Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Stephen Stills & Co.

Stephen Stills was born in Dallas, Texas January 3, 1945. Having a family that moved frequently, Stephen spent time in Louisiana and in Florida as well. As someone who lived a similar transient life, my parents bopping about from coast to coast, I know that for many of us, music is one of life's only constants. Out of this, Stephen's talent as a musician revealed itself at an early age, at first playing drums and then piano. Taking cues from local blues musicians, Still's interest quickly turned to the guitar.

In 1961, Stills moved to Costa Rica with his family, where the indigenous Latin music (as well as jazz) began to seep into his sphere of influence. After finishing high school in 1963, Stills ventured off on his own to New Orleans and then to New York. He continued to hone his skills both on the fretboard 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, of course, the Beatles exploded onto the American music scene, shattering the focus of popular music then dominated by old-school crooners like Johnny Mathis and Bobby Vinton (Sinatra would make his big "comeback" in 1966). The Fab Four had an enormous influence on Stephen, as they did on almost every young musician of the era (The Four Kings of EMI are sitting stately on the floor). After a stint in the folk-vocal group the Au Go-Go Singers (where he worked with future Buffalo Ritchie Furay), Stills traveled to Canada in 1965 with an Au Go-Go Singers spinoff called The Company. While playing in Ontario, Stills caught a performance by Neil Young. They hit it off as friends and musical compatriots, but the time wasn't yet right for collaboration. Stills said about their respective directions: "Neil wanted to be Bob Dylan, I wanted to be the Beatles."

Stills headed back to New York and then west to California, where he floundered about writing snippets of songs until he received a letter from Furay inquiring what Stills was up to. Stephen convinced Furay to come to California, which set the stage for the formation of Buffalo Springfield, accidentally, as you know.

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. A few weeks later Stills and Furay spied a black hearse with Ontario plates heading the other way. As fate would have it, bam, Buffalo Springfield.

The band's 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, Jackson Brown and even The Byrds. The Springfield's unique mixture of musical styles and textures was ahead of its time. "For What It’s Worth," the group’s only hit, became an anthem for both the counterculture and the soldiers in Vietnam. The song was actually Stills' response to the riots on the Sunset Strip, nonetheless the ultimate protest song.

Stills With Peter Tork and Davy Jones
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 hits. The band would begin to crumble and by the time of their last release, appropriately titled Last Time Around hit the charts in May 1968, the band had unraveled completely. Last Time Around featured Stills' topical "Special Care" (about racism), "Four Days Gone" (concerning a draft dodger), and "Uno Mundo," one of Stills' first forays (not Furays) displaying the influence of his Latin roots. The tumultuous history of Buffalo Springfield was over, and Stills was only 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 abandoned him mid-session. Stills stepped in, playing distinctive lead guitar on versions of Donovan's "Season of the Witch" and a blues-rock take on "You Don’t Love Me." When released in 1968, Super Session (credited to Bloomfield-Kooper-Stills, although Stills and Bloomfield never shared the studio), an LP you’ve probably never heard of (I never had), became one of the year's biggest sellers, and as a result, Stills received his first gold record (sales in excess of 500,000). 

Super Session was, to be sure, the product of a different time. A time when players of a certain pedigree could get together in the studio, just to see what happened. Such is the mercurial essence surrounding Super Session, which brings every flash of improvisational brilliance from Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, and Stephen Stills into focus. Listen if only for its historical value and contemplate what kind of magic may have occurred if Stills and Bloomfield had played together (it's Bloomfield on side one, with Stills taking over for side two). The question remains, who formed the first Supergroup? Most would argue Cream, with Clapton coming from The Yardbirds and Baker and Bruce coming from The Graham Bond Organization. I might step in to argue for Bloomfield-Kooper-Stills.

Stills and Peter Tork

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