(January 23, 2023).  To call the late singer/songwriter and rock music legend David Crosby prolific would be a major understatement.

The late David Crosby, who died on January 19, 2023, at the age of 81

After all, the Grammy-winning and two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is one of the only artists in history to record music regularly in each of these five configurations: as a solo artist, in a duet (Crosby and Nash), in a trio (Crosby, Stills & Nash, as well as other groups), in a quartet (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), and in a quintet (The Byrds).  

All of these were regular standing entities with which Crosby, who died Thursday, January 19 at the age of 81, recorded multiple albums and singles.

In fact, in addition to singing and playing guitar on albums by all five acts, Crosby wrote or co-wrote multiple songs for each one.

He’s credited for writing/co-writing nearly 150 songs for all of these entities, including 37 tunes that appeared on albums by his two most successful bands: The Byrds and the conflation of supergroups CSN and CSNY.

There’s no doubt his part in both those groups contributed to their inductions to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which made him among the earliest artists to be inducted twice (only 26 people have such an honor).

Between them, the Byrds and CSN/CSNY had 29 Billboard Hot 100 hits, including 16 that made the top 40, five that made the top ten and two that went to No. 1: The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” both in 1965.

The Byrds (with David Crosby far left)

Beyond the chart numbers, both the Byrds and CSN/CSNY are considered among rock’s most influential bands, with the former considered to have singlehandedly ushered in the folk rock genre in 1965 (before the group veered into psychedelic and country-rock later in the ‘60s), and the latter heavily associated with rock’s counterculture during America’s most tumultuous period of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (discounting the current era of course).

Both bands are considered among the greatest vocal harmony groups of all time, with Crosby’s high tenor and impeccable tone being key reasons for that recognition.

Odd songwriting anomaly for Crosby

But a cross-referencing of the two legendary band’s 29 total chart hits with the songs for which Crosby received a writing credit yields a dubious statistic: he only wrote or co-wrote two of the 29 songs to reach the chart by the Byrds and CSN/CSNY.

The two Hot 100-charting songs Crosby wrote were both by the Byrds: 1965’s “Eight Miles High,” which he co-penned with fellow founding members Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn, and “Lady Friend,” which he wrote solo.

He wrote none of CSN/CSNY’s chart hits, not even the lone top-40 hit he had as a duet with Graham Nash—1972’s “Immigration Man”—although he did write or co-write with Nash two of the duo’s other Hot 100 singles (“Carry Me” and “Out of the Darkness,” songs that failed to make the top 40).

Both of his bands had a much larger, more positive impact on the world at large than any Billboard singles chart position would suggest.  By extension, the same could be said for Crosby’s writing contributions to both group’s song catalogs.

While small in number, the two Hot 100 chart songs Crosby wrote for the Byrds are considered landmark singles, or at least pivotal ones. 

“Eight Miles High” is widely recognized as the first psychedelic rock hit, with music inspired by sitar player Ravi Shankar and jazz great John Coltrane. The musical influence of both these men on the Byrds had been courtesy of the jazz sensibilities of Crosby, who brought Shankar’s and Coltrane’s music along with the band as they traveled from city to city during a late 1965 tour while promoting the Turn! Turn! Turn! album.

The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”

The song itself was written (primarily by Gene Clark) about the American band’s first trip to London in 1965, and is a reference to the plane’s cruising altitude of eight miles (although slightly exaggerated from the six to seven miles high that planes normally fly).  Crosby is said to have only contributed one line of the song’s lyrics: “Rain gray town, known for its sound,” that line being a reference to London as the source of the British Music Invasion of the U.S. at the time, but he received a writing credit nonetheless.

“Eight Miles High,” released in 1966, is the Byrds’ third-biggest hit, after their two No. 1 singles from the year before, peaking at No. 14 on the Hot 100.  That modest chart placement belies the song’s place in rock and roll history.  The highly decorated tune has been recognized individually by both the Grammy and Rock halls of fame and was listed in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. 

It is also considered among the band’s (and rock music’s in general) first countercultural hits, with its loose references to drug use (which Clark and Crosby later admitted).

But it was Crosby’s other chart entry as a songwriter that may have proved the most instrumental, at least for both the Byrds’ future and the founding of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

“Lady Friend,” a rousing, noisy rocker with a brilliant chord progression solely penned by Crosby, was the Byrds’ single released during the summer of love, 1967.  It received positive reviews by both Billboard and Cashbox magazines, with high expectations by the trade press and by the band’s members after their previous five singles (following “Eight Miles High”) all failed to make the top 20.

Released in mid-July, “Lady Friend” took a month to enter the Billboard chart and only spent two weeks on the list, peaking at No. 82–the Byrds’ lowest Hot 100 performance to date.

That disappointing showing increased tensions within the band, which had already been brewing during the song’s production due to Crosby’s disagreement with the band’s direction and, particularly, with its de facto leader, Roger McGuinn.  Crosby reportedly went so far as to replace some of the band’s backing vocals on the song with his own during overdubs.

“Lady Friend” is believed to be one of the final straws in McGuinn’s and fellow founder Chris Hillman’s decision to fire Crosby before the end of 1967.  Another was the band’s refusal to include the Crosby-penned song “Triad” in their next album, opting instead for the Carole King/Gerry Goffin tune “Goin’ Back,” the recording in which Crosby refused to participate.

Another contributor might have been Crosby’s decision to fill in for Neil Young with the band Buffalo Springfield during the Monterey Pop Festival in California in June 1967.

This turmoil explains why the highly underrated “Lady Friend” was never included on any of the Byrds’ studio albums released at the time.  Crosby was no longer a member when their next album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, was released in January 1968.  It was also left off their first greatest hits compilation issued in August 1967, around the time the single was charting (and failing).

On his firing from the Byrds, Croz was quoted in 1980 as saying, “They [McGuinn and Hillman] came zooming up in their Porsches and said that I was impossible to work with and I wasn’t very good anyway and they’d do better without me.”

Crosby’s response: “Fuck ‘em.”  But he admitted in the 1980 interview that “it hurt like hell,” while later acknowledging: “They threw me out of The Byrds because I was an asshole.”

Crosby, Stills & Nash

Out of the ashes from that firing came Crosby, Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young).  Stills and Young both hailed from the group Buffalo Springfield, which had disbanded by early 1968.  Graham Nash came from the Hollies.

All four members of this newly formed group were heralded musicians, with all four voices combining to make incomparable harmonies.

The impact of their union was immediate.  

Their first album on Atlantic Records—the eponymous Crosby, Stills & Nash—yielded two classic top-30 hits in 1969: “Marrakesh Express” (No. 28, written by Nash) and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (No. 21, written by Stills).  

While Crosby didn’t write or perform lead on either of those chart hits, he wrote classic album tracks like “Guinnevere,” thought to be inspired by either Britain’s Queen Guinevere or the singer’s former flame and live-in Nancy Ross, who’d left Crosby a couple years before; and “Long Time Gone,” the song containing perhaps the most unrestrained vocal performance (courtesy of Crosby) on the band’s tightly harmonized first album.  It would continue this oddity in which Crosby would write none of his band’s hit singles (but pen signature album tracks, including the above two as well as the classic “Wooden Ships”). 

That debut LP went on to hit No. 6 on the Billboard 200 in 1969, but it was CSNY’s followup, plus a non-album single in 1970, that cemented the band’s place in rock history (and likely made the core trio’s later induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a certainty).

That album, Déjà Vu, named for the title track written by Crosby, was released in March 1970 and contained three top-40 singles: “Woodstock,” written by Joni Mitchell, “Teach Your Children” by Nash, and “Our House” (also Nash).

CSNY’s ‘Déjà vu’ album from 1970

Déjà vu, which included fourth member Neil Young, became the band’s first Billboard No. 1 album, and went on to become their best-selling (likely driven by the success of the hit singles, again, none of which were written by Crosby…or Stills or Young for that matter).  

However, Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair”—Track 3 on the album—is considered among his signature tunes and is especially notable for its ode to long-haired hippies of the era who wore their long manes as a symbol of rebellion.  Crosby likened the wearing of his own long hair to “letting my freak flag fly” in the song’s first minute, while making later references to his paranoia and fear of the police, two things that would significantly shape the music of Crosby and CSNY and make them the countercultural kings of the post-Civil Rights and Vietnam War era.

CSNY’s 1974 live performance of “Almost Cut My Hair”

The non-album single that cemented their place in this counterculture was “Ohio,” the song prompted by the murders of four college students by national guardsmen at Ohio’s Kent State University during an anti-war protest in May 1970.  That tragic event prompted Neil Young to write “Ohio” as a protest to Nixon’s policies as well as the guardsmen’s killings of the four students.

Young brought “Ohio” to CSNY, which recorded it in just weeks after the school protest killings.  Atlantic Records rush-released the single, which didn’t appear on any CSNY album, only a few weeks after they issued “Teach Your Children,” the second single from their Déjà vu LP.  

The popularity of “Ohio,” which again didn’t feature Crosby’s writing but included his famous ad-libs at the song’s finish (he can be heard singing “why?” and “how many more?” as the tune fades), was unstoppable.  “Ohio” quickly entered the charts, while CSNY’s “Teach Your Children” was still climbing (this was unheard of in the pre-digital era).

Both “Teach” and “Ohio” would enter the top 20 simultaneously, eventually peaking at No. 16 and No. 14, respectively.  The dual placements of those songs—plus the controversial messages in “Ohio”—are believed to have prevented “Teach Your Children” from reaching its full chart and sales potential. After each tune ran its course (literally peaking a week apart), CSNY’s next single, Nash’s “Our House,” would be their last top-40 hit for another seven years.

The immense success of Déjà vu and “Ohio” led to each member releasing their first solo albums within the ensuing months, all of which went gold or better.

The four key members of CSNY (David Crosby up front), flanked by two band members in the early 1970s

Croz would also team with bandmate Graham Nash for several duet albums.  For his albums with Nash and his solo work, Crosby wrote or co-wrote more than 100 songs, only three of which made the Hot 100: his solo “Music Is Love,” which peaked at No. 95 in 1971 (spending a lone week on the list), and the two aforementioned duets with Nash, “Carry Me” and “Out of the Darkness,” which peaked at Nos. 52 and 89, respectively.

It wasn’t until 1977’s CSN album that Crosby, Stills & Nash would resurface with a proper studio LP.  That album yielded the trio’s highest charting and first top-10 single, “Just A Song Before I Go,” penned by Nash.  It peaked at No. 7 on the Hot 100 in August 1977.

The band wouldn’t release another studio album for five more years, 1982’s Daylight Again, from which their second and final top-10 single came: Nash’s No. 9-peaking “Wasted On The Way.”  It also generated the top-20 followup, “Southern Cross,” which was co-written by Steven Stills with two outside writers.  That song would be the band’s last top-40 single on the Hot 100.

David Crosby, Steven Stills and Graham Nash on Stills’ “Southern Cross” (one of the group’s best!)

While Crosby’s hand in writing those tunes may have been absent, his voice in the harmonies is unmistakably there.  None of those CSN/CSNY songs would have been the same without his contribution.  The creation of that “California sound” was uniquely theirs, with Crosby’s high harmony essential to the band’s remarkable vocal arrangements.

Crosby was considered the most experimental member of both hall of fame groups to which he belonged, a self-described “looney” whose experimentation with drugs could have led to a much earlier demise (he has stated in interviews that his one-year prison stint—along with his marriage to wife Jan—saved his life), but whose carefree approach to creating music sustained his groups and their legacies for decades to come.

His longevity and that of his second group, CSN/CSNY has been attributed to the wide palette of music he and his cohorts—Stills, Nash and (sometimes) Young—created as guitarists, lead singers and vocal harmonizers, and, most importantly, as songwriters.

Despite the group’s seldom assembled status, with albums coming five or more years apart at times, no rock “supergroup” has lasted as long or been as impactful as CSNY.

And none of it would have been possible without David Crosby, whether or not his name appeared in the writer credits for their biggest chart hits.

Fast facts about David Crosby, the Byrds and CSN/CSNY:

David Crosby ironically wound up securing the rights to the band name The Byrds in 2002, some 35 years after his ouster from the group and after many legal battles and membership changes (and with Roger McGuinn still alive).

Despite McGuinn’s and Hillsman’s prediction to the contrary, the Byrds did not do much better after Crosby left the group in 1967.

Besides CSNY, the only other band in which all its members have been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice are the Beatles.  Neil Young, however, just missed being inducted three times (he wasn’t recognized for his role in CSNY, instead being inducted as a solo artist and as a member of Buffalo Springfield).

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young may be the first  and only act (verification needed) to have or be part of just one No. 1 album in each of the following four configurations: studio (1970’s Déjà Vu), live (1971’s 4 Way Street), compilation (1974’s So Far), and soundtrack (1970’s Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More).

The simultaneous success of their hit songs “Teach Your Children” and “Ohio” gave CSNY a unique distinction in radio broadcast history.  On the July 4, 1970 inaugural airing of the classic syndicated chart countdown show, “American Top 40 w/ Casey Kasem,” both “Teach” and “Ohio” were on the countdown at the same time, making CSNY the first act to have two songs simultaneously in the top 40 during the Casey Kasem era.

Personal factoid: My first time hearing Kasem’s “American Top 40” show was the episode dated September 13, 1977, when CSN’s “Just A Song Before I Go” was in its final week in the countdown. The following week, true to its title, the band and the song were “gone.”

Crosby’s top-billing in CSNY was not due to his huge ego.  In the below interview, he explains that the name just flowed better, it rolled off the tongue, more so than any other combination of the members’ names (although SYNC [Stills, Young, Nash and Crosby] might have worked nicely as an acronym).

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young used their own names for the band for two main reasons: 1) they always intended to record in multiple configurations with the intent to return to “the mothership” afterwards; and 2) no other musician could replace them should one of them leave.

On that note, David Crosby can never be replaced.

R.I.P. David Crosby (August 14, 1941 – January 19, 2023).

DJRob

Mr. Tambourine Man” DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger (and lover of The Byrds and CSNY) from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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By DJ Rob

2 thoughts on “The odd shortcoming that iconic singer/songwriter David Crosby had with both the Byrds and CSNY…and why it didn’t matter”
  1. Gorgeous writing, DJR! I’ve worshiped these guys since I was 15, and you still gave me so much I never knew. I’ve seen CSN twice (Daylight again in 82 and maybe around 1998) and Neil three times (once at Farmaid). I can never hear David and Graham blend voices without being moved. Thanks!

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