A team player in Buffalo Springfield and CSN/Y, a multi-instrumentalist and arranger, with a Grammy in his back pocket for Crosby, Stills & Nash and further success imminent with Déjà Vu, there wasn’t much Stephen Stills couldn’t do in 1970. In this extract from Uncut’s July issue, we hear how Stills escaped from his CSNY bandmates, moved to deepest Surrey and ended up having an Eric Clapton cameo on his solo debut album. Read this and more in the latest issue of Uncut, available to buy here.
Walk down Farnham Road, past the village green, the Spar and The Mill (cask ales and “stunning riverside garden”), turn right onto Fulbrook Lane and eventually you’ll arrive at a handsome red-stone building partly obscured from the road behind a high wooden fence. Today, it is one of many similarly desirable period residences, tucked away in the heart of deep Surrey. But during the late ’60s and early ’70s, Brookfield House was a Home Counties outpost of Swinging London. In 1968, Ringo Starr bought Brookfield from Peter Sellers – it was here that The Beatles gathered to persuade George Harrison to rejoin the band after he walked out of the Let It Be Twickenham Studios sessions in January 1969.
The following year, meanwhile, Brookfield passed into the hands of another celebrated owner. “I stayed in England after CSNY’s first Albert Hall concert in January 1970,” says Stephen Stills. “I fell in love with the place, I fell in love with the culture. I fell in love with my mates. Everyone was very friendly. I told the guys, ‘I’m not going back to California with you.’ It was invigorating, like plugging into a 220-volt socket. I ended up at Ringo’s house – he was my first friend in England. He was just fabulous to be with. We sat and played and noodled about. Then Maureen said, ‘We’re getting rid of the house in Surrey. Would you like it?’ We drove down the next morning. I walked in and said, ‘Yes, I’ll have it.’”
An hour’s drive by Ferrari to central London – but, perhaps more pertinently, over 5,000 miles from LA – Brookfield provided a base from which Stills could assert himself as a solo artist. Accordingly, the two solo albums he made in 1970 and 1971, much of them in London, covered a lot of ground. There’s acoustic moves, blues looseness, gospel blowouts and even chart success with “Love The One You’re With” – assisted in the collaborative spirit of the times by A-list players including Hendrix, Clapton, Ringo, Booker T, the Memphis Horns and Billy Preston. The recently release Live At Berkeley 1971 captures Stills back in California at full tilt during this prolific period.
“I had far too many songs,” he laughs. “They were coming out of me, right and left. Some of them were pretty bad, but some of them were rather good. I had been reliant on the group atmosphere, sort of hiding in, and it was time to break out. I needed that confidence builder of a Grammy. I just took off from there.”
Today, speaking from his current home in the Hollywood Hills between Sunset and Ventura, Stephen Stills is considering the pros and cons of launching his solo career back in 1970. “When it’s just one of you, there’s not so many arguments, are there?” He laughs. “That can be a two-edged sword. You know, if everyone does exactly what you tell them, then… they do exactly what you tell them. That can be fraught with danger. Music is a collaborative art form, after all.”
In England, Stills began writing – though he became aware, swiftly, of the potential perils of creating in isolation. “When you’re in bands, you’re always writing for someone,” he explains. “I was always trying to impress Neil. Then I wanted to impress these new friends in England. So I kept a guitar very close and always have writing paper and a pen. You never knew when the muse would strike. But you have to be careful. You have to edit yourself and if you don’t have bandmates around to help, you run into some bad rhymes. Sometimes it’s just complete bollocks!”
Work began on Stephen Stills’ debut album at Island’s Basing Street Studios in early 1970. Although it was Stills’ name above the door, he still called on some powerful friends to help out – one of the earliest guests at the sessions was Jimi Hendrix.
Only one complete song to feature Hendrix eventually appeared on the album – “Old Times Good Times” – a modish R&B shuffle which finds Stills on organ trading licks with Hendrix. “When we were together, we were close. We were very brother-like. But getting together was a pain in the ass, then we’d make room for each other. I asked Jimi to play; he said, ‘Sure.’”
Another gifted – if less storied – participant was the Antiguan-born, Tottenham-raised bassist Calvin ‘Fuzzy’ Samuel, who bluffed his way into a session at Basing Street. He ended up staying, becoming a regular fixture on Stills’ early solo records and, later, in CSNY.
“Fuzzy was this wonderful, beautiful spirit,” says Stills. “He taught us Antiguan slang. You know, instead of hungry he’d say, ‘I’m nyamish.’ He was a remarkably quick study, too.”
Meanwhile, another member of Stills’ extended musical family – Bill Halverson – was working on Eric Clapton’s solo album with Delaney Bramlett in Los Angeles when Stills called, insisting he come to Basing Street.
“Eric had got sick and tired of Delaney,” explains Halverson. “He came over to London, turned up at Basing Street and said to Stephen, ‘Can I have some of your studio time to finish my album with Bill?’ Stephen goes, ‘Yeah, OK. I’ve got this tune I want you to play guitar on.’ Eric says, ‘Well, I got something you can play on, too.’ So Eric played
on ‘Go Back Home’ – he played his tail off! – and Stephen played on ‘Easy Now’, on Eric’s album.”