On January 22,1969, the Montreal Expos traded Donn Clendenon and Jesus Alou to the Houston Astros for Rusty Staub. It was just a rather routine swap of Major League Baseball stars. Back then, before the freedoms offered by free agency and the chains of long-term big-dollar contracts, deals like this were quite common and were often just money-free exchanges of people, balanced solely by their talents.
Later that same year, a more unlikely trade of human service contracts took place. Two future Rock & Roll Hall of Famers needing escapes from their current recording contracts to move to new bands were swapped by the two record industry moguls who controlled their recording futures. In 1969, the money was getting bigger in the music biz, and each rocker was seemingly valued by his future earning potential to the record label. And at the time, both men were creating an industry buzz with their new projects. Fortunately for the musicians, the trade had their best interests in mind, and in the end, both happily were able to move forward with their new bands.
The musicians involved were Buffalo Springfield’s Richie Furay and The Hollies’ Graham Nash. Nash was still under his Epic recording contract with The Hollies and looking to make his legal move into the developing trio of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Furay’s new band, Pogo, was obligated to Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic Records through his contract with the Springfield. As a result, he and Pogo were not able go to work for Columbia Records’ Clive Davis who had fallen for and wanted to sign the band.
As for the other two future CSN members, Stephen Stills was also leaving Buffalo Springfield and was therefore in the clear for Atlantic. David Crosby was free since had been released from his Byrds contract with Columbia, as he was considered to be unimportant and too difficult to work with. Therefore, a CSN record deal would require either freeing Stills from Atlantic enabling the band to sign with Davis, or freeing Nash from Epic enabling the band to sign with Ertegun.
Then it happened. In February 1969, Pogo signed with Columbia subsidiary, Epic Records after they “traded” Graham Nash to Atlantic Records for Richie Furay and Pogo. (After the comic strip threatened suit, soon after, Pogo changed its name to Poco.) Thus, Nash was now free to complete the trio of Crosby, Still & Nash.
Strangely, here’s all the February 1, 1969 issue of Billboard had to say about this news under its “Signings” banner:
“Pogo, a country rock band to Epic. Two of the five in the group were formerly with the Buffalo Springfield.”
Later, the March 29, 1969 Billboard ran this page-three story under the title, “Spinoffs Spin Out Group, Atl. Signs.” Here’s the opening paragraph:
“Spinoffs from three -super groups have teamed to form a new all-star group and record under the Atlantic Records banner. The spinoffs are David Crosby, from the Byrds; Stephen Sills, from the now defunct Buffalo Springfield, and Graham Nash, from the Hollies, a British group. The new group will be known as Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the name of the group will also be the title of its first album, scheduled for release next month.”
Why the publication failed to mention the Furay for Nash trade that allowed these signings is beyond me. Being an industry business mag, you would think that Billboard would have had the inside scoop on the transaction, and that this fact would have been of interest to its business-minded readership.
So, what is there to learn about how Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun and Columbia / Epic’s Clive Davis came to agree on this deal? And what roles did David Geffen, who would soon manage Crosby, Stills & Nash, and others play in this deal?
In Robert Greenfield’s 2012 biography, The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun, the author claims that Ertegun (pictured above with David Crosby) was competing with Davis not only for CSN, but also for the musical business favor of young David Geffen as well. After Davis realized that CSN’s signing with Atlantic was inevitable, he boldly asked Ertegun for Furay’s new band Pogo in return, a request without precedent in the record biz. Ertegun exclaimed “That’s pretty heavy,” and initially rejected the deal. However, he would soon change his mind at the bequest of, and to earn goodwill with Geffen.
Further, according to Greenfield, Stephen Stills would later claim he urged Ertegun saying “Ahmet, you gotta think like you’re a baseball team owner. We’re going to trade Richie Furay for Graham Nash.”
In his 2012 autobiography with Anthony DeCurtis, The Soundtrack of My Life, the Clive Davis (pictured above with Janis Joplin) side of the story seems to match. He said he knew that once Geffen had taken over the management of CSN, he couldn’t keep them from Atlantic forever. He also did love Pogo and did not want to force Nash to stay in a band that he wanted to leave.
Davis also offered the curious fact that he and Ertegun “went back and forth on a potential deal involving one of us getting the first album from the band and the other getting all the rest,” evidencing their mutual fears that there just might not be an “all the rest” from either CSN or Pogo. As it turned out, a deal like that would have greatly benefited Davis.
Stephen Singular’s 1997 book, The Rise and Rise of David Geffen, credits Crosby’s manager, Elliot Roberts, with getting Geffen (pictured above with Joni Mitchell and Mama Cass Elliot) involved in the CSN matter, asking him to get the artists released from their contracts so they could take the band to Clive Davis at Columbia. The book quotes Ertegun as saying that Geffen’s first action was to ask Jerry Wexler, his partner at Atlantic, to let Stills out of his contract. After Wexler threw him out of his office, Ertegun followed up with Geffen. While he was quite impressed with the young man’s business acumen, Ertegun took the upper hand and convinced Geffen that his idea wouldn’t work thus making way for Ahmet’s idea that the band be on Atlantic. Singular fails to address the Furay-Nash trade from Geffen’s perspective.
Richie Furay discusses the matter in his 2006 autobiography with Michael Roberts, Pickin’ Up the Pieces. Not mentioning Ertegun’s desire to win Geffen’s favor, Furay instead simply gives young Geffen the nod for cleverly brokering the deal between the label heads. Geffen would later play a role in Richie Furay’s career when in 1973 he assembled the short-lived country-rock supergroup, The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band.
In his 2013 autobiography, Wild Tales, Graham Nash makes the whole affair sound quite simple. Nash says that there was no way that Ertegun was going to let Stills out of his Atlantic contract with the Springfield, but he and Geffen knew how much Davis wanted Poco which made the swap for Furay easy.
Trying to piece these separate accounts together, it seems that Ahmet Ertegun may have held the stronger hand with his control of both Stills and Furay, which put him in position to ride CSN which he saw as the stronger horse. Davis recognized his weaker position, but still felt we could win big with Poco. In the end, Ahmet Ertegun rode the winner, getting the more commercially successful of the two bands while also scoring points with David Geffen.
CSN’s 1969 debut eponymous LP and it’s 1970 follow-up after joining forces with another former Buffalo Springfield member, Neil Young, Déjà Vu¸ both went multi-platinum, with the latter reaching the top of the US LP charts. They remained on Atlantic through 1994 releasing several records with continued success and played massive stadium shows with Young at their peak. Lately, it seems that these guys are best known for how they can’t seem to get along with one another.
Poco’s 1969 debut, Pickin’ Up the Pieces, may be today considered a landmark country-rock record, but back then it never made it past #63 on the US LP charts. Other records during the Furay-era on Epic failed to do much better, although a 1971 live LP, Deliverin’, proved to be their most successful, hitting #26. This year, Furay, also a full-time Christian pastor, is out playing selected shows recreating this record. Oddly, Poco achieved its greatest commercial success after Furay’s departure with a few minor hits such as “Crazy Love” and “Call it Love” for other labels.
Regardless of everyone’s individual motivation, we should all be forever thankful for this interesting footnote to rock history where two musicians were traded like baseball players, and how it opened the door for the great music that followed. While, the career of CSN is certainly much more successful and celebrated, in the opinion of this writer, the 1969-1973 output of the Richie Furay-led Poco is one of country rock’s finest collections of music and is sadly underrated.