Sometimes the most seemingly random meetings change the course of our entire lives. That was certainly the case for Richie Furay, a singer-songwriter who found his life altered thanks to stopping at a traffic light on Sunset Boulevard in 1966.
He was riding in a car with another young musician named Stephen Stills. They were heading east on Sunset when Furay noticed two other musicians — Neil Young and Bruce Palmer — heading west to get to the 405 Freeway en route to San Francisco. A new transplant to Los Angeles, Stills had met Young while on a prior Canadian tour and had been searching the city’s music scene for weeks to find him.
The two drivers spotted one another across from a red light and agreed to pull over in the parking lot of the classic diner Ben Frank’s, setting off a string of events that would lead to the founding of the band Buffalo Springfield and change the course of rock music history.
This Saturday, Furay will headline the “Wild Honey Foundation Pays Tribute to Buffalo Springfield” show at the Alex Theatre, an all-star benefit that will raise funds for autism research via the Autism Think Tank (ATT).
“I had met Stephen after hearing him when I lived in New York and about to move to LA, and loved it so much I had to meet him,” recalls Furay, speaking from his home in Boulder, Colorado. “He said he had a band together and needed a singer, so I moved out to LA and it was just me and him. It was a shock, to say the least, but we lived in an apartment so small I couldn’t believe we both fit together and learned to phrase songs together.
“We learned to sing, phrase and harmonize together because there was nothing else to do,” he continues. “I had met Neil before at my apartment in New York City, so we took Neil and Bruce to our apartment off Sunset. I had taught Stephen a song that Neil had taught me in New York called ‘Clancy Can’t Even Sing,’ so Neil was able to play it with us, and Bruce had played it with him. They heard the arrangement I had given it and liked it, and we jammed instantly and a band was formed.”
That fateful day inspired a rush of brilliant creativity that resulted in three classic albums and one of rock history’s most iconic songs, “For What It’s Worth,” all in the space of a brief two-year history. Buffalo Springfield drew their name from the side of a steamroller made by the Buffalo Springfield Roller Co. that was parked outside the house of record producer Barry Friedman, where Stills and Furay were living at the time.
While the band only lasted a couple of years, their influence was tremendous, as Stills went on to form Crosby, Stills and Nash. Young went on to an epic solo career along with occasional teamings with CSN, and Furay reached fame again as the leader of Poco. There were a total of nine key members who drifted in and out of the band as well, including country-rock legend Gram Parsons, while Poco’s bassists Timothy B. Schmidt and Randy Meisner later became members of the Eagles. Poco also included Alhambra’s own Jim Messina (who was more famous as part of Loggins & Messina with Kenny Loggins).
“It did happen pretty fast, but there was just so much amazing talent packed in everywhere back then in LA,” says Furay. “We broke up after two years because people drifted in and out to other projects so much and only our first album had all the original members together. The second and third had people playing in combinations of two or three of us founders, plus other random friends.
“Neil couldn’t decide if he wanted to be in the band, and Bruce was Canadian and had problems with immigration authorities,” he continues. “Once Stephen had enough and said ‘I’m gone,’ it was over. At the time I wouldn’t have put my finger on it that we were that great, but I knew we were good. Even today people hear ‘For What It’s Worth’ and say ‘Oh yeah,’ even somebody that’s 15 years old.”
Furay said he started Poco right after Buffalo Springfield broke up, teaming again with Messina to explore country-rock further. They invited steel guitar player Rusty Young to join the band, and he brought along his own drummer George Grantham. Then Furay auditioned both Meisner and Schmidt on bass. Schmidt joined the band for most of its successes after Meisner left early to join The Eagles, and then replaced Meisner in that classic band again later.
Furay stayed with Poco for six years, as the group rose to fame with a romantic, soft-rock sound. He later joined Chris Hillman of The Byrds and Eagles songwriter J.D. Souther to form the Hillman-Souther-Furay band, and nowadays maintains a steady schedule leading his own eponymous band.
“As far as country-rock, when you’re a pioneer, you don’t really think ‘I’m a pioneer,’ because you’re just doing what comes naturally,” explains Furay. “My dad listened to what he liked on radio, and I liked what people might call rockabilly. Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins were my influences, something that stuck with me and I enjoyed, and it came naturally.
“I knew we were going to do something that was different but when that’s in your heart that’s what you’ve got to do,” he continues. “Jimmy definitely had a country influence and it came naturally to us. It put us on the map and see what happened.”
A native of Yellow Springs, Ohio (the current hometown of comic Dave Chappelle and also the birthplace of John Lithgow), the 73-year-old Furay is celebrating both his 50th year as a performer and his 50th wedding anniversary. He takes pride in the fact that he still writes new songs regularly, and believes their quality stands up to his classic works.
“In the last 10 years, I’ve released two new CDs and I have another one in the works,” says Furay. “I love old songs and to keep it fresh live I do new music and I’m in the process of doing new stuff again. We just came back from the Moody Blues Cruise, and so many others just play their old stuff but I have to play new ones.”
He’s excited to headline the Wild Honey show, closing out a three-hour extravaganza that will also feature Micky Dolenz of The Monkees and a promised lineup of surprise all-stars. The money raised will help the ATT bring together a team of top autism specialists, via an Internet medical conference, to tackle the painful medical and psychological issues faced by kids like Wild Honey’s co-founder Paul Rock’s 13-year-old son, Jake, a nonverbal autistic boy with extreme digestive distress and self-injury issues.
The Wild Honey Foundation, a nonprofit which seeks to pass on the passion, creativity and idealism found in rock, rhythm & blues, folk and pop music to future generations through cultural events of all types, has raised over $100,000 for the Autism Think Tank over the past four years.
“I’ve been known as a love song writer, and my best-known song is ‘Kind Woman’ written for my wife, Nancy,” says Furay. “I still have that sentiment in my heart, that the songs I write are really focused on love. I sit down, get a thought and sometimes I finish right away. Sometimes I get away a long time, tinker around and see where it leads. It’s just what’s on my heart and mind at the time.”
“The Wild Honey Orchestra & Friends Play Buffalo Springfield” starts at 8 p.m. Sat. at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Tickets are $20 to $110. Call (818) 243-2539 or visit alextheatre.org