Initially formed by the trio of David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, the genesis of the group lies in two 1960s rock bands, The Byrds and The Hollies, and the demise of a third, Buffalo Springfield. Friction existed between David Crosby and his bandmates in the Byrds, and he was dismissed from the Byrds in the fall of 1967.
By early 1968, Buffalo Springfield had also disintegrated over personal issues, and after aiding in putting together the band’s final album, Stephen Stills found himself unemployed by the summer. He and Crosby began meeting informally and jamming, the results of one encounter in Florida on Crosby’s schooner being the song “Wooden Ships,” composed in collaboration with another guest, Paul Kantner.
Graham Nash had been introduced to Crosby when the Byrds had toured the UK in 1966, and when the Hollies ventured to California in 1968, Nash resumed his acquaintance with Crosby. At a party, Nash asked Stills and Crosby to repeat their performance of a new song by Stills, “You Don't Have To Cry,” with Nash improvising a second harmony part. The vocals jelled, and the three realized that they had a unique vocal chemistry.
Creatively frustrated with the Hollies, Nash decided to quit and throw his lot in with Crosby and Stills. After failing an audition with the Beatles' Apple Records, they were signed to Atlantic Records by Ahmet Ertegün, who had been a fan of the Springfield and disappointed by that band's demise. From the outset, given their respective band histories, the trio decided not to be locked into a group structure, using their surnames as identification to ensure independence and a guarantee against the band simply continuing without one of them, as had both the Byrds and the Hollies after the departures of Crosby and Nash. Their record contract with Atlantic reflected this, positioning CSN with a unique flexibility unheard of for an untested group. The trio also picked up a unique management team in Elliot Roberts and David Geffen, who had engineered their situation with Atlantic and would help to consolidate clout for the group in the industry. Roberts kept the band focused and dealt with egos, while Geffen handled the business deals, since, in Crosby’s words, they needed a shark and Geffen was it. Roberts and Geffen would play key roles in securing the band’s success during the early years.