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Music

Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Stephen Stills

Stephen Stills is a legendary musician. His pedigree is of the highest order, and in terms of artistic enlightenment, Stills hit heights that we laymen can only dream of reaching. He was the mastermind of Buffalo Springfield, one-quarter of lauded supergroup CSNY and his debut album, 1970’s Stephen Stills, is the only record to have ever featured both Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Aside from these dazzling moments, Stills also played the guitar on Bill Withers’ acclaimed debut album, 1971’s Just As I Am

Stills had the fortune to play and rub shoulders with some of the most iconic musicians of all time, and to be able to sit down with him and listen to him deliver yarns from that heady time would be truly special. It’s no coincidence that everyone’s favourite Canadian troubadour, Neil Young, labelled him a “genius”. 

Born in Dallas, Texas, in 1945, Stills was raised in a military family and moved around a lot as a child. At an early age, he developed a keen interest in blues and folk, and after moving to Tampa, Florida, and Central America, he became inspired by the influence of Latin music and culture that he saw all around him. 

In the early 1960s, he dropped out of Louisiana State University and played in a series of bands. One of these, The Continentals, featured future Eagles guitarist Don Felder. Then, he moved to New York and immersed himself in the flourishing music scene in Greenwich Village. He ended up in a vocal harmony group, The Au Go Go Singers, at the famous Cafe au Go Go, which is where he met future Buffalo Springfield member, Richie Furay. 

After The Singers split up in 1965, Stills formed and toured with folk-rock outfit, The Company, who disbanded after only four months. However, this wasn’t before he had met a guitarist named Neil Young whilst on tour in Canada. On VH1’s CSNY Legends, Stills explained that Young was doing what he’d always dreamt of doing, playing “folk music in a rock band”.

In 1966, Stills convinced Furay to relocate with him to California. Here they would properly kick off their careers and formed the iconic Buffalo Springfield not long after bumping into Neil Young. Over the rest of the decade, Stephen Stills would prove himself to be a skilled guitarist and genius songwriter, and by the dawn of the ’70s, he would be revered. Join us then, as we list the six definitive songs of Stephen Stills. 

Stephen Stills six definitive tracks:

‘For What It’s Worth’ – Buffalo Springfield (1966)

A countercultural classic, this is Buffalo Springfield at its finest. Stills was inspired to pen the track after the infamous Sunset Strip curfew riots in LA in November 1966, one of the early flashpoints between the counterculture and the police. A busy year, in spring, the outfit had become the house band at the legendary Whisky a Go Go, and it was here that they truly honed their craft.

The title of the track is claimed to have come from a line that Stills said to Atlantic Records head honcho Ahmet Ertegun: “I have this song here, for what it’s worth, if you want it.” An iconic track, featuring the hazy guitar work of Stills and Young, it’s a real earworm.

‘Sit Down, I Think I Love You’ – Buffalo Springfield (1966)

Another highlight from Buffalo Springfield’s eponymous debut album, ‘Sit Down, I Think I Love You’ is groovy as hell. A straight-up love song, it was written prior to the formation of the band, and at the time, Stills was ingratiating himself into Los Angeles. He began writing songs that he felt “were personal statements and had something to say”.

Psychedelic and catchy, the plinky guitars of both Stills and Young dovetail in this mellow classic, and you can imagine chilling on Sunset Strip listening to it booming through a set of analogue speakers. The main riff is one of Stills’ most instantly recognisable. When he sings “I get high”, it catches you out, as you think he’s about to sing that very famous line by The Beatles, and jump into a completely different song entirely.

‘Bluebird’ – Buffalo Springfield Again (1967)

Originally released as the follow-up single to ‘For What It’s Worth’, three versions of ‘Bluebird’ exist. However, the ultimate take has to be the four-and-a-half-minute version that appears on the band’s Buffalo Springfield Again. Rumbling and trance-like, Stills’ vocals shine on ‘Bluebird’ as does his guitar playing, and you can tell that he developed considerably in the short time between the band’s first and second records.

Fusing psychedelia with the music of Stills’ early life, ‘Bluebird’ is a masterpiece and makes a strong claim for being the best track he ever wrote. That banjo line at the end is genius. 

‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ – Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)

An early CSN track, ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ confirmed that Stills didn’t need the confines of Buffalo Springfield to blossom. It features one of his most iconic vocal melodies, and backed by David Crosby and Graham Nash, you can’t go wrong. Cleverly, the song imitates the form of a classic music suite and is structured as a set of separate musical pieces that segue into each other. It’s moves like this that showed just how ahead of his time as a songwriter Stills was. His guitar work is amazing, and he utilises a whole range of styles, including Latin influenced licks.

Perhaps the most enduring facet of the song is the title, which refers to Stills’ former partner, musician Judy Collins. The lyrics are comprised of his thoughts about her and their breakup. He penned the song as an attempt to win her back, and when he played it to her, she declared, bursting into tears: “Oh, Stephen, it’s such a beautiful song. But it’s not winning me back.” Whether he knew it at the time or not, their relationship was now etched into rock history.

‘Carry On’ – Déjà Vu (1970)

One from the CSNY days, ‘Carry On’ is a countercultural anthem of the highest order. The opener to the quartet’s iconic debut Déjà Vu, its vocal melodies are just spine-tingling. Interestingly, Stills provided the pulsating bassline on ‘Carry On’, which is what gives it the funky drive that we all love. The bridge section is excellent. 

When the band were coming to the end of the recording sessions for the album, Graham Nash told Stills that they still didn’t have an opening track. Wanting something catchy, Stills took two songs, one of which was ‘Questions’, which he’d originally written and recorded with Buffalo Springfield, and merged them together with parts of another jam, and before too long he had the finished piece. What a brilliant opener. 

‘Love the One You’re With’ – Stephen Stills (1970)

The lead single from Stills’ 1970 debut, Stephen Stills, ‘Love the One You’re With’ blended all of what came before in Stills’ career. Featuring the choir in the chorus, you can see where the likes of Primal Scream got their soulful ideas for takes on Screamadelica.

Weirdly, at some points, it sounds like a Simon & Garfunkel track, with Graham Nash and David Crosby providing backing vocals. A cacophonous anthem, this was Stills unchained. His biggest hit, it’s been covered by everyone from The Isley Brothers to Luther Vandross.