Did a Bad Back Give Neil Young His Biggest Hit Song?

Neil Young performing in England.
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David Warner Ellis/Redferns

On March 18, 1972, Neil Young sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 for the one and only time of his career to date, an achievement one could argue might never have happened if it hadn’t been for his bad back.

Written by Young, “Heart of Gold” was the first single from the former Buffalo Springfield member’s fourth solo album, Harvest, which would find its way to the top of the Billboard 200 while “Heart of Gold” was still sitting at No. 1 on the Hot 100, making for a pretty darned impressive two-fer.

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With backing vocals by Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, whose appearance came about because they both happened to be in Nashville to be guests on The Johnny Cash Show, it wasn’t just Young’s first No. 1 hit, it was the first time he’d ever been in the Top 10 at all, having only ventured as high as No. 16 prior to that, thanks to “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.”

Harvest was decidedly softer in tone than Young’s previous albums, a situation which came about because he’d injured his back and, as such, couldn’t stand for extended periods of time. Because of this, he found himself playing his acoustic guitar more than his electric guitar, since he could play that sitting down. The end result: songs like “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man,” the album’s second single, which hit No. 4.

And here’s a fun tidbit, now that you know how Young managed to wrangle those backing vocalists for the song: during the course of his American Recordings, - the material he recorded in the last years of his life with producer Rick Rubin - Johnny Cash recorded his own version of “Heart of Gold.” While you can very much tell from his voice that the end was nigh, it’s still pure Cash.

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