Hello there! This week our blog features an iconic folk-rock song, For What It’s Worth. We will first discuss the original by Buffalo Springfield. Next, we will review a cover by The Staple Singers, and we will finish with a cover by Jeff Healey.
Buffalo Springfield and For What It’s Worth:
Buffalo Springfield was a Canadian-American rock group that formed in Los Angeles in 1966. Americans Stephen Stills and Richie Furay joined up with Canadians Neil Young, Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin to form this band.
Buffalo Springfield has a fascinating origin story. In 1966, Neil Young had been invited by Bruce Palmer to join a Canadian group called The Mynah Birds, while Stills was performing with a spin-off from the Au Go Go Singers.
The Mynah Birds’ lead singer was Ricky James Matthews (whose real name was James Ambrose Johnson, Jr., and who would later become famous under his new stage name Rick James). The band was just about to record an album for Motown Records when Matthews was arrested by the U.S. Navy (he had gone AWOL from the U.S. military to avoid service in Vietnam, and had emigrated to Canada).
Without a lead singer, Palmer and Young purchased a Pontiac hearse and drove it to L.A., hoping to meet up with Stephen Stills. But despite a search of area clubs, they failed to connect with Stills and decided to leave L.A. for San Francisco.
However, their hearse got stuck in traffic, where Palmer and Young were seen by Stills and his Au Go Go singers bandmate Richie Furay! After their fortuitous meeting, the four musicians subsequently added drummer Dewey Martin and formed Buffalo Springfield.
Buffalo Springfield was surely unique in being the only band ever to be named after a company that manufactured steamrollers! Below is a photo of a Buffalo-Springfield steamroller (I must say it looks pretty gorgeous).
Buffalo Springfield was loaded with talented musicians. Except for bassist Bruce Palmer, every other band member contributed to the vocals. And Richie Furay played guitar, while Stephen Stills and Neil Young played both guitar and keyboards.
Below are photos of the members of Buffalo Springfield. From L: Dewey Martin; Stephen Stills; Neil Young; Bruce Palmer; and Richie Furay.Embed from Getty Images
Stephen Stills wrote For What It’s Worth (the full title is For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound)) in late 1966. He was inspired by a series of protests in Hollywood’s Sunset Strip neighborhood.
At that time, Buffalo Springfield was performing at the Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Strip. Because of the popularity of a number of music venues in that area, large numbers of young people congregated there.
After residents and other business owners complained about the late-night noise and carousing, Hollywood imposed a 10 pm curfew in the Sunset Strip area, and also began strict enforcement of loitering laws.
The heavy-handed tactics toward young people led to protests against both the regulations and the city police. Although the protests began quietly, they escalated and led to violence by protesters and retaliation by the police. Several demonstrators, including actor Peter Fonda, were arrested and handcuffed by the authorities.
Stephen Stills’ lyrics paint a stark picture of confrontation and fear. They describe tense and dangerous times (“paranoia strikes deep, into your mind it will creep, it starts when you’re always afraid, …”).
There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware.
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down.
There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
So here is Buffalo Springfield with a live performance of For What It’s Worth. This took place at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.
Here, the somber tone of the lyrics is enhanced by the slow pace of the tune, accentuated by the moody guitar lines. Stephen Stills’ vocals are just right for the song, which became Buffalo Springfield’s signature tune.
For What It’s Worth was released in 1967 and rose to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles charts. This was the biggest selling record for that group.
As the 60s progressed, For What It’s Worth became more and more of a cultural anthem. The song seemed to provide a perfect summary of the protests and paranoia that surrounded divisive issues such as the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
In fact, many people now believe that Stephen Stills wrote For What It’s Worth either as an anti-Vietnam War protest song, or after the killing of four students at Kent State University. Of course, that song was written more than three years before Kent State.
Buffalo Springfield played an important role in the development of 60s rock music. They incorporated elements of country music into their folk-rock style, and like their counterparts The Byrds they also were early adopters of psychedelic music.
Unfortunately, the members of Buffalo Springfield disbanded after only two years. Both musical and personality differences between band members led to the split, which was exacerbated by addiction issues for some of the artists.
However, after the band split up, their members re-formed several influential groups. Richie Furay teamed up with Jim Messina to form the folk-rock group Poco. Neil Young left for a splendid solo career, while Stephen Stills joined forces with David Crosby and Graham Nash to form the supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash.
After the breakup, drummer Dewey Martin attempted to form a band called New Buffalo Springfield, but he was thwarted by the threat of legal action from Stills and Young. In 1984, Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin formed a group called Buffalo Springfield Revisited. This time the band’s name was approved by Stills and Young.
In 2011, the surviving members of Buffalo Springfield (Bruce Palmer had died in 2004 and Dewey Martin passed away in 2009) reunited and toured. Furay, Stills and Young invited Rick Rosas and Joe Vitale to their new lineup, and the band received generally favorable reviews. A second tour was planned for 2012; however, that tour was put on hiatus because of a conflict with Neil Young’s schedule, and it never materialized.
Buffalo Springfield did not last very long, and really had only one pop hit. Nevertheless, the band left a lasting legacy, in part because of its contributions to folk-rock and psychedelic rock. The original members of Buffalo Springfield were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
But perhaps most importantly, the individual band members made impressive music with the bands that they formed after leaving Buffalo Springfield.
A big salute to Richie Furay, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin – may the Buffalo Springfield steamroller glide on forever!
The Staple Singers and For What It’s Worth:
The Staple Singers was a family group that began as gospel singers and then transitioned to R&B and soul. The family patriarch was Roebuck “Pops” Staples, who was raised in Mississippi.
In 1936, Pops moved his family to Chicago. The family first began appearing in Chicago-area churches in 1948, and they signed their first professional recording contract in 1952.
Pops appeared with three of his children, daughters Mavis and Yvonne and son Pervis. Although the family name is “Staples,” they took the name “Staple Singers.” Below is an early photo of the Staple Singers, including Pops (with guitar), Pervis, Mavis and Yvonne.Embed from Getty Images
The Staple Singers had several hit gospel tunes before they made their move to R&B. Two of their biggest sellers were Uncloudy Day and Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
In 1965, the Staple Singers signed with Memphis’ Stax Records, where they were produced first by Steve Cropper (lead guitarist for the Stax house band Booker T and the MGs), and next by Al Bell.
In 1967, the Staple Singers released a cover of the Buffalo Springfield tune For What It’s Worth. Here is the audio of that song.
This is a great, funky R&B take on Stephen Stills’ folk-rock classic. Mavis Staples’ terrific vocals are complemented by the tight harmonies that were a signature of the Staple Singers, and this is backed up by electric guitar and hand-clapping.
The Staple Singers did not really make it big on the pop scene until 1971, when their song Respect Yourself made it to #2 on the Billboard R&B playlist and #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles. The group followed that up with more hit songs, and became R&B superstars.
Since we did not have video of For What It’s Worth, here is a live performance of the Staple Singers singing their 1973 hit, If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).
Isn’t this wonderful? This is a performance on the TV show Soul Train, where they are introduced by the legendary Don Cornelius. The one and only Mavis Staples rolls through this invocation to peace and harmony. The group’s gospel heritage is apparent here, although the rhythm backing also gives a nod to reggae influences.
The Staple Singers continued on for a couple more decades, and they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.
Time has taken its toll on this family group. Pops Staples died in 2000 of complications from a concussion. Then Cleotha Staples died in 2013 from Alzheimer’s disease, and Yvonne passed away in April 2018.
However, Mavis Staples continues to perform. In 2015 she was the subject of a documentary, Mavis! That was shown at the 2015 South by Southwest Festival and subsequently was broadcast by HBO.
What an impressive family band. We salute Mavis Staples and her contributions to both gospel and R&B music.
The Jeff Healey Band and For What It’s Worth:
Jeff Healey was a Canadian guitarist and songwriter who achieved renown in both blues and jazz. He was born in Toronto, Canada in March 1966.
Healey was adopted as a baby, and as an infant he suffered from retinoblastoma, a cancer that attacked his eyes. Healey lost his sight and his eyes had to be surgically removed.
Healey began playing the guitar at a very young age. He was self-taught, and developed a unique style where he played the guitar while it was sitting in his lap.
At age 16, Healey had formed a trio with bassist Joe Rockman and drummer Tom Stephen. The group began performing in clubs in Toronto. Below is a photo of the Jeff Healey Band.Embed from Getty Images
While he was playing at a blues club called Albert’s Hall, Healey was discovered by Stevie Ray Vaughn and Albert Collins.
So here is the audio of the Jeff Healey band performing For What It’s Worth.
The song recreates the slow, menacing tone of the Buffalo Springfield original. Jeff Healey shows off some lovely slide guitar licks as part of this song.
Since we don’t have live video of Healey on For What It’s Worth, here we show Jeff in a live performance of the song Confidence Man.
Healey is performing on Late Night With David Letterman in Oct. 1988. This was Jeff Healey’s network TV debut, and he is accompanied by Paul Shaffer and the David Letterman band. Confidence Man was a song from Healey’s first album that was released in 1988.
I really enjoy this video, as it gives a terrific view of Jeff Healey’s unique guitar style. He sits with the guitar on his lap and produces some impressive licks with his fingers.
In the middle of this blues tune, Healey gets up and picks the guitar strings with his teeth. This is a trick used by several blues masters (Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy come to mind), but is even more impressive given that Healey is blind.
After his first couple of albums, Jeff Healey became a well-known blues guitarist. He sat in with several notable groups and toured with other blues bands, including The Allman Brothers, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Clapton.
Healey also issued some jazz albums; on the jazz albums he played both guitar and trumpet. Jeff was a famous collector of 78 RPM jazz records. Eventually this led to a nationally-broadcast show on Canadian radio called My Kind of Jazz, where Healey played selections from his massive collection of vintage jazz recordings.
In 2005, Jeff Healey underwent surgery to remove sarcomas from both of his legs. Then in January 2007, he had another surgery to remove metastatic tissue from his lungs. Finally, in March 2008 Jeff Healey died of sarcoma in his home town of Toronto.
Jeff Healey was only 41 years old when he passed away. The world lost a brilliant and unique blues guitar player and jazz historian. Healey’s name should be added to the list of musicians in ‘Rock and Roll Heaven.’