Witch .

The success of the album made the concept of a supergroup fashionable, something that could not be more appropriate now that Stills had joined with Crosby, who had just been ejected from the Byrds. In July 1968 (the same month and year in which Super Session was released and the last Buffalo Springfield album) the two were at a party and began to sing You Don’t Have To Cry. At the party was also Graham Nash who had just left the Hollies, and he asked them to repeat it; they did so and the Englishman began to improvise a third harmony. Their voices fitted like a glove, and they saw the future there. Ahmet Ertegün signed the group for his label and began recording them in early '69.

The chemistry of their joint voices would result in what became known as the Laurel Canyon sound that would have tremendous success in the 70s through the music of the Eagles, the Fleetwood Mac of
Lindsey Buckingham, and Jackson Browne. On their first album they returned to their roots to deliver some songs in which folk and country are mixed with pop, plus a rock sound courtesy of a Stills on fire, all marked by harmonies, close to perfection, as can be heard on the historic Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. Despite having all three names on the record, it is clearly dominated by Stills who plays bass, organ and does all guitar solos. Some of them as incredible as the ones on Long Time Gone, Wooden Ships or Pre Road Downs, which Stephen Stills recorded with ‘backwards guitar’, which made Crosby exclaim: "This guy comes from fucking Mars!".

The album became an instant success and earned them an invitation to Woodstock where the trio gave their second concert. Although by then, they had already become a quartet with the arrival of Neil Young. This idea came from Ertegun who wanted to give them a touch more rock, and it could not have worked better. During the reunion Young and Stills exchanged guitars and Stills was left with a wonderful ‘58 White Falcon to which he would make good use of on the band’s best album.  

In March 1970 Déjà Vu appeared. The four members were at the absolute peak of their creativity and this can be seen on the incredible A side, on which each writes and sings a song. How could it be otherwise: Stills opens with Carry On, one of his great songs with a psychodelia edge and touches of his period with Buffalo Springfield, with great guitar included; but his White Falcon is also the protagonist of Almost Cut My Hair and the cover of
Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock. On side two he demonstrates his mastery of acoustics on 4 + 20 and relives the times of Buffalo Springfield with Young with Everybody I Love You.

We are now in April 1970, Déjà Vu is at the top of the charts and the supergroup seems destined to become the new reference band for the rock world, now that McCartney has just announced the separation of the Beatles. On May 10, students were shot at by the National Guard at Kent State and Neil Young composed Ohio within a few hours. The rest of the band joined him to record it and in that same session a song by Stills against the Vietnam war entitled Find The Cost Of Freedom is recorded as a B-side. Beyond their commercial success, the group is elevated to the position of spokesman for counterculture. Their imminent tour is the most anticipated of the summer and the tickets sell out well in advance. But nothing goes well, with quarrels and egos colliding badly and after a concert on July 9 they decide to separate.

Immediately Stills began to record his debut solo album. His status is such that during its recording he collaborates with people like Ringo Starr, Booker T., John Sebastian, Crosby, Nash, and what is more amazing for us, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, on the only occasion in which they ever appeared on the same album. Hendrix appears on Old Times Good Times, one of the many 'jams' that he shared with Stills, while Clapton does so on Go Back Home, a song that opens almost like a 'jam' guided by the fantastic guitar wah of Stills, until in the end Clapton makes his appearance with Brownie, the Fender Stratocaster that would define this period of his career. On the album Stills uses a Firebird that has been recommended by Clapton himself. Both the album and the first single, Love The One You're With, are a success, making Stills the CSN&Y member who achieved the highest position in the charts. Consequently it does not take long for him to produce a second, Stephen Stills 2.

In 1972 Stills formed Manassas, along with Chris Hillman of the Byrds and a great band of musicians releasing a notable record under the same name. The result was so good that the legend goes that one of his illustrious collaborators, bassist Bill Wyman, even said that he would happily leave the Rolling Stones if Stills had invited him to join the band. The double album was one of the peaks of Stills’ career and had considerable commercial success, hobnobbing in the 'Top Ten' with new works by Young, Crosby and Nash. But its follow up, Down the Road, was a failure, both commercially and artistically. As his companions were not having their best commercial moment in 1974, there was a reunion of CSN&Y on a tour that was fundamental for the establishment of the stadium rock era. The concerts lasted up to three and a half hours and the opening acts included people like Joni Mitchell, The Band, the Beach Boys and
Santana. But none were happy with the result and their roads separated again.

In 1976 Stills reunited with Young and together they released Long May You Run, but on the presentation tour the unpredictable Neil again said goodbye. The following year a further reconciliation with Crosby and Nash took place and throughout the following decades, through the joint and solo albums, the fights and the reconciliations continued to come, with Stills always proving that he is an exceptional musician. 

But his best had already been given and that can be found between the first album of Buffalo Springfield and the first with Manassas, one of the most fertile periods of rock music, in which Stills showed that he is among the greatest names in rock.