The creative and interpersonal chemistry that defined the work of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young in 1970 was explosive, and the drummer was right smack in the middle of much of it.
In the 1970s, Johny Barbata had a very hot hand. The former member of ’60s chart toppers the Turtles was an innovative player with great chops and a mile-deep feel to support them. Barbata instinctively knew how to make pop hits, but he also had the right musical disposition to deliver what was required of the ambitious singer-songwriters of the new era, who were breaking ground across a wide range of styles and approaches.
When Barbata was chosen to tour with the iconic Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young collective, he was more than equal to the task, as evidenced by his powerful playing on the electric half of their number-1 4 Way Street double album, which documented the quartet’s historic 1970 tour. Barbata would later join the Jefferson Starship for a string of hugely popular releases, but not before adding his rhythmic voice to more classic releases emanating from the CSNY camp.
These days Barbata resides in Ada, Oklahoma, playing with and producing various artists, including his daughter, Leah. Here we step back in time with him to get a feel for headier times.
MD: When you became a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, it was a beehive of activity. What was the vibe like within America’s first supergroup?
Johny: I did the audition in L.A. at Warner Bros. They tried out me and bassist Chris Ethridge, and then sent us home. Then they called back, and this time Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels was on bass, and we became the rhythm section. I knew it was special when I went to New York City and was greeted with, “So, you’re the new superstar rock drummer!”
MD: You also played on Stills and Nash’s debut solo albums.
Johny: Graham was simply great. I did two of his solo albums and three albums that he produced. He took me all over Europe, and to this day he’s still my favorite of the group.
Out of the gate, there was a lot of psychodrama in the band. I remember after my first gig at Winterland, in San Francisco, I was soaking wet and toweling off, when Stephen stuck his hand out and said, “Welcome to the new group.” From that moment on, every time Neil or Stephen would do a solo, they’d always turn around and look at me, implying they were playing off me instead of each other!
MD: Graham’s Songs for Beginners was such a strong effort, hitting number 15 on the pop chart and netting a top-forty hit in “Chicago.”
Johny: Yeah, “Chicago” was special, especially the lyrics. SFB was a magic album for sure. Some of that was recorded at Graham’s home-studio mansion in California. We also did David Blue, who was a Bob Dylan copy, and Judee Sill, who was a Joni Mitchell copy. Another band he produced, and who should have scored big but didn’t, was the Fool, from Amsterdam. Everything we did there was organic and recorded live.
MD: You also had some champions on the technical end, like engineer/producers Bill Halverson and Glyn Johns.
Johny: I did a John David Souther album for Glyn, who I did not know at the time. He was having difficulty as far as knowing where we were positioned inside the songs tempo-wise. I was scratching my head, getting frustrated at “that guy,” but eventually he got it. I was totally unaware of his prior reputation with the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, etc. Man, you never know, you know?
MD: What stands out as the most prominent song from Songs for Beginners?
Johny: Easily it was “Chicago.” I recall that there were a lot of guests hanging—extra musicians and backup singers. I played quite simply, not a lot of fills, and just tried to lock in.
MD: With the members of CSNY, you had four geniuses who couldn’t be dictated to—especially by each other, correct?
Johny: As far as songwriting went, it was a very fertile but also competitive atmosphere with all the guys, especially Neil and Stephen, trying to outwrite each other.
MD: Stephen Stills features performances by icons like Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix, and contains “Love the One You’re With,” perhaps Stills’ most famous solo song. The album was recorded at Island Studios in London and at the Record Plant and Wally Heider’s in Los Angeles. Is it true that you recorded in London because Stephen had just purchased a house from Ringo?
Johny: Exactly! Stephen bought it from Ringo, who bought it from Peter Sellers, who got it from Katharine Hepburn—or something like that. It was a seventeen-room mansion, and at the time just about anybody who was anybody was hanging there.
MD: What do you specifically remember about recording the tracks “Go Back Home” and “Sit Yourself Down”?
Johny: “Sit Yourself Down” was done at Wally Heider’s. We got that in one take! Looking back, it was pretty incredible. As far as “Go Back Home,” they’ve got me listed on that track, but I think [previous CSNY drummer] Dallas Taylor initially played on that track. Stephen cut the song, and I did a few overdubs on it.
MD: What gear were you using during that period?
Johny: Ludwig drums: a brass-shell snare with Slingerland snares. It was loud and had a big pop. I had twenty hit singles with that sound. My toms were 13″ and 14″, and my bass drum was a 14×22. I used Paiste cymbals. The decay was quick and never muddied up a track.
MD: When all is said and done, did you feel at the time that you were part of the “golden age” of rock?
Johny: At the time, CSNY had the biggest-selling album in the world with Déjà Vu. They defined the word supergroup. Being a member of the Turtles was one thing as far as recognition went, but with CSNY? Man, those were wild times…they really were.