Graham Nash is one of the most durable musical figures to have emerged from the 1960s, both as a supporting musician and a star in his own right, and a key figure in both the British Invasion and the '70s singer/songwriter era that followed. As a harmony singer and sometime lead singer with the Hollies and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, his voice is among the most familiar in two distinct eras and schools of rock music. Nash was born in Manchester, England, and his musical future was determined on the day in 1947 when he met Allan Clarke, the new boy in his class at school. They became friends and it turned out that one of the interests that they shared was music. They both sang in choir and in the mid-'50s began playing and singing together as a skiffle duo called the Two Teens. A little later on, they were known as the Levins and, still later, after their acquisition of Guytone guitars, as the Guytones. At one point, after rock & roll was established and it seemed like sibling acts such as the Everly Brothers were the coming thing, they billed themselves as Ricky and Dane Young (Allan was Ricky, and Graham was Dane).
It was while they were playing a gig as members of the Fourtones that Clarke and Nash were approached by a group called the Deltas and were invited to join them. With a few lineup changes over the next few months, the Deltas became the nucleus for the Hollies, the new group featuring Clarke on lead vocals, Nash on rhythm guitar and vocals, Eric Haydock on bass, Vic Steele (soon replaced by Tony Hicks) on lead guitar, and Don Rathbone on drums. It was soon after the Hollies got together that Nash abandoned the rhythm guitar (though he made a good show of "playing" one on-stage). The group's live sound didn't require the second guitar and Nash's lack of contribution there was more than made up for by his contributions as a singer (and, on-stage, his ability to tease girls in the audience) from the very beginning and, slightly later, as a songwriter.
Following the EMI audition in April of 1963, they released their debut single, a cover of the Coasters' "(Ain't That) Just Like Me," backed with "Hey What's Wrong with Me," on the Parlophone label. Eventually, it rose to number 25, a modest but respectable first showing behind the group's driving beat and the unusually strong harmony singing, of which Nash's voice was a key component. The group followed this up with another Coasters cover, "Searchin'," with the B-side, "Whole World Over," a Clarke/Nash original. This record did decidedly better, eventually peaking at number 12. The group's next single, "Stay," a cover of the Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs American hit, rose to number eight in England.
The Hollies' fourth single, "Just One Look," made it to number two in England and brushed the American charts at number 98, their first tiny success in the United States. The group's fifth single, "We're Through," was their first original A-side, written by Clarke, Hicks, and Nash under their new collective pseudonym of "L. Ransford." During the summer of 1965, the Clarke/Hicks/Nash songwriting team had become strong enough to justify interest from Dick James, the most prominent publisher of rock & roll songs in England. They were signed to a contract by Dick James Music and given their own publishing imprint, Gralto Music (for GRaham, ALlan, and TOny). This era heralded a series of great original hits for the group, including "Stop Stop Stop," "Pay You Back with Interest," "On a Carousel," "Carrie Anne," "King Midas in Reverse," "Dear Eloise," and "Jennifer Eccles," as well as numerous album tracks of extraordinary beauty.
The years 1966 through 1968 saw Clarke, Hicks, and Nash become one of the strongest songwriting teams in English rock, capable of holding their own against the likes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Their album For Certain Because reflected this prolificacy and quality, made up of all original songs, including Nash's "Clown," a far more personal song than he'd ever contributed to the group before and one that was clearly marked as a "Nash" song in style, more than a "Hollies" number. Originals such as "Stop Stop Stop," which reached the number two spot in England and number seven in America, and "On a Carousel," which got to number four in England and number 11 in America, earned them the freedom to experiment with their songs, especially their album tracks. This coincided with the group availing themselves of the new forms of musical and extra-musical indulgences that London offered in the spring before the Summer of Love.
The group, with Nash as the most enthusiastic participant, all took part in that psychedelic season, and it began to show. The Hollies decided to try their hand at psychedelic music in June of 1967 with a new song, largely written by Nash, called "King Midas in Reverse." The Hollies' most elaborate recorded work to date, "Midas" was filled with all manner of sound effects, surprising timbres, and a festive mood that made it one of the most cheerful pieces of psychedelia ever issued. Nash thought enough of it that he even performed it years later, on-stage, with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The song failed to become a major hit, however, reaching only number 18 at home and number 51 in the U.S. Its failure pointed to a problem with the group's sound and image -- and the audience that they'd cultivated -- that would ultimately drive Nash from their ranks.
The Hollies had a pop/rock image and an audience that only desired Top 40 rock. The best and most ambitious work that Nash and the others were producing, especially on their albums, was going largely unheard. The Butterfly album, released in November of 1967, was a case in point, an array of myriad psychedelic, trippy, spacy sounds and songs. Nash's "Postcard" was proof that less is more, a driving love song with a bunch of memorable hooks, gently harmonized and featuring a stripped-down sound, little more than acoustic guitar, drums, and bass with a few sound effects; "Butterfly" itself was the most sublimely beautiful record that Nash ever recorded with the Hollies, a song of lost love and fading beauty, embellished with flutes, a string section, and horns that recalled the opening section of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Nash's enthusiasm for the changes taking place in the music scene was matched by his appreciation of the druggy diversions of the era. Where he was eager to experiment with whatever was the chemical of fashion at the time, the other Hollies preferred a pint at the local pub. "It was one big party," remembered Clarke. "Graham was much more into all of it."
Nash was also becoming closer, personally and musically, to a couple of California-based musicians, David Crosby and Stephen Stills, whose acquaintance he'd made while the Hollies were touring America. He'd met Crosby at a Mamas & Papas recording session, and first sang with them in either Cass Elliot's or Joni Mitchell's home (nobody can quite agree), and the grouping of their voices seemed a natural. By July of 1968, he'd played with Stills and Crosby in a jam at the latter's California home. The next month, the three of them were in England, where Nash prepared his exit from the Hollies. The Hollies had given him room for his own songs ever since "Fifi the Flea" back in 1965, and in 1968, they'd tried to record Nash's "Marrakesh Express" during sessions for a never-finished album. "Graham had reached a point," explained Clarke, "where he wanted separate credit for the songs that he wrote, instead of having everything credited to Clarke, Hicks, and Nash."
Finally, in November of 1968, it was announced that Graham Nash was leaving the Hollies. His final project with the band was an obligatory appearance at a benefit concert at the London Palladium in December of 1968. By the middle of that month, he was in New York cutting the original version of "You Don't Have to Cry" with Stills and Crosby. As early as the summer of 1968, maneuvering had begun to get Nash out of his contract -- through the Hollies -- with Epic/Columbia Records. A trade was worked out by agent David Geffen, wherein Nash was released from Columbia, while Richie Furay of Buffalo Springfield was released from his Atlantic contract with that group, and each was traded to the other's label so that Furay could become part of Poco.
Nash moved to California and began rehearsing and recording with Crosby and Stills. The resulting self-titled album, with Nash singing, Crosby singing and strumming, and Stills singing and (along with Dallas Taylor) playing most of the instruments, was recorded in the spring of 1969 and released that June. It never placed higher than number six on the American charts, but Crosby, Stills & Nash stayed on the charts for more than two years and sold more than two million copies. The second half of 1969 saw a rise to stardom for Nash, as for Stills and Crosby, and their eventual new partner, Neil Young. Each one of them, and the collective quartet, was suddenly part of a rock hierarchy occupied by the likes of Bob Dylan and individual members of the Beatles.
Although Nash barely played on the debut CSN album, apart from guitar on "Marrakesh Express" and "Lady of the Island," his voice was everywhere on that LP, his high nasal harmony singing adding distinctive twang to the group's vocal sound, and he occasionally sang a lead vocal part. "Marrakesh Express," which the Hollies had never finished, finally saw the light of day as a CSN single that got to number 28 in America and number 17 in England. These were relatively modest showings, especially compared with the success of the group's album, but "Marrakesh Express" got AM airplay at a time when this still mattered; for the younger, less serious portion of the listening public, that single became the song most identified with the group and it "sold" the album to casual listeners in huge numbers. "Marrakesh Express" was also performed by the group at their second (and most famous) gig, the Woodstock festival in August of 1969. To the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album Déjà Vu, which followed, Nash contributed "Teach Your Children," which is arguably the most fondly remembered song associated with the group.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young lasted long enough as a performing unit for one major national tour and a live follow-up album before the members went their separate ways. Nash emerged from the chaos of the quartet's demise as a star in his own right and found a major audience for his music. Despite the fact that he had seemingly used his best compositions with the trio and quartet, he emerged in July of 1971 with Songs for Beginners, a beautifully wrought solo album resplendent in personal lyrics ("I Used to Be a King"), topical political subject matter ("Chicago," "Military Madness"), and an easygoing folk-like sound, but all of it played with sufficient wattage to hold its own on AM radio. The album reached number 15 in America and number 13 in England, with the single release of "Chicago" rising to number 35. The real centerpiece of the album, however, was "I Used to Be a King," which showed Nash as a sensitive singer/songwriter, indulging in a little self-pity (a necessary component in the field) and offering some clever wordplay that even managed to recall the Hollies number "King Midas in Reverse."
In December of 1971, Nash embarked on a tour of Europe with David Crosby, which proved not only financially successful but a comfortable artistic experience for the two musicians and resulted in the recording of the Graham Nash/David Crosby LP for Atlantic Records, released in May of 1972. Graham Nash/David Crosby reached number four on the U.S. charts; it deserved the success, but it was also probably helped by the fact that the United States was in the midst of a bitter presidential election season, dominated by the issues of the Vietnam War and the presidency of Richard Nixon. Nash seemed to sum up the mood of the spring of 1972 with his single off the album, "Immigration Man," probably the most cheerful and catchy song about paranoia ever written and which reached number 36. Later that year, he also joined Neil Young for a one-off single together, "War Song," that reached number 61.
In 1974, Nash cut a second solo album, Wild Tales, which was a far more dour and downbeat record than Songs for Beginners, and got a mixed reception from critics and the public. Part of the reason for its downbeat mood, lost on most listeners, was the fact that the album had been done in the wake of the murder of Nash's girlfriend, Amy Gossage. After Wild Tales, Nash began devoting most of his musical attention to working with David Crosby and the two somehow managed to get out of their Atlantic contracts and signed as a duo with ABC. They released two very successful studio albums, Wind on the Water (1975) and Whistling Down the Wire (1976), plus a live LP and a greatest-hits package over the next four years. In the midst of Crosby & Nash's various recording projects and tours, there were periodic reunions of CSNY in its various guises, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young toured in 1974, and Crosby, Stills & Nash recorded an album in 1977, but nobody, in or out of the group, expected these to be long-term reunions. By the end of the '70s, Nash's partnership with Crosby was also on hiatus, principally due to the latter's substance abuse problems; Crosby, by his own admission, had hardly been drug-free since his teens, but at the end of the '70s, it was affecting his music. As a result, an album that was supposed to be a Crosby & Nash release ended up as Graham Nash's Earth & Sky, released in February of 1980.
Earth & Sky was a thematic continuation of the topical songs that Nash had done with Crosby throughout the mid-'70s. He soon found, however, that the '80s were a different, much more cynical time. The album was received negatively in the press and sold far more poorly than either of his prior solo LPs or his work with Crosby, peaking at number 117. Nash was much more successful in his participation in various anti-nuclear events and benefits during this period, including a September 1979 concert featuring such luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, that was filmed and recorded and later released as No Nukes. The album featured Nash performing a stunning version of "Cathedral," a song that he'd debuted on the 1977 Crosby, Stills & Nash reunion album. In 1982, he also joined Stephen Stills and David Crosby for a CSN reunion album, Daylight Again, which yielded a modest hit single in the form of Nash's "Wasted on the Way."
Amid his musical activism and work with Stills and Crosby, Nash's career took a totally unexpected turn in 1983 when he got back together for a one-off British television appearance with his old bandmates the Hollies. This proved sufficiently comfortable for all concerned so that two year later, Nash and the Hollies reunited for an album, What Goes Around, and a concert tour of the United States. In 1986, Nash released a new solo album, Innocent Eyes, which proved a critical and commercial disaster, dominated by synthesizers and drum machines that simply didn't work on his songs. Since the mid-'80s, he has performed with Crosby and often recorded and toured as part of Crosby, Stills & Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
CSN kept Nash busy through the '90s, as did his separate work as a photographer. He didn't return to his musical solo career until 2002, when he released Songs for Survivors on Artemis Records; it failed to chart. The next decade brought more tours with CSN and Nash also turned his attention toward archival projects, curating comprehensive box sets on his own work and that of Crosby and Stills. During the mid-2010s, long-simmering tensions boiled over in the group and Nash announced he would never work with Crosby again, effectively bringing an end to CSN. This announcement coincided with the spring 2016 release of This Path Tonight, Nash's first album in 14 years.
Graham Nash has long been regarded as one of the more genial musical personalities of the late '60s and one of the healthier survivors of the era, with none of the personal demons that have afflicted David Crosby. Indeed, Crosby has given Nash much credit for assistance in his successful battle against drug addiction. His best compositions, including "Teach Your Children" and "Marrakesh Express," are among the most evocative of the cheerful idealism of the '60s, and are among the most popular songs of their era. ~ Bruce Eder