Stephen Stills: Ten tracks you need to know

Playing for spare change at Aspen
Young Stills playing for quarters at Aspen

Today marks the 70th birthday of a true giant of rock and roll: Stephen Stills. If talent alone merited celebrity, his name would be uttered more often in the same sentences as giants like Hendrix, Clapton, Townshend, Jagger/Richards, and Stevie Wonder. Still, most true music fans recognize his importance, and I think the fact that he’s a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer speaks for itself.

When Stills was on, he was on. There was perhaps no working musician in America that turned out such high quality songs and recordings from 1967-1972 than Stills, whether it was with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills Nash (and Young) and his solo career.

Here are ten Stills classics you may have missed the first time around:

“Go And Say Goodbye” Buffalo Springfield (1966)

Stephen Stills has always been a master at blending many musical influences, immersing himself in blues, folk, country and Latin sounds in his youth. This Stills original is an example of early country-rock, a subgenre that would be further explored by The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Bob Dylan, The Eagles, Stills’ own Manassas, and Poco (featuring Springfield alumnus Richie Furay, who would cover this song years later.)

“Four Days Gone” Buffalo Springfield (1968)

“For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield’s only Top 40 hit, quickly grew a life of its own as an anti-Vietnam War anthem. Though it became that (and remains that) to millions, it was originally inspired by a youth curfew imposed on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard in 1966, though it certainly foreshadowed much of the Vietnam and civil rights-related unrest as the Sixties continued to unfold. “Four Days Gone,” recorded for the final Buffalo Springfield album “Last Time Around,” paints a sympathetic portrait of a draftee on the run for the Canadian border who encounters a helpful older couple on the way. This demo version, first released on the 2001 Buffalo Springfield box set, features Stills alone at the piano, and remains the most direct and compelling take of this song.

“It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” Al Kooper & Stephen Stills (1968)

Buffalo Springfield fell apart in the spring of 1968. Around the same time, singer/songwriter/producer/keyboardist Al Kooper had just been sacked as leader of Blood Sweat and Tears, a group that briefly considered hiring Stephen Stills as his replacement. Kooper was quickly hired by Columbia Records as a producer, and his first project was to create an informal “jam session” album which became the big-selling “Super Session.” His jam partner was friend Mike Bloomfield, who after completing Side One decided to vanish without warning. Not wanting already paid-for studio time to go to waste, Kooper put out an S.O.S to various other guitarists, with Stephen Stills ultimately answering the call. The most famous recording from this album is Kooper and Stills’ spellbinding take on Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” Perhaps the most overlooked recording of this album is their cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” which Kooper and the absent Bloomfield performed with its writer three years before. Stills offers some tasteful, country-flavored electric work on this one. Kooper sang the vocal, claiming in his autobiography that Stills was one of his “favorite singers, and to have his voice on the album would have upgraded it two hundred percent.” Given that Stills was on rival label Atlantic, Kooper didn’t want to endanger the release of the album due to a legal hassle. Stills’ appearance on the Columbia-issued “Super Session” became a bargaining chip in Hollies member Graham Nash’s eventual release from Columbia/Epic to join Crosby and Stills on Atlantic, as well as Richie Furay’s defection from Atlantic to Columbia to start Poco.

“You Don’t Have to Cry” Crosby, Stills and Nash (1969) Of all of Stephen Stills’ contributions to CSN, this may be the most important song of them all. It was on this song that, in 1968, in an informal get-together, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash first harmonized together. After a couple of go-rounds on this song, the trio realized they had something special. This moment solidified Graham Nash’s decision to leave The Hollies and England for California and the formation of the defining American group of the Woodstock era.

“Old Times Good Times” Stephen Stills (1970)

Stephen Stills’ debut album featured Stills overdubbing many instruments himself, but still featured an all-star cast of backing vocalists and guest guitarists, including Jimi Hendrix. It’s been rumored that Stills opted to leave a Hendrix guitar part off his defining hit “Love The One You’re With” in favor of an organ solo (in retrospect, why argue with success?), however Hendrix does appear on this track that reflects on Stills’ history as a musician, a theme he would later revisit a few years later in the bluegrass-flavored “Don’t Look At My Shadow.”

“So Begins The Task” Stephen Stills and Manassas (1972)

One of Stills’ most famous songs was “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” written for his one-time girlfriend Judy Collins as their relationship was falling apart. After their breakup was final, Stills wrote “So Begins the Task,” which he performed live with Crosby, Nash and Neil Young, but didn’t release until 1972, when Stills recorded and toured with his band Manassas. This is one of the most heartbreaking breakup songs you will ever hear. Their breakup proved amicable, as Collins herself would cover the song in 1973. This song was one of the highlights of Stills’ solo show when I saw him at the State Theatre in Portland in 2011.

“The Treasure” Stephen Stills and Manassas (1972)

Stephen Stills assembled a new band with ex-Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman in late 1971 and called it Manassas. This extraordinary group also featured pedal steel player Al Perkins, drummer Dallas Taylor and percussionist Joe Lala amongst others. Manassas was in all respects a strong standalone band with Stephen Stills as its leader, as opposed to a group of backing musicians merely supporting a solo singer-songwriter. Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman even confided to Stills that he would have quit the Stones to join Manassas. Their debut double-album was a Top Five chart success and is regarded as one of Stills’ defining moments (it is also my personal favorite Stills album). Unfortunately, Manassas was a victim of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s previous success, with reunion rumors always looming, and record labels and promoters greatly favoring the guaranteed financial successes of any CSN activity. The group would fall apart by early 1974 as CSNY began working together again. This track sums up just about everything that is great about Stills: the songwriter, the singer, and especially the guitarist as the extended jam shows. This live take is one of the few appearances of Manassas on film and it truly is a treasure.

“As I Come Of Age” Stephen Stills (1975)

Though it first appeared on the “Stills” solo album of 1975, this is a Crosby, Stills and Nash track recorded much earlier, featuring Ringo Starr on drums. The song has become a beloved part of CSN’s live set over the years.

“Cuba Al Fin” Stephen Stills (1979)

Beginning with the Buffalo Springfield track “Uno Mundo,” most albums featuring Stills feature at least one track with a strong Latin flavor. Stills moved around quite a bit in his childhood, spending time in Florida and Central America, soaking up a good amount of Latin culture and music. In 1979, Stills and his band were invited to participate in the Havana Jam, CBS Records’ showcase of American musicians in Communist Cuba that also included a star-studded lineup including Billy Joel, Kris Kristofferson and Weather Report. Stills dives head-first into his Latin side with this performance, written specifically for the event.

“Haven’t We Lost Enough?” Crosby, Stills and Nash (1990)

Like many of his generation, Stills’ influence and commercial impact waned as the 1980s moved along. In 1990, Crosby, Stills and Nash released one of the most panned albums of their career with “Live It Up” (whoever designed the album cover should be shot). Given the talent involved on the album, the results were disappointing, but that’s not to say there weren’t a few highlights. One of them was a song co-written by Stills and REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin, called “Haven’t We Lost Enough.” (Fun fact: In 1973, a Cronin-less REO covered the related Stills compositions “Everybody I Love You” and “Know You Got To Run” as “Open Up.”)

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