Stephen Stills

Stephen Stills Stephen Stills
Self Titled First Album

4.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

After playing virtually every instrument on Crosby, Stills & Nash’s harmonious debut, spending nearly 700 hours producing its more corporately aligned follow-up, “Déjà vu,” then going out on tour with his combative band of brothers, one would think Stephen Stills would take a well deserved rest. Instead, Stills cashed in his chits, assembling an All-Star extravaganza for his self-titled solo debut, which illustrated he was much more than just the volatile middle child in one of rock’s super groups.

Stills scored his biggest hit with the album’s opener, “Love the One You’re With,” a top ten calypso smash that served as a mantra for the post-Woodstock generation: “If you can’t be with the one you love honey, love the one you’re with.” Stills proves adept at handling the steel drums and pounces on the Hammond organ for a high grade solo as thick and soulful as Felix Cavaliere’s hopped up R & B romps for the Rascals. Jeff Whitaker (later a part of Peter Green’s 80s return from rock and roll obscurity) completes the percussive circle on congas, and a celebrity chorus comprised of Graham Nash, David Crosby, Pricilla Jones (wife of Booker T), Joe Cocker back up singer Rita Coolidge and Lovin’ Spoonful leader John Sebastian help to enrich the tune’s festive intent. The sensual soul version cut by the Isley Brothers in 1971 shimmied its way to #18 on the charts. Other artists, including The Jackson Five and Aretha Franklin later waxed their own versions, but Stills’ definitive original is the lone survivor on the airwaves nearly 40 years later.

“Do For the Others” was originally written with the angelic harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash in mind, and it bears their mellow stamp, with Stills triple tracking his back ups against gently massaged acoustic guitars. Stills assumes his role as “Captain Many Hands;” mixing the guitars, bass and percussion together with emotive, layered background singing, creating an acoustic heaven.

Preacher Stills leads the congregation for “Church (Part of Someone),” and by the time the open throttle organ is through climbing a righteous path to heaven, Stills and his sanctified back up singers sound like they’re ready to be fitted their wings: “You know it’s my thing to be part of someone, as a true friend is part of me.” Instead of the hippie chorus headed by Crosby & Nash, Stills goes for the full gospel effect, employing Judith Powell, Liza Strike, Larry Steele and Tony Wilson to back him up. You’ll say amen.

Had Stephen Stills’ manager passed on a note from Jimi Hendrix asking him to be the bassist for The Experience, who knows how much better their albums would have sounded? Stills and Hendrix reportedly jammed together for hours while this album was being recorded, and “Old Times Good Times” is the result -- the last recording Hendrix ever made. From his standpoint it’s a push. If Hendrix’s name wasn’t listed in the credits you wouldn’t know he was working the fret board. His guitar is turned down to a barely audible level, and his solo just manages to keep up with Stills overdubbed “I’m A Man” arrangement propelled by drummer Conrad Isador (misidentified as “Isedor”) and Stills Winwood-ish swipes on organ. Hendrix may be adrift in the mix, but the rest of “Old Times, God Times” cooks with a double-timed combination of rock and gospel.

Every musician remotely interested in the guitar should listen to “Go Back Home.” It’s what a synthesis of and rock and blues should sound like; grizzly bear mean, with the effect of a steamroller flattening a 98-pound weakling. It starts out with Stills choking out sharp B.B. King licks on guitar. Calvin Samuels creeps in, prodding out a fat bottomed beat on bass as drummer Johnny Barbata chops at his kit. Barbata, Stills and Samuels were spympatico from playing many a gig with Crosby, Nash and Young. It takes only a few notes for the trio to lock in as Stills spits out dirty a vocal in a growl that would make Howlin’ Wolf cower, while he turning out solos that slash the air like lightning in a summer storm. And it gets better…As the song gathers steam, Stills drops out as the lead guitarist and Eric Clapton takes over. I’ve always thought Eric’s more “creative” (read endless) solos were a bit overrated, but as you may have guessed by now, I’m hard on them gee-tar players anyway. This is by far my favorite Clapton solo – he’s concise, a fire-breathing rapid-fire whirlwind, an inspiration to a generation of air guitarists. Recorded during his I-can’t-have-Patti-Harrison-so-I’ll-do-heroin phase, “Slowhand” generates more giddy up than his career defining solo on “Let It Rain.”

“Sit Yourself Down” reassembles Stills rock gospel chorus of Coolidge, Nash, Crosby Sebastian and Jones, tacking on Joe Cocker back up singer Claudia Lanier and pre-ham sandwich victim Mama Cass Elliot. (Just kidding. Choking on a ham sandwich didn’t kill Mama Cass, although the dreaded snack was on a table beside the bed. Its better that Cass is remembered for her work with the Mamas & Papas as well as being the person who introduced Nash to Crosby and Stills.) The addition of Lanier and Elliot’s meaty vocals (aha, another cruel fat joke) and Stills’ carnivorous solos assures you won’t be able to sit still (or Stills).

Arguably Stills most beautiful ballad (he didn’t do a lot of them), “To A Flame” features a warm, tear-producing string section blended with flickering, moody vibes. “Richie” (Ringo Starr) is a pleasant surprise drumming with creative sensitivity. Away from The Beatles, Starr displays his distinct, yet seemingly simplistic style that helped make their sound the best ever committed to record. In a recent interview, Starr gave away his secret, saying, “I always played to the singer.” (Most drummers follow or overwhelm the bass or another instrument.) Starr shadows Stills’ bereaved vocal, rattling the traps like a tympani player, his touch proving that less is indeed more. By 1970 Stills had been burned by many of the women in his life (the worse was yet to come), including Judy Collins and Rita Coolidge, who was spirited away from Stills by Graham Nash, instituting a period of acrimony between the two singers that would last for nearly half a dozen years. “To A Flame” shows that even the outwardly hostile Stills armor of invincibility could be penetrated: “Drawn to a flame, she is far away, out of reach. Will she burn her wings, I can only watch, out of touch, out of my mind.”

It’s a bit of an injustice that the most beautiful song on the album is followed by its ugly stepsister. “Black Queen” is the reason “Stills 1” gets 4 ½ stars instead of 5. I have to admit when I first heard it I was unimpressed, it seemed like Stills was coping John Lee Hooker’s act but wound up sounding more like Blind Lemon Chitlin’, a parody of a bluesman. Stills’ respect for and strict adherence to Delta blues has worn me down a bit over the years; I still don’t like “Black Queen,” but his high end acoustic picking and the gritty timbre in Stills’ voice deserve the same kind of respect you give a stubborn boxer whose skills have eroded but who refuses to quit – maybe he wins the fight on sheer tenacity. Stills supposedly recorded “Black Queen” after downing a bottle of Tequila; it doesn’t add to the quality of his performance, just its authenticity. He’s trotted “Black Queen” out on at least three occasions; here, on the just released “Just Roll Tape” (see the review), and as a bonus track when “4 Way Street” was remastered. “4 Way Street”’s version gets the nod. It’s live, Stills explains the songs origin, then gets pissed off at someone in the audience who chuckles as he grunts and growls his way through the first few notes. He uses his anger to propel his performance, howling like a hoodoo being stripped of its flesh, and if that ain’t the blues, nothin’ is.

“Cherokee” boasts a jazzy powerhouse horn hoard that blares with the hair-blowing authority of Maynard Ferguson’s brass-section-as-a-village sound. Sidney George provides the whispery flute solos and blows proudly on Alto sax. Stills tames his guitar into sounding like a sitar as long-time substance abuse buddy (and former CSN drummer), Dallas Taylor electrifies the beat.

“Richie” (Ringo Starr) returns for “We Are Not Helpless,” providing the revelation beat to a song that served as an answer to Neil Young’s “Helpless.” Not only do you get the “Sit Yourself Down” celebrity back up singers, but Booker T. Jones and the Shirley Matthews chorus ride the rhythmic wave as well, busting out good gospel grace.

Momentum can both consume and propel (just ask the 2004 Boston Red Sox). Stills’ creativity was beginning to peak in 1970 – he had maybe half a dozen years left before his prolific songwriting skills would dry up. But with “Stephen Stills,” the middle child in CSN put his workaholic nature to good use, producing one of his finest albums.

Stills the One
An auspicious debut, “Stephen Stills” ushered in a prolific period of creativity for the tall Texan. Stephen Stills 2 (3 ½ out of 5 stars) followed; a good effort with five stunners out of six to start off (the restrained “Know You’ve Got To Run Is” is tolerable, but unnecessary). The rest of the album bogged down under the weight of Stills soap box criticisms (“Ecology Song” and “Word Game”) and the umpteenth version of “Bluebird” (he doesn’t even disguise it this time, calling it “Bluebird Revisited.” Not even a taxidermist could love this leadened turkey). You’ll have to wade through some sub-par stuff to get to the albums two best compositions, the misty mountain ballad “Singin’ Call,” and the fun falsetto rocker “Marianne.” Stills also indulges his love for southern R & B by drafting the Memphis horns for “Open Secret.” The bombastic brass sets up the plethora of percussion that follows as naturally as George Burns handing Gracie Allen a straight line. Other stand out cuts include “Sugar Babe” and “Change Partners,” both of which ooze with southern charm, and “Nothin’ To Do But Today,” a power-packed display of raging guitar work from Stills and down with it drums from Dallas Taylor.

Longing for more group interaction, Stills assembled “Manassas,” a seven man aggregation featuring former Byrd guitarist/vocalist Chris Hillman, Taylor, Fuzzy Samuels, keyboard player Al Harris, percussionist Joe Lala and steel guitar player Al Perkins. Although “Manassas” functioned as a group, their self-titled first effort (4 ½ out of 5 stars) was essentially a Stills-driven project. Labeled with four thematic sides, “The Raven,” “The Wilderness,” “Consider” and “Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay,” Manassas sported Stills’ strongest material to date and marked the apex of his solo career. Using “Singin’ Call” from Stephen Stills 2 as a base, Stills created three classic variations: the country-fied “Colorado” and “How Far” and the rock shuffle “Johnny’s Garden,” featuring Dallas Taylor’s karate chop beat alongside some of Stills’ more self-effacing lyrics about his newfound wealth: “There’s a place I can get to, where I’m safe from the city blues. And it’s green, and it’s quiet…Only trouble was I had to buy it.” The six tunes on side one (“The Raven”) flow into one another, beginning with the funky “Song of Love” and “Rock and Roll Crazies” sliding into the Latin-tinged “Cuban Bluegrass,” and the bluesy “Jet Set (Sigh).” The side ends with Stills sharing vocal chores on a pair of duets. He first squares off with a soulful Al Harris in “Anyway” before Chris Hillman steps up to sing “Both of Us (Bound to Lose),” which takes advantage of Hillman’s post-Byrds harmonic country style and Lala’s Latin pizzazz. “Consider,” or side three (which contains the superb “Johnny’s Garden”) is also blessed with the mellow “How Far,” “It Doesn’t Matter,” (which was rewritten by Firefall and turned into a top 20 hit), the chilling “Bound To Fall,” and “Move Around,” featuring Stills on an early version of a Moog that gives off an interstellar overdrive sound. The crunchy funk of “Love Gangster” finishes off “Consider,” as Stills utilizes the lyrics from the unused “Bumblebee,” updating the lyrics to “Everybody looking at my girl, everybody thinkin’ about my girl, everybody bird doggin’ my girl.” Side 4 (“Rock and Roll is Here To Stay”) features the album’s toughest, tightest jams, including the sarcastic sing along, “What To Do” and the eight-minute “Treasure,” which lives up to its name as the band gets to rock out with Stills and Hillman trading solos like two pirates slashing each other with cutlasses. “Blues Man,” a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, Allman Brothers slide master Duane Allman and Canned Heat founder Al “Blind Owl” Wilson, is a fitting end, with Stills alone in the studio, picking at his acoustic, bemoaning the fate of three major talents that have gone on before him, wondering if he’s next (he almost was). Only the country and western swing tunes on side 2’s “The Wilderness” disappoint – Stills had to give Perkins something to do besides sing background vocals and happy-handing a tambourine, so you get Al slathering the songs with putrid pedal steel. (Ironically, Perkins is best known for his dobro playing.) “Fallen Eagle” is hampered by a steeplechase beat and guest Byron Berline’s migraine-inducing fiddle playing, while “Jesus Gave Love Away For Free,” “Hide it So Deep,” and “Don’t Look At My Shadow,’ are the type of stick in the mud country western slag you’d expect to hear issuing from the maw of Porter Wagoner or Ferlin Husky (with a name like that he should have been a linebacker, not a singer). “Colorado” and the out of place swarming synthesizer gem “Move Around” were initially trapped on side 2 of the LP, but the single CD format now allows you to circumvent Manassas version of the Grand Ole’ Opry.

After “Manassas” Stills’ solo career would detonate like nitro glycerin at a fire eater’s convention. The second Manassas album, “Down The Road,” went down the tubes in a hurry, a slipshod affair recorded by a road-weary partied out band on the verge of breaking up. Stills would reconcile with Nash and Crosby rebuilding the franchise’s name with a second self-titled CSN album and “Daylight Again,” but with the exception of 1975’s “Stills,” (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) Captain Many Hands’ solo work was consistently awful. But few artists can claim the rush of creativity and deserved success that Stephen Stills had from 1968-76. Ready? So go back home, love the one you’re with, sit yourself down and listen to “Manassas,” “Stephen Stills,” and “Stephen Stills 2.” Stephen Stills’ music may be rooted in old times, but they were good times.



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