Steve Stills: “I’ve always been a salty cat”
Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead: “Stephen isn’t an asshole even when he appears to be”
Long-time musical partner Neil Young: “Stephen Stills is a musical genius”
Such is Steve Stills – a polarizing figure if there ever was one.
In the early 70’s, following the demise of the highly regarded Buffalo Springfield, and his enormously successful tenure – both commercially and artistically – with Crosby Stills & Nash (& Young), to some fans and especially a large contingent of critics, Stills appeared to have hit a creative valley. This occurred within a span of two years, and after the release of Stills’ first two solo albums: “Stephen Stills” and “Stephen Stills 2”. The bad press and the perception of Stills being a lesser talent, while it started there, would dog him for the rest of his career. Stills, in turn, would meet this perspective with both a confused hurt and defiance. In his defense, although he didn’t always hit the mark, there was some superlative work apparent on both releases for which he received little credit.
Steve Stills in earlier times was courted and praised by peers, fans, and the media alike. Regrettably, he used this goodwill ostensibly as a license to produce both excesses as well as misfires, (for someone of his stature), in the name of art. And when his work was called into question – primarily by the media – Stills was less than tactful in his response. He was defensive, and acted as if he was beyond reproach. The media quickly turned on him, and giving him no quarter, pronounced Stills arrogant, and certainly undeserving of superstar status. Anything positive that he fostered in the persona presented up until that point was dismissed. In the media’s eyes Stills was a fraud and he quickly became the media’s whipping boy.
And Stills wasn’t one to help his own cause either. Rather, he seemed to relish cultivating his tarnished image. The media, in turn, was only too happy to oblige him. In a 1970 Rolling Stone interview, titled “Stephen Stills: The Aristocratic Horseman Of Rock”, Stills made it very clear that pictures were off limits unless they were solely of him riding one of his recently purchased horses. And he tiredly responded to a question about one of his songs by saying “There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature. And I’ve had equal success and failure with all of three.” Rather than accept this seemingly profound, (and in Stills’ case, somewhat strange), statement, the interviewer did some digging and found that the first part of the quote belonged to British novelist Lawrence Durrell. Again, Stills wasn’t cut any slack, and the insinuation was that he was less than he appeared to be. Assuming an adversarial stance, Stills didn’t do himself any favours not only in his behaviour and but also in underestimating the power of the media to turn perception into reality. True stars weren’t supposed to err this badly. But to the chagrin of many a critic there were still a number of musical high points on the horizon. And, if they chose to dig deeper they would find there’s more to Steve Stills, flaws and all, than simply the music.
Stephen Arthur Stills was born January 3, 1945 in Dallas Texas. Raised in a military family, Stills moved around a lot. He spent his youth in a number of locales: Gainesville FLA, Tampa FLA, Covington LA, Costa Rica, Panama Canal Zone, and El Salvador. He counted 5 different high schools that he attended before graduating at Lincoln High School in Costa Rica.
In the course of this seemingly nomadic life Stills developed a certain comfort with the diverse cultural experiences and soaked up all the varied musical influences that were there to be had. Given his military background and “get it done” mindset, suffice to say that his personality, and musical ability weren’t developed in a suburban basement in anywhere USA.
The result of those early personal experiences was manifested in a strong political bent blended with an unquestioned patriotism. A lifelong, card carrying Democrat, Stills campaigned for JFK before he was old enough to vote. And – as a relatively private person – he remains, behind the scenes, a valued party supporter to this day.
Already a comparatively accomplished musician as a teen, Stills moved from drums to guitar at 12 years of age, and seemed to pick it up effortlessly. His musical education came from a variety of sources and at 15 was aided by listening to the famed late night shows of John R and Big Hugh Baby on WLAC out of Nashville. The Chicago and Delta Blues he heard on the station would have a lasting impression, bed rocking his many faceted musical approach that included Rock, Latin, Folk ballads, and a splash of Classical. Along the way, he honed his vocal chops by singing in the choir at St. Leo Academy Benedictine Monastery and School and Catholic Church in Tampa.
Continuing his education was of no interest as Stills dropped out of LSU in the early 60’s. Seeing himself as a solo Folk and Blues performer, it was logical to answer the call of opportunities of New York City’s Greenwich Village scene in 1964 at the age of 19. There he played various clubs – with Gerdes Folk City and The Café Au Go Go being the most prominent – and was befriended by an early mentor, Fred Neil. Neil, already on his way to legendary status in the Village, would provide general guidance as well as helping in furthering Stills’ already well formed guitar skills. (Stills said, “Freddie taught me just about everything I know about the guitar”).
Stills’ stay in the Village would only last two years, but in that time he would become a member of a 9 member vocal harmony group, The Au Go Go Singers – a Café Au Go Go house act that also featured future Buffalo Springfield founding member Richie Furay. In addition to recording an album with the collective, “They Call Us The Au Go Go Singers”, Stills also guested, (uncredited), on Neil’s classic self-titled release.
Tired of the scuffling encountered in his New York City life, Stills hit the road once again as part of a Folk Rock ensemble called The Company that hit points in both Canada and the U.S. It was as a member of The Company on a Canadian Folk circuit encompassing Fort Francis, Thunder Bay, and Winnipeg that Stills would first meet one Neil Young who was fronting his own band The Squires. Stills and Young hit it off instantly and vowed to play together at some point down the road. Stills’ and Young’s careers, of course, would intertwine well into the 2000’s.
Stills, on the move once again, headed to L.A., the focal point of the burgeoning Folk Rock scene. And, by now, everyone has probably heard the story of Stills and Richie Furay driving down Sunset Boulevard when they spotted a black hearse with Canadian plates coming in the other direction. Knowing immediately that it was Neil Young, Stills made a U-turn and caught up with him. Such was the initial meeting of the 3 primary members of Buffalo Springfield.
Buffalo Springfield, (after first calling themselves The Herd), had a short, (2 years), but highly inventive run. (And despite tumultuous times, Stills was the glue that held the band together. As Richie Furay noted, at the time, “Stills is the heart and soul of Buffalo Springfield”).
On an eclectic mix of songs, no band before or since has effortlessly and seamlessly blended acoustic and electric guitars. In their time the band released 4 albums, (including “Retrospective: The Best Of The Buffalo Springfield” that hit the shelves in 1969 after the band had broken up). In truth, only the self-titled first album – that contained their only hit, Stills’ “For What It’s Worth” – was a true, full band effort. By the second album, “Buffalo Springfield Again,” cracks started to appear as egos clashed – primarily between Stills and Young. The third album, “Last Time Around”, was released after the band had parted ways and was left to Stills, Furay, and Jim Messina to assemble. In all, Stills distinguished himself with some of the Springfield’s best songs – of note was the opus “Bluebird”; (found on “Buffalo Springfield Again”).
There were a number of benefits that were derived from the Buffalo Springfield experience. On top of refining his songwriting skills – through experimentation – Stills learned his way around a recording studio, developing an expertise in engineering and producing records. In addition, his time with The Springfield enhanced his general musicianship. Not only did Stills advance markedly as a guitar player but he also became proficient on bass as well as keyboards. Combine that with his existing vocals, drums, and percussion skills; and through overdubbing, Stills was now capable of making a record all by himself. (These talents would also stand him in good stead as he furthered his career – including his session work calls. For instance, that’s Stills’ outstanding bass line, answering Leon Russell’s piano, on Eric Clapton’s “Let It Rain”)
Stills was now on his own again. After flirting with the idea of replacing Al Kooper after his exit from Blood Sweat & Tears, Stills joined Kooper himself on the ground breaking release “Super Session”. Here, Stills split time with guitar hero Michael Bloomfield, and vaulted into the spotlight. Specifically, he made his presence felt with his over the top wah-wah laden treatment of Donovan’s “Season Of The Witch”; (heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix who Stills started a friendship with at The Monterey Pop Festival). On the basis of that song alone, Stills had arrived as a top flight guitar player. (To Stills’ credit, it was also questioned in more than one review why the Stills, a superior singer, didn’t handle the vocals as opposed to the pedestrian Kooper). Stills was now in control of his own destiny.
The year was 1968, a time that saw a major shift in Rock to a heavier sound led by the likes of Led Zepplin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple. Stills – always at his best as a collaborator – took another road, and teamed up with ex Byrds David Crosby and ex Hollies Graham Nash to form debatably the first bona fide super group and bucked that trend. Instead, the trio served up expertly arranged, mostly tender love songs complete with tight harmonies. And exquisite, melodic guitar passages or B-3 organ fills, courtesy of Stills, were dropped in as required. As such, the initial album “Crosby Stills & Nash” placed at # 6 on the charts, sold more than 4 million copies, and stayed on the charts for an incredible 107 weeks! They were trend setters, and brought a lot of wannabes out of the woodwork. Suffice to say that bands like Poco, The Eagles, and Loggins & Messina wouldn’t have seen the light of day without Crosby Stills & Nash paving the way. Along the way, Crosby Stills & Nash earned the three music business veterans a Grammy Award for “Best New Artist”(??).
The self-titled first release also bears mentioning because in a lot of critics’ eyes it’s Steve Stills’ finest hour. Except for the occasional acoustic guitar provided by Crosby or Nash, and Dallas Taylor’s drums, Stills, (“Captain Manyhands”), covered all the rest of the instrumentation: guitars, keys, and bass. And Stills added unmatched songwriting to the mix including the electrifying opener “Suite: Judy Blues Eyes” that’s become synonymous with Crosby Stills & Nash.
In order to tour in support of the album the band required another musician to flesh out the guitar sound and handle keyboards, and they selected Neil Young to fill the void. Two Crosby Stills Nash & Young albums followed: “Déjà Vu”, that was certified Gold after only 14 weeks of its release in 1970, and another Gold record, 1971’s live “4 Way Street”, (released long after the band’s break-up). Stills made his presence felt on both records including Déjà Vu’s “Carry On / Questions” that he wrote and again played the majority of the instruments, and a spectacular vocal on the band’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” from the same record.
David Crosby commented that Crosby Stills Nash & Young was “sacrificed at the altar of ego”; and egos, infighting, and drug use, that had become more than a dalliance by all parties, all played a role. The four went their separate ways with the success of CSNY providing Crosby, Stills, and Nash with the confidence to put out solo releases and embark on solo tours. (Young had his own band all along, and used that same success to give his solo career a much needed spark).
Stills, for his part, recorded his first two solo albums, as previously mentioned, and expectations of both the albums were high. In reality, both albums contain some quality moments, again showcasing Stills’ impeccable musicianship, and bringing to the fore all of his “Roots Music” influences. Of special mention is “Stephen Stills” that went Gold, reached # 3 on the charts, and featured the hit single “Love The One You’re With”. As well, it’s the only album that features both Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix; (two guitar players that Stills continually cites as major influences). “Stephen Stills 2” was no slouch either; it hit # 8 on the charts and included “Change Partners” and a number of other radio friendly songs. Unfortunately, the low points, although outnumbered by the good songs, were glaring and practically impossible to ignore.
To make matters worse, what followed was an uneven tour in support of the albums that showed that Stills was ill equipped to handle the pressure and stress of carrying a show alone. (Adding to the problem was his insistence on carrying an unwieldly band complete with The Memphis Horns). As a means of coping, Stills was drinking heavily which obviously hindered his performance leading to a number of unfavourable reviews. Later, in clearer mind, Stills would recall these dates as “The drunken Memphis Horns tour”.
Given the ill-fated tour and resultant fall from grace with fans and the media alike, Stills realized immediately that he was now at a crossroads. And he surmised correctly that the situation called for a reset. Once recouped, always the collaborator, Stills made several (failed) attempts to get CSNY back together. When that proved fruitless, Stills decided to make a clean break. He relocated to Colorado with the thought of moving in a completely new direction. He contacted an old friend – ex Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers member Chris Hillman – with the idea of forming an acoustic Country and Bluegrass band. The original line-up included the remnants of the Flying Burrito Brothers (including Hillman). After some jamming and recording only Al Perkins and Hillman of the former Burritos remained interested, leaving Stills to hire a new line-up. From there Stills pivoted to hiring a band with the objective of recreating The Buffalo Springfield sound. Joining Stills (vocals, guitar, keys, assorted instruments), Hillman (vocals, guitar, mandolin), and Perkins (pedal steel, guitar), were musicians handpicked by Stills: Paul Harris (keys), Joe Lala (assorted percussion), and old bandmates Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels (bass), and Dallas Taylor (drums). Thus the band Manassas was born; arguably the best Steve Stills band ever.
Not only could Manassas match the genre hopping Buffalo Springfield, but their high level of musicianship pushed Stills to the top of his game. Stills displayed the best combination of singing, playing, and songwriting of his career while leaning heavily on his Rock, Blues, Country, and Latin roots. The band was so prolific that they needed a double album to tell their story, (complete with four themed sides). And the critics unanimously agreed that the release was one of the few instances in recent times that warranted a double album. Accordingly, the self-titled “Manassas” reached # 4 on the charts with Stills earning the best reviews of his career. (It’s worth mentioning that the 2009 release “Pieces” comprised of songs left on the cutting room floor from the first “Manassas” sessions are worthwhile recordings, and might have made a case for a triple album).
Although the band would release a significantly inferior second album “Down The Road”, (recorded when the band dynamic was deteriorating), Manassas started on a high note with the best intentions. Stills took care of the business / financial end putting the band on a salary while further financing the project. Years later, Hillman’s memories of Manassas are nothing but positive: “one of the highlights of my life”. He goes on to say that he learned a lot musically from Stills and that although Stills was the undisputed leader – “the benevolent dictator” – he recalls being in Manassas as the most democratic situation he had ever been involved in. Further, because the band was on a very good salary, he noted that there were nights that they earned more than Stills did. Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol – primarily on Stills’ part – led to their demise after a short 18 months.
Stills would be hard pressed to duplicate the Manassas success. He spent a good part of the mid to late seventies rudderless, with a lack of a musical vision primarily attributed to his continuing drug and alcohol use. Even a much heralded 1974 CSNY reunion, or The Stills–Young Band release and subsequent tour, despite some stellar moments, did little to give his career a much needed shot in the arm. And, being generous, all that could be said of his other albums going forward to present day – both solo and with others, e.g. Crosby Stills & Nash, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, The Rides (with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Barry Goldberg), and with Judy Collins – is that they are, at best, interesting.
That is, with one exception. As if to prove to himself that he still had the goods, Stills temporarily quit drinking, got into the best physical shape of his life, and put his best foot forward for a 1977 Crosby Stills & Nash reunion album and tour. (Stills even impressed his bandmates with his determination and hard work). And the trio reaped the rewards as the recording “CSN” went on to be the biggest selling record of their collective careers – even outselling their self-titled debut. The album went quadruple platinum as it shot to # 2 on the charts; and, without a doubt benefitted from Stills’ incomparable guitar playing as well as some of his best songs in years such as “See The Changes”, “Dark Star”, and “I Give You Give Blind”. Even critics had to begrudgingly give Stills his due.
Either on his own or with others, Steve Stills has recorded over 30 albums totalling sales of over 35 million in a 50 plus year career. He has been a member of 4 highly influential groups: Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills & Nash, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and Manassas. He’s a two time member of The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame (inducted with The Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills & Nash), and is in The Songwriters Hall Of Fame. Stills has been listed as one of the top 100 guitar players twice by Rolling Stone Magazine. Further, Stills recorded 3 albums cited in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time: “Buffalo Springfield Again”, “Crosby Stills & Nash”, and “Déjà vu”.
That’s quite a resume to say the very least! And it could rightfully be said that Steve Stills, as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and all around musician, doesn’t always get the credit he so rightfully deserves. Yes, admittedly, he sometimes couldn’t get out of his own way. But if you’re going to point to his personality as justification for downplaying his accomplishments, I would counter that next to a Jerry Lee Lewis or a Chuck Berry, (strictly as a point of reference), that Steve Stills is a choir boy.
I submit that there are a lot of artists who wish they could have written some of the songs that Stills has written or played their instruments with the authority that Stills possesses. Of course, that’s open to debate. But, for evidence, one has to look no further than the collection of songs found on the 4 disc retrospective “Carry On” that speaks quite eloquently on Steve Stills’ behalf.
A Steve Stills Playlist:
- Love The One You’re With – taken from “Stephen Stills”
- Do For The Others – taken from “Stephen Stills”
- Buyin’ Time – taken from “Illegal Stills”
- Wrong Thing To Do – taken from “Live At Shepherd’s Bush” (a Tom Petty / Mudcrutch cover that Stills makes his own)
- Sit Yourself Down – taken from “Stephen Stills”
- Change Partners – taken from “Stephen Stills 2”
- It Doesn’t Matter – taken from “Manassas”
- I Don’t Get It – taken from “Man Alive”
- Sugar Babe – taken from “Pieces” (Manassas)
- Word Game – taken from “Stephen Stills 2”
- Black Queen – taken from “Stephen Stills”
- The Love Gangster – taken from “Manassas”
- Cherokee – taken from “Stephen Stills”
- Singin’ Call – taken from “Stephen Stills 2”
- Johnny’s Garden – taken from “Manassas”
- Nothin’ To Do But Today – taken from “Stephen Stills 2”
- Isn’t It About Time – taken from “Down The Road”; with Manassas
- Lowdown – taken from “Thoroughfare Gap”
- Old Times Good Times – taken from “Stephen Stills”; featuring Jimi Hendrix
- Go Back Home – taken from “Stephen Stills”; featuring Eric Clapton
- Rico Ferrara February 2021
5 thoughts on “Steve Stills”
Event though we have talked about Stills’ music for years, I always learn something new from you. This time – I never knew there was an out takes album (Pieces) from the first Manassas album. Thanks for that! Another great essay, a terrific retrospective on his career. The good, bad, and the ugly.
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Wow, what a fascinating story! I’m blown away not only by the events you recount in your posts, Rico, but the insights you always provide. Keep up the great work!
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I always saw Stills as simply a solid “background” musician and performer, never an entity in his own right. This extensive and informative overview certainly challenges that perspective. Nevertheless, his appeal (to me) is not that strong, based upon music genre and his association with Neil Young.
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Great read Rico
When I went from record player to a “component stereo system” in the late 60’s – one of the first records I listened to featured Stills.
PS tanks for teaching me how to respect and care for albums- I still have many of the albums you mentioned in your writing
Keep the stories coming my friend
The Hick from the Sticks
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Thanks Rico. Another good read. There`s got to be be music magazine out there with a job for you.
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