Buffalo Springfield - Biography
Buffalo Springfield ruled Hollywood’s Sunset Strip for much of its brief, torturous two-year history. The quintet’s legacy included a national hit single that translated a tumultuous incident in Los Angeles rock history into a universal anthem of youth discord and two albums that further defined the folk-rock sound established by their contemporaries and early L.A. sponsors, The Byrds. The band also launched the careers of its three gifted singer-songwriter-guitarists.
Buffalo Springfield was a textbook case of a group with too much talent in its midst. Ripped by internal dissension from the first days of its career, the band witnessed punch-outs, drug busts, deportations, management strife, and medical crises before finally imploding in May 1968. But, for its time on the stage, there were few rock bands anywhere that could touch it.
The quintet was established in the spring of 1966 after several chance meetings – one of them fateful – between two pairs of musicians, one Canadian, one American. Singer-guitarist Neil Young, the Toronto-born son of a prominent Canadian journalist, had garnered a reputation as one of Ontario’s hottest axemen with his group The Squires. On the invitation of his musician friend Bruce Palmer, he joined the bassist’s group The Mynah Birds, a soul-inflected interracial unit fronted by black lead singer Ricky James Matthews III. The group managed to cut an album for Motown Records, but it went unreleased after Matthews’ arrest for U.S. draft evasion. (The vocalist would resurface at Motown in the late ‘70s, as the super-freaky funk star Rick James.)
Young had already met an American musician who would play a key role in his future. In the spring of 1965, he encountered Stephen Stills at a gig in Fort William, Ontario. The Florida-born singer-guitarist was a veteran of Southern frat-rock groups and a New Christy Minstrels-like contemporary folk outfit, The Au Go-Go Singers, which had morphed into The Company, then touring Canada. Later that year, Young auditioned for the folk label Elektra Records in New York; there he looked up Stills’ friend and former Au Go-Go Singers mate Richie Furay, an Ohio-born singer and country music fan. Furay soon began playing one of Young’s compositions, “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” in his solo sets.
In March 1966, Young decided to make his move to the American West. His folk career and his current band, which included Palmer, were both stagnant. The exciting sounds of the day were emanating from L.A., where The Byrds had made a noise with their Bob Dylan-penned 1965 single “Mr. Tambourine Man.” And Young had heard that Stills had moved to L.A. – though he had no address or phone number for him – and had a vague notion of working with the simpatico American. So Young and the bassist packed up a black 1953 Pontiac hearse christened “Mort II” and set out for the Golden State.
Stills had in fact relocated to Los Angeles in late ’65, and had talked Furay into joining him there to play in a rock band that did not yet exist. Stills failed an audition to join the pre-fabricated TV group The Monkees, and the pair were scuffling by on a music publishing deal secured for them by Barry Friedman, who produced records under the name Frazier Mohawk. Then fate intervened, spectacularly.
After arriving in L.A., Young and Palmer had fruitlessly hunted for Stills, searching the local music haunts to no avail. The Canadians were seriously contemplating a trip to San Francisco to look for work. Then, sometime in late March or early April 1966, the most serendipitous traffic jam in rock history occurred on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. Stuck in a white van in bumper-to-bumper traffic, Stills and Furay spotted a black hearse headed in the other direction. Recognizing the unusual vehicle as Young’s, they gave chase, caught up with Young and Palmer, and quickly sealed a plan to start a new band.
The missing link in the group was discovered at a hurriedly-organized audition: Dewey Martin, an older, seasoned country drummer who had worked with Patsy Cline, Faron Young, and Roy Orbison, was added to the lineup. A moniker for the new act was stumbled upon when the street outside Barry Friedman’s Fountain Avenue home – where the group, tentatively known as The Herd, was crashing – was being repaved. One of the members spotted a nameplate on a steamroller – Buffalo Springfield – and the hunt for a name was over.
Debuting at the Santa Monica Boulevard hot spot the Troubadour in April 1966, Buffalo Springfield quickly began picking up dates opening for The Byrds, whose bassist Chris Hillman was an early supporter; by May, they were installed as the house band at the Sunset Strip’s main rock showplace, the Whisky A Go Go. Within weeks, Friedman was displaced as the group’s manager (according to at least one writer, at gunpoint) by Charlie Greene and Brian Stone, a limo-riding, ever-hustling duo who had taken Sonny & Cher to stardom.
Buffalo Springfield quickly became the most talked-about band on the Strip. Young, Stills, and Furay all brought to the table beautifully crafted songs that elaborated on the commercially successful folk-rock formula of The Byrds. Moreover, they were a dynamic, roof-rattling band on stage, with the cowboy-outfitted Stills and the buckskin-wearing Young battling it out for visual and instrumental supremacy.
Greene and Stone fielded several offers for the group’s services, and Buffalo Springfield nearly signed with Warner Bros. Records. But Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records – whose Atco subsidiary had released Sonny & Cher’s hits – moved in with a more lucrative counter-offer and signed the band personally.
Greene and Stone’s contract with the band mandated that they also would produce the band, and the managers led Buffalo Springfield into Hollywood’s Gold Star Studio in August 1966 to record their self-titled debut. Though it sported a full complement of attractive, sweetly-rocking compositions – Stills’ “Go and Say Goodbye” and “Sit Down I Think I Love You,” Young’s “Out of My Mind” – the album did not lift off when it was released in October. The managers’ inept production was blamed; some fingers were pointed at Young, whose songs “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” and “Burned” both flopped as singles. Already butting heads with the temperamental Stills, and upset because he wasn’t allowed to sing many of his own songs, the retiring Young began suffering epileptic seizures that would sometimes incapacitate him on stage.
On Nov. 12, 1966, Buffalo Springfield was opening for Moby Grape at Gay ‘90s in San Francisco while the event that would alter the L.A. band’s position in rock history was unfolding on the Sunset Strip. In an effort to quell the club-hopping traffic clogging the Strip at night, the Los Angeles Police Department had instituted a curfew for 15- to 18-year-olds. The teenagers resisted and mounted a protest that resulted in a clash – later dubbed “the Sunset Strip Riot” in the press -- that pitted baton-wielding cops against the youths in an evening of escalating violence and mass arrests.
On his return to L.A., Stills was inspired to write a song about the event, drawing on riffs in a couple of Moby Grape songs. Ornamented with tolling guitar harmonics by Young, the dreamily ominous “For What It’s Worth” was recorded on Dec. 5, 1966, and rush-released, like a newspaper extra, as a 45. Its lyrics transformed the conflict on the Strip into a resonant statement about the generational standoff between old and young, left and right. The song struck a resonant chord with listeners: By early 1967, the single had reached No. 7 on the national charts, and it secured Buffalo Springfield’s reputation forever.
Nonetheless, the seeds of the band’s destruction had already been sown. A trip to New York for club dates in December and January ended when Bruce Palmer was arrested for marijuana possession and deported; the bassist’s exit would rob Buffalo Springfield of a crucial buffer between the argumentative Stills and the passive Young. A combative January session to record a new Young song, “Mr. Soul,” climaxed with pugnacious producer-manager Greene hitting the truculent Stills in the mouth; by the end of the year, the band’s relationship with Greene and Stone would be sundered in a court-approved settlement, leaving the group essentially rudderless for the remainder of their existence. And the success of “For What It’s Worth,” belatedly added to a second edition of Buffalo Springfield, pushed the album no higher than No. 80 on the chart.
Increasingly plagued by frightening grand mal seizures and at deepening odds with Stills, Young began to withdraw from the band. He became closely involved with Jack Nitzsche, the Hollywood producer-arranger noted for his elaborate work with Phil Spector. In May 1967, Young recorded his “Expecting to Fly” – a moody, string-laden track bearing little resemblance to his songs for Buffalo Springfield -- as a solo work, produced by Nitzsche with backing supplied by studio sidemen frequently employed on Spector’s sessions. At a meeting late that month, he informed his band mates he was exiting the group he had co-founded.
Adrift, Buffalo Springfield soldiered on through the summer of 1967 as a quartet (with The Turtles’ Jim Fielder substituting for the absent bassist Palmer). Young had left the band just in time to sabotage the group’s June 18 appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival, the season’s most glittering rock event; The Byrds’ David Crosby sat in on the Springfield’s chaotic set. However, by the fall, Young had second thoughts about pursuing a solo career, and humbly returned to the band.
For a time, at least, Buffalo Springfield was back in its original configuration, as Palmer had cleared up his legal problems and re-emigrated to the U.S. that summer. But Buffalo Springfield Again, released in late 1967, was – like the Beatles’ self-titled “white album,” issued a little more than a year later – the product of a group coming apart at the seams. It was essentially a collection of solo work, created by the individual members. Stills, Young, Nitzsche, Ahmet Ertegun, and even Greene and Stone all produced its tracks. Yet, despite its haphazard assembly, it proved to be Buffalo Springfield’s most ambitious and cohesive album. It included the ethereal “Expecting to Fly,” the churning “Mr. Soul,” Young’s cut-up epic “Broken Arrow,” Stills’ blissful yet energetic “Bluebird” and “Rock & Roll Woman,” and Furay’s countrified “A Child’s Claim to Fame.” But three singles pulled from the album flopped, and Again climbed no higher than No. 44.
Palmer’s second drug arrest and deportation in January 1968 definitively foreshadowed the imminent end of Buffalo Springfield. Jim Messina – a former member of the instrumental band The Jesters who had served as an engineer on many of the sessions for Again -- was drafted to replace the errant original member. In March, as recording sessions for a third album were winding down, Young, Furay, Messina, and Eric Clapton were busted for drug possession at a Topanga Canyon party.
The writing was on the wall after a disastrous spring tour opening for The Beach Boys met with numerous cancellations following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Buffalo Springfield limped back into L.A., nearly broke. The band officially called it quits at a May 5, 1968 concert at the Long Beach Arena.
The appropriately titled Last Time Around was released posthumously that August. Reflecting the uncertain atmosphere that surrounded its creation, it’s a thing of odds and ends. But the best of its songs – Young’s innocent yet wise “I Am a Child,” Stills’ soulful “Questions,” Furay’s country-beautiful “Kind Woman” -- afforded a look at what the future held for Buffalo Springfield’s principal writers.
Not long after the break-up, Stills partnered with The Hollies’ Graham Nash (who, to facilitate the formation of a new group, had his Epic contract swapped with Bruce Palmer’s Atlantic pact) and The Byrds’ David Crosby, recently cut loose by his own band, to form the harmony-saturated trio Crosby, Stills & Nash; within a year, Neil Young, who had embarked on his sidetracked solo career at Warner Bros., would join his erstwhile combatant, altering the supergroup’s billing to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. With Messina and Rusty Young (the pedal steel player on “Kind Woman”), Furay founded the key country-rock group Poco; he later joined John David Souther and Chris Hillman in the demi-supergroup Souther, Hillman & Furay. Bruce Palmer continued an intermittent music career until his death from a heart attack in 2004. Dewey Martin earned the enmity of his onetime fellows after he toured under the name The New Buffalo Springfield.
The original members of Buffalo Springfield reunited in 1986 for a single performance at Stephen Stills’ home. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
Viewed in terms of the longevity of other great rock bands, Buffalo Springfield’s career lasted for a minute. But it was one hot minute.