Stephen Stills delivers some musical zen in this song: "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with."
It seems to be directed at one who has been dumped ("turn your heartache right into joy"), letting him know that he's better off getting with the girl right next to him than pining for his ex. It could also be seen as a message of free love. Stills called it "a good times song, just a bit of fun."
According to Stills (as stated in the liner notes to the CSN boxed set), he got the title from Billy Preston, who said it at a party. Stills asked his permission to use it, and Preston agreed.
Crosby, Stills & Nash wowed the fans at Woodstock in 1969 soon after releasing their debut album. Adding Neil Young, they released the landmark album Déjà Vu in March 1970, then put the band aside to work on solo albums. Neil Young issued After The Gold Rush in September 1970 (Graham Nash believes he was working on it while they were making Déjà Vu), and Stills followed with his self-titled debut in November. "Love The One You're With" went to #14 in the US in January 1971, getting his solo career off to a good start. Crosby and Nash released their solo albums in 1971, but neither landed a big hit. It was clear that Crosby, Stills & Nash had a lot more appeal as a unit than as separate parts, but personal and musical differences got in the way. They returned with Young for a tour in 1974, but the planned album was aborted soon after they started recording. They finally released another album (without Young) in 1977: CSN.
Stills got a lot of help from his famous friends on "Love The One You're With." His CSN&Y bandmates David Crosby and Graham Nash sang background, as did John Sebastian, Rita Coolidge and Priscilla Jones.
The UK-based soul singer Doris Troy claimed she was the one who came up with the title and said it to Stephen Stills. On Spencer Leigh's On the Beat
radio show, she said Stills was at a party in London and feeling lonesome because his girlfriend was back in the States. Troy got talking to him and said, "Love the one you're with, Sugar!" Stills loved the expression and asked if she minded if he used it in a song. She readily agreed.
Bill - Liverpool, England
Stills can play a lot of different instruments. On this track, he played guitars, organ, percussion, and... steel drums, his favorite part. "I played them before a little bit but I just kept diddling around till I found the right notes," he wrote in the CSN boxed set.
An Isley Brothers cover in 1971 (#18 US) transformed this from a song with a free love ethos into one about a Higher Love. Other notable versions include ones by Aretha Franklin on her 1971 Live At Fillmore West album, British pop act Bucks Fizz, who peaked at #47 in 1986 with their cover and UK Pop Idol winner Will Young on his 2003 album Friday's Child.
Photographer Henry Diltz, who photographed the album sleeve for Stephen Stills, wrote in his California Dreaming: Memories And Visions Of LA 1966-1975 about the story behind the LP cover: "After Déjà Vu, CSN went on a bit of a hiatus and Stephen invited me to join him in Colorado. Gold Hill was way up in the Colorado mountains. While we were there Stephen received word that Jimi Hendrix had passed away so everybody was very sad. We sat up the whole night talking, telling stories and remembering him. When dawn came up the next morning it had snowed overnight and everything was blanketed in white. I grabbed my camera and Stephen grabbed his guitar, we ran outside and I started taking pictures of him sitting on a chair in the middle of the snow. Some time later this (session) was chosen for his first album cover."
In the 2012 movie Prometheus, which is set in the year 2093, the spaceship's captain, portrayed by Idris Elba, sings a bit of this song after revealing that the accordion he had been playing once belonged to Stephen Stills.