Stephen Stills, one of the few people I’d have traded lives with, was known by his bandmates as “Captain Many Hands.” That’s because of his versatility on instruments, for he could play—and play well—virtually any instrument in a rock and roll band. Bass guitar, lead guitar, piano, drums, percussion, piano (plain and electric), banjo—you name it. Now add to that his gritty blues voice, which could also produce a great falsetto, and his talent for writing and arranging, and you have a combination of skills found in very few rock musicians of our time.
Here are two songs in which Stills plays every instrument.
The first, “Blonde in the Bleachers,” was written by Joni Mitchell, appearing on her great 1972 album, “For the Roses“. She’s accompanied by Stills on piano, and for most of the song it’s just her voice and Stills’ piano. But in the last chorus Stills also plays electric guitar, drums, other percussion, and bass—every instrument. He’s credited on the song for being the “rock and roll band.”
I’m absolutely sure, though I have no information on this, that the song was written about Stills. It is, after all, about a charismatic male rock star with many groupies. As far as I know, Stills and Mitchell never had a relationship—hers was with Graham Nash, who wrote “Our House” about it—but they were friends. (Stills’s great love was Judy Collins.) In fact, Crosby, Stills, and Nash met at a party at Mitchell’s house, and discovered their amazing harmonies when they were asked to sing Stills’ song “You Don’t Have to Cry,” a song CS&N later sang on their first album.
This song, “Do For the Others”, is from Stills’s 1970 album whose title is simply his name. The backing vocals and instrumental contributors to the album read like a panoply of rock greats at the time: Cass Elliott, Rita Coolidge, Jimi Hendrix, John Sebastian, Graham Nash, Ringo Starr, David Crosby, Booker T. Jones, and Eric Clapton. (This is the only known album on which both Clapton and Hendrix play.) But on one song, “Do for the others,” no contributors are listed. That’s because every instrument on that song, and all the vocal tracks, were played or sung by Stills.
When I first heard it, I thought this song was about a guy who became a priest after losing his girlfriend, but the Internet tells me that it might be about David Crosby, whose girlfriend was killed in a car crash before CS&N released their first album in 1969.
Fun fact: Stephen Stills played guitar on Bill Withers’ great rhythm and blues song, “Ain’t No Sunshine” (1970).