Two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Stephen Stills went to a dozen different schools in his youth. The ones he remembers most fondly, however, were in Gainesville.
Stills spent two years at Sidney Lanier Elementary School in the mid 1950s, moved away and returned for a year at Gainesville High during the 1962-63 school year. He came back again to briefly attend the University of Florida.
“I remember the humidity,” says Stills, 56. “The Spanish moss. Paynes Prairie. I remember Frances Murphree diving at the Gainesville Country Club, where the college now has its golf course. She was the star of the pool.
“I remember the KA’s blew up the SAE lions. They had some guy from the ROTC get about a dime’s worth of C-4, and they blew them to smithereens. Nobody told forever. It was much too big of a charge, and it blew out all the windows across the street.”
Stills was just 18 when he left school forever to pursue a career in music. As a founding member of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash, he made some of the most significant and lasting music of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Stills was born in Texas, and his parents, Otie and Talitha, moved the family to Illinois and Louisiana before settling – for the first time – in Florida.
“My father was basically one of those entrepreneur types that would just start up stuff, make a bunch of money and then get bored,” Stills recalls. “It would fall apart, then we’d be broke and he would start again.
“We didn’t get to the beach, but we stopped in Gainesville. He thought that was the prettiest place he saw.”
The family’s first home was at Northwest 6th Place and 22nd Street, in a new subdivision called University Court. Otie Stills built the house himself.
“The Dean of Men from the University of Florida lived next door, and he hated us. He almost kept me out of school, I had formative years there. Sold Coca-Cola at the stadium, and I fell in love with the Gators then.”
The dean, Lester Hale, had a daughter young Stevie’s age, Cindy. Today, Cynthia Hale Gross says her father actually liked Steve and his two sisters. Everybody did. “The Stills family built a brick wall around their house with the bricks from the old First Presbyterian Church,” Gross remembers. “And everyone was intrigued by that.”
Gross, who lives in Jacksonville, never forgot her tow-headed neighbor. The families often carpooled to Sunday School. “I always thought he had one of the most infectious laughs I ever heard,” she says. “You couldn’t hear him laugh without laughing too.”
Stills: “I remember being able to ride your bicycle to school and not worrying about anything. I remember the black people being incredibly friendly. And Mama Lo’s, Jesus, to this day I still have not tasted its like.”
After a stint in the Tampa area, where Stephen attended public schools and a military academy, the family landed in San Juan, Costa Rica. He was enrolled at Colegio Lincoln, a tony prep school.
They weren’t done with Gainesville, however.
“When my father was in one of his flopping around, figuring out what to do periods, I moved back to Gainesville and went to GHS,” he remembers. “I’d gone to Costa Rica, and I came back to Gainesville High School to see about getting out early, and also to see what it was going to take to get into college.”
Stills is pictured four times in the 1963 GHS yearbook. Along with his senior picture, he’s seen playing a bass drum in the band, be-robed in the front row of the chorus, and as part of a folksinging group called the Accidental Trio.
“We were going to be the next Peter, Paul, and Mary,” says Nancy Ruth, the “Mary” of the trio (she was Nancy Willingham in those days). “I always had a feeling Steve would go far with his talent. My mom actually bought him the Goya guitar he played in the trio—I don’t think he could afford a good one—and boy, could he make that thing sing.”
On the back cover of the landmark 1967 album Buffalo Springfield Again, one of the many names listed in the “thank you” section is Peanuts Willingham, Nancy’s mother.
Ruth, who now works as an accountant in Gainesville, remembers that her mom actually knew someone in the music business, for whom the Accidental Trio auditioned. The man was most impressed with Stephen’s guitar playing.
He’d fallen in love with the guitar during that first tenure in Costa Rica. “When I started getting good enough to play, there was nothing to do but play acoustic guitar in the bathroom at night, until my sister came and yelled at me,” he says.
Otie Stills was a land developer, among other things, and he called his teenaged son back to Costa Rica to help him with a project. Stephen finally graduated from Collegio Lincoln in 1963, and that fall he enrolled at UF.
Stills describes his family life as “chaos” and he was determined to get away.
Stills’ first rock ‘n’ roll outfit included his Accidental Trio buddy Jeff Williams, and Gainesville native Don Felder, the resident “hotshot guitarist” in town.
“Me and Jeff got this band called the Continentals, and we got Felder to come in,” Still explains. “He would only show up for gigs. He didn’t rehearse—we never saw him except for gigs. He was too cool to rehearse, and we were just kids. It was a real hoot. Jeff’s big brother was an SAE, so we played fraternity parties.”
Stills had to borrow an electric guitar to play with the band. “I was the drummer first, but Jeff couldn’t play anything. But he could keep time. And he was the one with the car and the mom that was really understanding.” He bunked at the Williams house and taught Jeff how to play the drums.
Felder would achieve superstardom, just a few years after Stills, as a member of the Eagles.
It was during his Joe College days that Stills began to appreciate rhythm ‘n’ blues music; professional soul bands were all the rage on Fraternity Row. There was somebody cool to see every weekend.
Although he attended classes religiously, Stills was not destined to graduate from UF.
“The University of Florida was not the Harvard of the South that it is today,” he says. “It was a step back from that rough-ass prep school in Costa Rica that I went to. That thing was the best school in the area. Presidents would send their sons and daughters to the school because it was so good.
“I came back because I liked it. I wanted out of the house, away from the family. I moved in with friends, and then the college told me that despite my good grades they basically couldn’t accept me because all the records were fucked up. I was there—I know I went to class!
“So I just split and went to New Orleans, then to New York—and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Along with Ohioan Richie Furay, Stills joined a harmony-singing folk group, the Au Go Go Singers. Eventually they found their way to California, where they put Buffalo Springfield together with Canadian singer/guitarist Neil Young.
Buffalo Springfield lasted just 18 months, but the band’s folk, rock and country blend laid the groundwork for so much that was to follow, including Crosby, Stills & Nash (and, sometimes, Young).
Today, Stills has homes in Beverly Hills, California, and in Florida, where he’s registered to vote. He is a lifetime member of the University of Florida Alumni Association.
Stills was the first musician inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice on the same night, for his work in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
In 1968, just five years after he’d left Gainesville for good, Stephen Stills performed in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Buffalo Springfield was opening for the Beach Boys.
“I remember what I wore,” he says. “I wore a green Pierre Cardin suit, and a paisley scarf as a tie. I was very much the ‘British pop star.’ Most people didn’t know that I was there, and nobody paid any attention, and there was no review. Nobody cared. It was a Beach Boys show.
“I think some of my running buds were in Vietnam, and a couple more were off in other colleges, or had moved away. But I was a townie.”
@2001 The Gainesville Sun