Regrouping The Group
The Hollies recruited Terry Sylvester (born January 8, 1945), an ex-member of the Swinging' Blue Jeans and the Escorts, to replace Nash. Sylvester was not the same kind of songwriter as Nash, although each of them, curiously, evolved separately into mellow singer/songwriters during the 1970s (that is, when Nash wasn't writing topical songs).
In February 1968, following his debut with the band at Cardiff University, Sylvester participated in his first recording session with The Hollies, on the stopgap single "Sorry Suzanne," which reached #3 in England that spring. The Hollies Sing Dylan album, also released in the spring of 1968, reached #3 on the English charts in June 1968, but generated a massive amount of controversy in America, where the newly constituted underground rock press, principally embodied by Rolling Stone and a handful of other magazines, savagely attacked the entire notion of the record, as well as its execution.
In reality, there were some inspired moments on the album. "When The Ship Comes In" and "My Back Pages," in particular, were very nicely executed. The main problem was that the rock press, speaking for what could be presumed to be the majority of Bob Dylan's audience, saw no compelling reason for anyone doing Hollies-style covers of Dylan's songs.
The Hollies were hardly limping along with sales success of that kind. In America, despite the controversy that it generated, the Dylan album managed to stay in print for many years into the 1970s, no small feat for a band whose records were routinely deleted after a year or two. But the band still needed to come up with a new batch of songs, and this time without Nash, who, despite his increasingly individualistic voice, had been a key creative member of the group.
Their November 1969 album, Hollies Sing Hollies, failed to chart, but that was a relatively small matter, as it turned out. The previous spring, Hicks had discovered a song among a group of publisher's demos that he immediately brought to the attention of the band as a likely hit, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother."
The song, a topical, serious, dramatic number, was quite unlike anything else the group had ever released as a single, but it seemed to be what they were looking for. As with every other single that they had ever done, it didn't look backward to their immediately past work, and it seemed to offer the group, and especially Allan Clarke, the chance to excel at what it did best. The only thing it ultimately didn't have, amid its beautiful arrangement for voices and stripped-down band (including piano by Elton John)--and this shows some of Hicks's selflessness--was a part for a guitar, the first such record The Hollies had ever done.
The song, cut in June and August 1969 and released in September--the title of which, incidentally, comes from an inscription at the gates of Boys Town--hit #3 in England and #7 in America, and racked up the highest sales the band ever had. Indeed, it became to The Hollies something like what "Nights In White Satin" became to the Moody Blues, an internationally known signature tune that, periodically re-released, tended to shoot to the top of the charts every decade or so. In fact, "He Ain't Heavy" would be reissued 19 years later and achieve the #1 spot in England.
The Hollies now seemed to be riding higher than ever, although to read the rock press, one would still have thought that, in the wake of Nash's exit, the group was struggling along. In fact, Nash had achieved a great deal of respectability in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a member of Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young), and the rock press was quick to embrace the political-correctness of his music's views on the war and other issues. In the process, the tendency was to debunk the group that he had come out of--this was especially easy in the case of The Hollies, who were, after all a pop-rock outfit.
It was all a matter of where one's perspective was in late 1969: In August 1969, while The Hollies were putting the finishing touches on "He Ain't Heavy," Nash was appearing with Crosby, Stills and Young at Woodstock.
One could visualize how the Byrds, David Crosby's former band, in a different reality, would've fit in at Woodstock, or how Stephen Stills and Neil Young's former band, the Buffalo Springfield, could've played the festival if it had stayed together. But no one could visualize The Hollies playing to the Woodstock generation, much less playing the festival. And there was Graham Nash afterward, helping to make a hit out of Joni Mitchell's song about the festival.