You know his music. Hell, just about everyone in the civilized world has heard his songs and loved them. You just don’t know his name. Welcome to the mysterious life of Fred Neil.
It’s been 55 years since Fred Neil released one of the greatest blues albums ever. The August, 1965 record was called Bleecker and MacDougal and featured a young John Sebastian on harmonica . Up front though, were the unforgettable baritone voice and the brilliant, original and compelling songs of a man who did everything he could to prevent himself from becoming famous. It almost worked. Most people have forgotten his name, if they ever knew it.
What they haven’t forgotten is the immortal composition ‘Everybody’s Talkin’, chosen as the theme song of the movie Midnight Cowboy, sung by Harry Nilsson. It’s the seventh most played song on radio ever. It’s also been recorded by more than one hundred artists. The movie version was well sung by Harry too and became Nilsson’s biggest hit. It’s just that if you hear the original version by Fred Neil, you’ll understand almost everything there is to know about the author. The man was a genius. A tormented one, but a genius nonetheless, and it’s more than time that music fans celebrated his life once again. You see, once you get on to Fred Neil, almost no one else will do if you want to hear what a white man can do with the blues. He’ll bring you to tears, and you’ll wonder why such a talent had to turn his back on fame.
Fred was born in 1937 and raised in Treasure Island near St. Petersburg, Florida. He left home at the age of 13 and moved to New York City in the mid-fifties. His father was a jukebox salesman and record supplier to the whole Eastern seaboard circuit. Growing up, Fred travelled with his father and listened to just about every record made in the 1940s and 1950s. He was a walking encyclopedia of musical lore.
“Fred is remembered as a singer blessed with an impossibly resonant baritone without equal in music, the writer of songs (Everybody’s Talkin’, The Dolphins, Candy Man, and The Other Side Of This Life) which will live as long as music itself. He is remembered as a mesmerizing but reluctant performer who reacted to the possibility of success with horror.” ~Ben Edmonds in Mojo Magazine, 2001.
Fred Neil was asked to speed up his own version of ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ for the movie soundtrack. He told the producers to go to hell. Of course, Fred collected royalties on that song until his death in 2001. He’d high-tailed it back to Coconut Grove, Florida, back in the late sixties just as his famous song promised he would do. Fred knew himself pretty well, and though he’d spent a few successful years in New York writing songs in the famed Brill Building (‘Candy Man’ for Roy Orbison, and ‘Come Back Baby’ for Buddy Holly) the only thing he really cared about was saving the dolphins and whales. He founded The Dolphin Research Project, perhaps as a consequence of writing his second most famous song ‘The Dolphins’, which Tim Buckley covered.
Some say it was drugs that did Fred in, that he took to heroin and cocaine and that he got too high on stage too often. His closest friends deny the stories of hard drug usage to this day, saying that while he enjoyed mind-altering sessions with the likes of Rick Danko and Jimi Hendrix, when he was performing he stuck to pot, or lesser stimulants.
“Fred’s an endangered species. Like his dolphins, he’s just trying to keep from getting caught and made to perform at Sea World.” ~ Jerry Jeff Walker
His peers loved him. Perhaps we should qualify that. Those (hundreds of talents and would-be talents) who aspired to be his peers loved him. David Crosby and Stephen Stills so adored the work of Fred Neil that they wanted to call their new supergroup “Son of Neil”. They settled instead for Crosby, Stills and Nash.
What else did Fred Neil write? – ‘The Other Side of This Life’, for one, recorded by dozens of bands, most notably by The Jefferson Airplane. And ‘Blues On The Ceiling’, a stunning work featured on Bleecker and MacDougall.
And one other thing: – that album, that precious classic album, was one of the first folk/blues albums to feature electric guitar.
Through his career, Fred Neil recorded or performed with artists such as: Vince Martin (his one-time partner), Peter Childs, Harvey Brooks, Al Kooper, Felix Papalardi, John Sebastian, Bob Dylan, Dino Valente, Karen Dalton, Cyrus & Rusty Faryar, Al Wilson, Bruce Langhorn, Eric Glen Horn, Gram Parsons, Les McCann, Buzzy Linhart, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Jimmy Bond, John T. Forsha, and Billy Mundi among others. He was the first to encourage Bob Dylan, the first to employ John Sebastian, and the first to recognize the considerable talents of Tim Hardin. Fred’s legacy is not only found among the songs of Tim Buckley, but also those of Joni Mitchell. Fred Neil was a giant among performers and among songwriters. It’s not too much to say that he virtually invented the art of white bluesmen writing new blues material and making it sound authentic, believable and important.
Many of Neil’s 1970’s recordings remain unissued, including a 1973 session with Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cipollina. In a later interview, Ric O’Barry claimed that Neil recorded two albums of all cover songs between 1977 and 1978 that were buried by Columbia Records. According to Barry, he produced the first of the recordings in the sessions in Miami. Neil was joined by Pete Childs on guitar, John Sebastian on harmonica, and Harvey Brooks on bass. The second album was more fully arranged, with Neil accompanied by the New York session band Stuff and some old friends like Slick Aguilar. The songs on these albums were written by Bobby Charles, Billy Roberts (who wrote ‘Hey Joe’), John Braheny and Bobby Ingram.
Fred was both wary of the music biz and all the corporate shenanigans that took place to deprive writers of lawful revenue, and was a man of considerable ingenuity and thrift. It’s said that he wrote dozens of songs under dozens of pseudonyms, all carefully calculated to obfuscate his presence and downplay his Fred Neil persona. He wanted a quiet life in Coconut Grove and got it. He virtually disappeared from public view after 1971. His closest friends were instructed to deny his very existence, his address, his occupation and his availability. In the whole of his life he granted only one interview.
Fred’s last official public appearance took place in April of 1977 with the Rolling Coconut Revue, a coalition of musicians and environmentalists who decided to take their crusade for whale and dolphin awareness all the way to Tokyo. He died of natural causes in 2001, a virtual recluse in Florida, as he battled skin cancer.
Overlooked, underrated and doing his damndest to keep it that way: such was the mysterious life of Fred Neil.
Brian Miller is the Publisher and co-Editor of Vivascene. A former record store owner and business writer, his interests range from vinyl records and high-end audio to design, photography, and succinct writing. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org