Stephen Stills…Hey, What’s That Sound?

He doesn’t seem to get the credit he deserves.

If it weren’t for Stephen Stills writing the 1967 #7 hit “For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound)”, most people wouldn’t have heard Buffalo Springfield.

The group’s other star-to-be was Neil Young, but “For What It’s Worth” was their only hit.  Some other Buffalo Springfield songs were later played on Album Oriented Rock FM stations, including Stills’ “Rock & Roll Woman” and “Bluebird”.

Next came Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1969.  Stills was a dominant force on the album, with “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, “Helplessly Hoping”, “You Don’t Have To Cry”, “49 Bye Byes” and “Wooden Ships” (which he had written prior to CSN).  But it wasn’t just songwriting and singing, Stills played most of the instruments (only some of the drumming) on all but two tracks.  This takes nothing away from the great songs and contributions by David Crosby and Graham Nash…it was just how the first album was done.

The follow up album was CSN&Y’s Deja Vu in 1970.  Besides lots of lead guitar and other instrumental work, Stills’ main contributions included “Carry On/Questions”, “4 + 20”, and a great lead vocal on Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”.

Then it was solo time.

The albums Stephen Stills and Stephen Stills 2 were released in 1970 and 1971.  Among the tracks were “Love The One You’re With”, “Do For The Others”, “Change Partners”, “Nothin’ To Do But Today”, “Sugar Babe”, and “Know You Got To Run”.  Stills was not really a singles artist, but the albums did well, reaching #3 and #8 respectively.  Next came one of the best albums of his career.

Manassas was a group of top musicians, as assembled by Stephen Stills.  It was Stephen Stills (lead guitar & keyboards), Chris Hillman (of the Byrds) [guitar & mandolin], Dallas Taylor (Drums), Paul Harris (keyboards),  Fuzzy Samuels (bass), Al Perkins (pedal steel & guitar), and Joe Lala (percussion).  This is a great 2-record album filled with solid songs, including “It Doesn’t Matter”, “So Begins The Task”, “Johnny’s Garden”, “Don’t Look At My Shadow”, “Blues Man”…and many more.  It’s a wonderful mix of Rock and Country Rock.  Critics praised the album.

In fact, I remember reading the glowing review in Rolling Stone, and right next to it was the review of the Graham Nash David Crosby album.  It too got a great review, and is probably the best album by Crosby & Nash.  It includes “Southbound Train”, “Games”, “Immigration Man”, “Page 43” and “The Wall Song”.

But wait, there’s more.  Neil Young also released his Harvest album.  The three albums were all in the Top-10 at the same time in June of 1972.  Manassas (a more expensive double album) hit #4, Graham Nash David Crosby also peaked at #4, and of course Harvest hit #1.  It was amazing that the members of CSN&Y could all have so much simultaneous success.

Stills “solo” studio projects included another Manassas album Down The Road (1972), Stills (1975), Illegal Stills (1976), Thoroughfare Gap (1978), Right By You (1984), Stills Alone (1991), Man Alive! (2005), a collection of 1968 demos Just Roll Tape (2007), some 1972 Manassas outtakes Pieces (2009), and an album with Judy Collins Everybody Knows (2017).

Of course sprinkled in were CSN& sometimes Y albums: CSN (1977), Daylight Again (1982), American Dream (1988), Live It Up (1990), After The Storm (1994), and Looking Forward (1999).

One thing that’s never been released is a really good collection of the best music of Stephen Stills’ career.  There is a box set, Carry On, but some of the choices and versions are suspect.  It’s also too sprawling and expensive.  Only the most hardcore fans will have purchased it.

Here’s a suggested career retrospective that would be considered a double album, would fit on one CD, and might attract more music fans.  (click to enlarge the list.)

This gives a pretty good look at some of the main contributions Stephen Stills has made to the world of music.  Only 6 of the 23 songs are on the CSN Greatest Hits album.  His impressive songwriting, excellent guitar playing, and distinctive vocals demonstrate he deserves to be included in the discussion of the best singers, songwriters, and musicians.  Stephen Stills is much more than one-third of a great group.

(Please check out the companion article on Crosby & Nash.)

Bonus Story:  Newer Stephen Stills fans will find one of his songs is hard to acquire.  I first heard “Treetop Flyer” when he recorded it live for a 1976 radio concert.  That version is fantastic, and has been in my music collection ever since, but is not available to the public (except on bootlegs).

Finally, in 1991, Stills did a studio version for his album Stills Alone, so I bought the CD.  However, it was on a small label, and not very many copies were made.  Slowly, people found out about the cool song, but couldn’t find a copy.  If you did find one, it was very expensive.

Then in 2007, Stills released the album Just Roll Tape.  It was from a studio session in 1968 when Stills, with just his acoustic guitar, recorded songs he’d been writing.  On the tape is a demo of “Treetop Flyer”.  It became the best selling cut of all of Stills’ songs on iTunes.  There’s a problem though, because if Stephen wasn’t happy with a verse, he immediately re-sang it.  Basically, this rough (though good sounding) demo needs the poorer quality duplicate verses edited out of it (which can be done easily with Apple’s Garage Band).

Next, the 1991 studio version of “Treetop Flyer” was included in 2013’s Carry On box set…only trouble was, you had to buy it…the whole box set!  The song is not sold as an individual cut.  So if that’s the only song you need, it’s still $40.  Evil marketers!

P.S.  How cool is this?  “Treetop Flyer” was used for the long  first scenes in 2018’s season premiere of “This Is Us”.

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