It’s Too Good Not To Be True

Originally posted February 17, 2009

Legend has it that one day in 1966, the members of the Buffalo Springfield met with the A&R (Artists & Repertoire) man from Atco, the group’s record label, to go over songs for the group’s first album.

For some time, the story goes, the man from Atco listened as Stephen Stills and Neil Young – and maybe Richie Furay, whose songs showed up on later Springfield albums but not on the first – shared their tunes with the A&R man and each other. As the meeting neared its end, the man from Atco asked if any of the musicians had anything else.

“I got one more,” said Stills, “for what it’s worth.” And he took up his guitar and began to sing the now-familiar words, “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear . . .”

And that, children, is how “For What It’s Worth” got its title. I can’t vouch for the fact of the story, but, to me, it’s one of those stories that’s so right that it almost doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. Legend drives out fact just as surely as bad money drives out good.*

The only other bit of history I’ve read about “For What It’s Worth” is that Atco scrambled to put the track on the Springfield’s first album after it became a hit single. If that’s the case, then there should be copies of the album out there without “For What It’s Worth,” as the album was released in 1966 and the single didn’t hit the Top 40 until February 1967. My copy of the first album has “For What It’s Worth” as the first track on Side One, but then, I bought that LP long after 1966. Does anyone out there know? Was there a version of Buffalo Springfield without “For What It’s Worth”?

Whatever the truth, “For What It’s Worth” was the group’s only hit, reaching No. 7 during an eleven-week stay in the Top 40, and pulling the Buffalo Springfield out of the running for the title of Best Group Ever Without A Top Ten Single. (My nomination for the title? The Band, whose best-performing single, “Up On Cripple Creek,” went to No. 25.)

There are 309 CDs in the listings at All-Music Guide that include a track titled “For What It’s Worth.” A number of those – maybe a quarter – are not the Stills tune. Take away the multiple listings for the Buffalo Springfield’s recording, and there are about two hundred covers. Some of the interesting names in the list are: Bonnie Bramlett, Cher (on her 1969 album 3614 Jackson Highway), Aynsley Dunbar, Bill Evans, Keb’ Mo’, King Curtis, Miriam Makeba, Melanie, the Muppets, Willie Nelson, Jeffrey Osborne, Ozzy Osbourne and Rush. Not on AMG’s list is the gospel choral group, the Voices Of East Harlem, whose 1970 version of the song is remarkable.

I’ve pulled three versions to share today, by Lou Rawls, Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 and the Staple Singers. I’m not sure Rawls’ style fits the song very well, but the other two versions are good listens.

“For What It’s Worth” by Lou Rawls from Feelin’ Good, 1968

“For What It’s Worth” by Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 from Stillness, 1971

“For What It’s Worth” by the Staple Singers, Epic 10220, 1967

*That little epigram about money is called “Gresham’s Law,” and remembering it today means that I did learn something in economics class all those years ago.

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