No. 30: Crosby, Stills & Nash, ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ – Top 100 Classic Rock Songs
The “supergroup” label has been wrung dry of most of its original value nowadays, after decades of being attached with overblown record label fanfare to ad-hoc assemblies of B-list talent.
Luckily, we’ll always have songs like ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,’ from Crosby, Stills & Nash, to remind us of a time when word of legendary rock musicians teaming up in new combinations prompted excited speculation and more importantly, sometimes surpassed even the dreamiest of those expectations.
Heck, it still sounds like a wonderful new idea: Buffalo Springfield‘s Stephen Stills, David Crosby from the Byrds and Graham Nash from the Hollies bringing together their prodigious songwriting skills and amazingly complimentary voices.
Here’s another candidate for rock history moments we’d most like to visit once time travel is sorted out: the 1968 party where the trio spontaneously sang together for the first time. They immediately decided to join forces and record an album, and ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,’ written by Stills about his gradual breakup with singer Judy Collins, was one of the first songs they tackled.
According to an excellent Sound on Sound interview with engineer Bill Halverson, the epic track (or more accurately, the four mini-songs that make up the suite — and yes, Judy really does have blue eyes) came together very quickly, with Stills recording the basic guitar track within minutes of arriving at the studio:
“It still gives me goose bumps when I listen to that recording, aware that he blew through seven-and-a-half minutes with all the time changes, all the pauses, all the everything in just one take,” Halverson says. “No edits, no nothing.” In fact, the engineer thought he had ruined Stills’ magic by over-brightening the guitar sound, leaving no low end.
As he explains, “I had totally overdone the sound, but Stephen was totally into what he was playing, and just when it looked like he was going to stop, he started another section and played some more. By now, my whole life was flashing in front of me, and certain that my career was over, I began to sweat.”
Luckily, Stephen liked what he heard. “I figured he was going to come in and just blast me for the horrible recording, so I was ready with my excuses… Stephen turned to me and said something to the effect of, ‘Oh, that’s the sound I’ve been looking for! I love it!’”
Millions of fans agreed, and the finished song and the ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash’ album became huge hits. Our choice to represent the band on the Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list also remains a concert favorite to this day, even if Stills says they sing it in a lower key nowadays thanks to advice from an unlikely source: crooner Tony Bennett.
“I can still do ‘Hopelessly Hoping’ in the same key, but not ‘Suite.’ What was I thinking? We lowered it a while ago out of simple physical necessity.. he (Bennett) told me to never be afraid to lower the key, and never be afraid to use a TelePrompter (laughs). That was the secret to a long career. I’ve found both to be true.”
Watch Crosby, Stills & Nash Perform ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’