In 1969, as his most famous song, ‘Everybody’s Talkin’”, was dominating pop charts, Fred Neil (1936-2001) was working overtime to remove himself from the public eye. Though he turned his back on fame, Neil’s vanishing act couldn’t obscure the power of his music or hide the influence he had on a couple generations of rock bands and solo acts who followed in his wake (and covered his songs). To note Neil’s birthday (March 16) and the release of a riveting live album, 38 MacDougal, Scott Schinder unearths Neil’s not-quite-forgotten genius.
“The first thing that you have to understand about Fred Neil is that you won’t understand.” —John Sebastian
When Fred Neil died of skin cancer in Florida on July 7, 2001, at the age of 65, the few media outlets that acknowledged his passing seized upon the most prominent factoid of his musical career. That would be Neil’s 1966 authorship of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which became a worldwide smash two years later, when Harry Nilsson’s version became the theme song of John Schlesinger’s film Midnight Cowboy.
Some of the obit writers also made note of Neil’s own body of recordings, but few did justice to his level of musical influence, or conveyed his outsized stature among the countless artists who’d crossed his path and/or been influenced by his talent.
Everybody’s Talkin’ – Fred Neil (1966)
“Everybody’s Talkin'” launched Harry Nilsson’s career and made him an instant star. But by the time Nilsson’s Grammy-winning take on the song hit the Top 10, its author had already pretty much abdicated from public life. Echoing the song’s yearning to escape to “where the sun keeps shining/through the pouring rain,” Neil turned his back on whatever notoriety his decade-long musical career had brought him, retreating to a quiet and largely non-musical life in southern Florida.
Unlike many artists who made their mark in the 1960s, Fred Neil managed to avoid the early drug death that would have made him an instant legend, and he never pursued the commercial comeback that might have restored him to public prominence. At the time of his death, Neil hadn’t released any new music in three decades, and his only live appearances during that time were limited to a handful of low-key performances to benefit a charitable cause close to his heart.
Despite his efforts to make the world forget him, Fred Neil’s small but potent body of recordings retains its brilliance decades after its creation. The five deeply soulful LPs that he recorded—sometimes grudgingly—between 1964 and 1971 established Neil as an artist of rare vision and consequence.
Armed with an intimate baritone voice that could embody hypnotic sweetness or acidic recrimination, and a knack for intricate, expressive 12-string acoustic guitar work, Neil’s vivid, haunting songwriting conveys timeless truths that continue to resonate. But Neil’s albums didn’t sell, and it didn’t help that the publicity-averse artist consistently avoided touring and promotion.
The five deeply soulful LPs that he recorded—sometimes grudgingly—between 1964 and 1971 established Neil as an artist of rare vision and consequence.
Unlike many of his ’60s folkie contemporaries, Neil’s didn’t write protest songs. His compositions rarely addressed the era’s social and political issues, touching instead upon more internal spiritual and emotional concerns. In that respect, Neil may have presaged the school of introspective singer-songwriters who would reap commercial success in the ’70s, albeit without the self-indulgence that helped to define that subgenre.
Listeners fortunate enough to become acquainted with Neil’s work were most likely to do so via other artists’ readings of his compositions. For instance, his existential hymn “The Dolphins” inspired vintage versions by Tim Buckley, Dion and Linda Ronstadt (who also covered Neil’s “Little Bit of Rain”), and was adopted in later years by Billy Bragg and Beth Orton. And his escapist anthem, “The Other Side of This Life,” was recorded by acts as diverse as Jefferson Airplane, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Youngbloods and Eric Burdon and the Animals.
Neil is also known to have inspired such songs as the Airplane’s “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil” and the Spoonful’s “Coconut Grove.”
“Other Side of This Life” – Fred Neil:
“The Other Side of This Life” – Jefferson Airplane, live version:
His embrace of obscurity notwithstanding, Fred Neil was once an in-demand attraction. During his years on the Greenwich Village folk scene, beginning at the tail end of the 1950s, he earned a reputation as a riveting performer, and his club and coffeehouse gigs regularly attracted enthusiastic capacity crowds. Although he would never achieve widespread fame outside of Greenwich Village, Neil managed to leave his mark in other ways, influencing such acolytes as Bob Dylan, Karen Dalton, Dino Valenti, John Sebastian, Richie Havens, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Tim Hardin, Paul Kantner, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons, Peter Tork, Jerry Jeff Walker and Jesse Colin Young.
Despite his efforts to avoid fame, not to mention his record labels’ disinterest in keeping his work in print, Fred Neil’s music continues to command the loyalty of a small but fervent circle of admirers. Those fans welcome the occasional archival release, such as Delmore Recording Society’s just-released 38 MacDougal, which offers a rediscovered, and riveting, eight-song set that demonstrates Neil’s peerless talent in an intimate setting.
Neil was credited for helping to nurture the talents of Richie Havens, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Bob Dylan, whose first paying gig after arriving in New York in 1961 was backing Neil on harmonica at Cafe Wha?
38 MacDougal was recorded one evening in 1965 after Neil stormed out of Elektra Records’ Manhattan studio during the sessions for his first solo album, Bleecker & MacDougal, after butting heads with producer Paul Rothchild. In an effort to ease tensions and get Neil back on track, his friend and sideman Peter Childs, who’d been playing guitar on the sessions, invited Neil up to the Greenwich Village apartment that Childs shared with sometime Neil sideman John Sebastian for some low-key music-making, which Childs had the presence of mind to capture on tape.
Fortunately, Childs’ gambit worked, and Neil was coaxed back to the studio to complete Bleecker & MacDougal, which captures the artist at the peak of his power and charisma. 38 MacDougal is an effective companion piece, with such notable Neil originals as “Little Bit of Rain,” “Country Boy,” “Gone Again,” “Travelin’ Shoes,” “Blind Man Standin’ by the Road and Cryin’,” the traditional Appalachian folk ballad “Once I Had a Sweetheart” and Neil’s early rockabilly breakthrough “Candy Man.”
“Candy Man’-Fred Neil:
Neil is known to have granted only one published interview in his lifetime—in a 1966 issue of Hit Parader, of all places. Given his tendency to offer wildly divergent biographical information, depending on whom he was speaking to, it’s not surprising that many details of his life have remained hazy. Fortunately, Peter Lee Neff’s exhaustively researched 2019 Neil biography That’s the Bag I’m In: The Life, Music and Mystery of Fred Neil clears up many of the persistent enigmas of Neil’s life and career.
Frederick Ralph Morlock Jr.—he adopted Neil as his surname in honor of his grandmother Addie Neill, apparently the only family member to whom he felt close—was born on March 16, 1936 in Cleveland, Ohio. He spent part of his youth traveling with his father, who serviced Wurlitzer jukeboxes.
After his parents split up, he was raised mainly by his mother in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he lived a lower-middle-class existence and developed a deep affinity for African-American blues, jazz and gospel music. He gave up on organized education while in high school and spent the remainder of his teen years teaching himself to play guitar and write songs.
After a brief first marriage while still in his teens, Neil lied about his age and enlisted in the Navy at 17, serving two years stationed in California before returning to civilian life. Already adept at writing songs and creating guitar riffs, he formed a rock ‘n’ roll combo that became popular locally. On July 2, 1957, a 21-year-old Neil performed a relatively high-profile show at St. Petersburg’s Million Dollar Pier. That performance generated sufficient word of mouth to reach New York manager Fred Strauss, whose interest led to Neil’s first professional recording experience, cutting three of his compositions in a Chicago studio.
Two of those songs became the first of half a dozen Neil singles. While those early rock ‘n’ roll efforts attracted little notice, they helped Neil to get to New York, where he landed a $40-a-week contract as a songwriter for Peer-Southern Music at the Brill Building, the legendary Broadway hit factory. Although commercial pop songwriting would never become his forte, Neil’s Brill Building stint opened doors for him and helped him to sharpen his craft. Buddy Holly cut Neil’s “Come Back Baby” in 1958, while Roy Orbison recorded his “Candy Man.” The latter generated some welcome royalties when it became the B-side of Orbison’s 1961 hit “Crying.”
“Come Back Baby” – Buddy Holly (cover of Fred Neil song):
With a second wife and newborn son to support, Neil hustled for work to make ends meet. His guitar skills won him some gigs as a session musician, playing on Bobby Darin’s 1958 hit “Dream Lover.” He also played on the demo of a Doc Pomus tune that was intended for an Elvis Presley film, although Elvis ended up not recording it.
At one point, needing $200 to cover his rent, Neil asked for an advance from his publisher. The publisher agreed, on the condition that Neil bring him a new song. In a cab on his way uptown to pick up the check, Neil, on a brown paper bag, wrote “That’s the Bag I’m In,” which would become one of the most enduring items in Neil’s songbook.
“That’s the Bag I’m In” – Fred Neil:
Although Neil’s early releases failed to catch on with the public, he had no such problem gaining attention when he became part of the booming Greenwich Village folk music scene, where his originality was recognized and rewarded. Neil played to packed houses in such fabled Village venues as Café Wha?, Gerdes Folk City, the Gaslight and the Cafe Au Go Go. Inspired by the Village’s nonconformist energy and creative freedom, the tall, skinny singer incorporated his country, blues and gospel influences for receptive audiences, establishing a reputation as a commanding, risk-taking performer.
In the Village, Neil’s songwriting flourished, taking on deep, bittersweet and unmistakably personal undercurrents. While many folk singers offered topical protest songs or attempted to channel ancient ethnic traditions, Neil treated the music as a vehicle for self-expression, and an opportunity to hone his own musical style and lyrical stance.
Early on, Neil demonstrated a profound distaste for dealing with the business side of music. That trait would become more pronounced as his career progressed. It would, unfortunately, manifest itself in his signing away valuable song publishing rights in return for quick cash. He also emerged as an enthusiastic drug experimenter, as well as a perfectionist who could berate himself if he hit a bad note that no one else noticed, or who might smash a guitar to bits if he had too much trouble getting it in tune.
Buddy Holly cut Neil’s “Come Back Baby” in 1958, while Roy Orbison recorded his “Candy Man.”
Somewhat older and more experienced than most of his fellow Village folkies, Neil also emerged as a mentor to younger artists. Neil was credited for helping to nurture the talents of Richie Havens, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Bob Dylan, whose first paying gig after arriving in New York in 1961 was backing Neil on harmonica at Cafe Wha?
Beyond his generosity towards other artists, Neil’s offstage personality could also be withdrawn and abrasive. Despite his wide-ranging musical skills, he is reputed to have hated performing. He was also reticent about the prospect of recording, creating a challenge for those seeking to expose him to a wider audience.
After a 1962 attempt at making an album for Columbia Records apparently yielded no usable material, Neil agreed to sign with the fledgling Elektra Records, one of the earliest labels to tap into the folk scene. For the occasion, he teamed up with friend and frequent performing partner Vince Martin, a seasoned folkie who had scored a calypso-pop crossover hit with The Tarriers in 1956 with “Cindy, Oh Cindy.”
Neil and Martin’s first and only duo release was Tear Down the Walls, which Elektra released in 1964. With instrumental backup from future rock stars John Sebastian and Felix Pappalardi, the album featured a pleasant assortment of styles, combining covers of familiar folk standards with a handful of intriguing Neil originals. Such Neil tunes as “Weary Blues,” “Baby” and “Wild Child in a World of Trouble” previewed the bluesy, raga-inflected folk-rock approach that he would further explore on his subsequent solo releases.
Elektra had hoped to record a live follow-up to Tear Down the Walls at the Bitter End. But that plan lost steam when Neil stormed off the stage after breaking a string, leaving Martin, Sebastian and Pappalardi to finish the gig without him.
“Wild Child in a World of Trouble” – Fred Neil & Vince Martin:
In addition to being Neil’s first recording partner, Vince Martin also introduced him to Coconut Grove, the bohemian Florida enclave that would loom large in his future. With a laid-back atmosphere and its own coffeehouse folk scene, the Grove offered a welcome alternative to New York’s chemical temptations and music-biz hustle. Neil took refuge in the Grove, while regularly returning to New York for live gigs. Meanwhile, Neil’s notoriety helped to establish Coconut Grove as a draw for performers from both coasts.
Neil’s belated solo debut, Bleecker & MacDougal, released in May 1965, marked a quantum leap in his recordings. Featuring some of his most enduring compositions, the mostly acoustic set finds Neil hitting his stride as a singer and guitarist, honing his iconoclastic folk-blues-rock fusion on such enduring tunes as “Blues on the Ceiling” (later covered by the Lovin’ Spoonful), “The Other Side of This Life,” “Little Bit of Rain,” “Country Boy” and “Yonder Comes the Blues,” along with Neil’s Brill Building oldie “Candy Man.”
Bleecker & MacDougal emphasizes Neil’s persona as a worldly, bemused observer who also long for escape and spiritual transcendence. Although it namechecks a prominent intersection of Neil’s Greenwich Village stomping grounds, the album’s title song finds Neil asserting that he can retreat to Coconut Grove whenever the Village gets to be too much. That theme would continue to recur in his writing, and in his life.
Fred Neil – Little Bit of Rain 1965
Bleecker & MacDougal ‘s producer Paul Rothchild, who had been responsible for signing Neil and Vince Martin to Elektra, was a firm believer in Neil’s talent. But he had little patience with the artist’s drug use, or with his undisciplined approach in the studio. Although Bleecker & MacDougal‘s quality transcended the two men’s conflicts, they would not work together again.
Fred Neil – Blues on the Ceiling
Having worn out his welcome at Elektra, Neil signed a new contract with Capitol Records. The deal reunited him with influential staff producer Nik Venet, an old friend who had hired Neil as a session player in his Brill Building days. Venet was determined to do justice to Neil’s prickly talent, assembling an electric studio band comprised of sympathetic players and working to create a relaxed, naturalistic studio ambience that would put Neil at ease and keep him focused.
Recorded at Capitol’s Hollywood studio, the resulting Fred Neil is loaded with classic songs and inspired performances, with a gently haunting blend of electric and acoustic textures that flatters such standouts as “The Dolphins,” “Badi-Da” and “That’s the Bag I’m In.” The album-opening “The Dolphins” eloquently announced Neil’s new sound, with its reverberating guitars framing Neil’s warm voice and his lyrical musings on nature and humanity.
Fred Neil also included Neil’s raw, unadorned original recording of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which he claimed was written during the album sessions after he decided that one more song was needed to complete the project. Neil supposedly retreated to the studio bathroom and wrote “Everybody’s Talkin'” in five minutes, cutting the song in a single take at the end of the sessions, just before being whisked to the airport to catch a flight home.
Released in January 1967, Fred Neil was widely hailed as a masterpiece. But it once again failed to find a large audience. For its follow-up, Sessions, Venet attempted to maintain Fred Neil‘s live-in-the-studio ambience, again keeping the recordings raw and unadorned. But Neil, now in the process of splitting with his third wife, was at a low point, and his drug-fueled mood swings adversely affected his performances. Additionally, his drug use had caused him to lose his teeth, and the false teeth that he now wore made it uncomfortable for him to sing for extended periods.
Tim Buckley ~ Dolphins
Sessions, released in 1968, met with a mixed response, with many observers noting that the loose, unfocused performances often sounded more like meandering jams than cohesive tracks. Such promising material as “Felicity,” “Look Over Yonder,” “Roll On Rosie,” “Merry Go Round” and a cover of Percy Mayfield’s R&B chestnut “Please Send Me Somebody to Love” suffers from half-baked execution that makes them sound unfinished.
Maintaining his faith in Neil, Venet would subsequently attempt to record him in various locations and in a variety of circumstances, but those tracks generally remained unheard by the public. On one unreleased session, Neil apparently recorded an album’s worth of material with R&B legend Ivory Joe Hunter and blues vet Harmonica Slim.
By 1969, the atmosphere of Greenwich Village had changed drastically from that of the creative community that had originally inspired him a decade earlier, and Neil, already settled in Florida, finally decided that he’d had enough. After playing a set at the Cafe Au Go Go on the club’s closing night—just a few weeks before Midnight Cowboy reached theaters—Neil bade farewell to New York and never returned.
With a fourth wife and two young sons, Neil spent a period living in a ramshackle cabin he’d had built in West Saugerties, New York, near Woodstock and next door to The Band’s fabled Big Pink house. After a few years, Neil left the area and once again gravitated to Florida.
Neil supposedly retreated to the studio bathroom and wrote “Everybody’s Talkin'” in five minutes, cutting the song in a single take at the end of the sessions.
Having a hit song in a massively successful motion picture opened some potential career doors for Neil, but by now he had little interest in exploiting these opportunities. He also had the foresight to pull out of a proposed concert that eventually became the Rolling Stones’ infamous Altamont Speedway debacle. At one point, Harry Nilsson attempted to make contact with Neil via telephone, but Neil refused to come to the phone. It is not known if Neil ever actually saw Midnight Cowboy.
Despite the success of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” Neil had problems collecting royalties when Capitol and his song publisher withheld a six-figure sum in retaliation for Neil’s failure to meet his contractual commitment to deliver new material. Former Cafe Au Go Go owner Howard Solomon, now serving as Neil’s manager, negotiated a settlement whereby Neil agreed to record a new album in lieu of the five LPs that remained on his contract, in return for the release of the frozen funds.
Neil reluctantly recorded a six-song solo set at a Woodstock club called the Purple Elephant, before refusing to commit any more material to tape. Howard Solomon eventually cobbled together an album comprised of the Purple Elephant recordings plus five more stray tracks recorded with Nik Venet. The resulting collection, which would be the last Fred Neil album released during his lifetime, was issued in February 1971 as Other Side of This Life. While waiting for it to be delivered, an impatient Capitol reissued the Fred Neil album, conveniently retitled Everybody’s Talkin’.
“Everybody’s Talkin'” – Fred Neil, live at the Purple Elephant, Woodstock, N.Y., 1970:
Like Sessions, Other Side of This Life was a relatively underwhelming showcase, although the live tracks comprised a compelling snapshot of his skill as a solo performer. Despite its flaws, Other Side of This Life achieved its goal of allowing Neil to collect the royalties that “Everybody’s Talkin'” was generating, as well as freeing him from his obligation to Capitol Records.
In Florida, Neil met Ric O’Barry, a marine biologist who had caught and trained the dolphins featured in the ’60s TV show Flipper, and who now worked with the dolphins at Miami’s Seaquarium. O’Barry was inspired to appoint Neil as part-time caretaker for the Seaquarium dolphins, and Neil instantly developed a deep fascination and rapport with the intelligent creatures. Neil spent much of his time interacting with the dolphins, swimming with them and playing guitar and singing to them.
His experiences with the dolphins were life-changing for Neil, and he often told friends that the dolphins had saved his life. He ceased doing hard drugs after he began working with the dolphins, and when his musician friends would visit town, he would often bring them to Seaquarium to meet his new friends.
Neil spent much of his time interacting with the dolphins, swimming with them and playing guitar and singing to them.
Eventually, O’Barry and Neil came to question the morality of capturing and confining dolphins for human amusement. On Earth Day 1970, a despondent Cathy, the dolphin to whom Neil had grown closest, died in O’Barry’s arms, in an act that O’Barry regarded as suicide. The incident was the last straw for O’Barry, who quit his job at Seaquarium and was later jailed for attempting to free the park’s dolphins.
Soon after, O’Barry and Neil, while out sailing with a visiting Stephen Stills, hatched plans to launch the Dolphin Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to the abolition of the capture and exploitation of dolphins, and educating the public about the cruelties of the dolphin trade. Although Neil was already determined to retire from performing in public, his commitment to the dolphins’ cause was such that he agreed to organize, and perform at, some benefit shows for the new organization. Neil’s reputation and credibility became key to generating donations and goodwill to get the Dolphin Project rolling, and his credibility and contacts helped to secure the participation of many of his famous friends.
Neil would remain a passionate advocate for the Dolphin Project. The organization, with Ric O’Barry still at its helm, recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, continuing to fight against the exploitation and mistreatment of marine mammals.
In 1975, after playing some well-received Dolphin Project benefits, Neil shocked many observers by accepting an invitation to perform at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Two years later, he traveled to Tokyo for an ambitious all-star Dolphin Project benefit concert that also featured Eric Andersen, Jackson Browne, Odetta, John Sebastian and Warren Zevon.
Fred Neil & Joni Mitchell – The Dolphins (Live 1976)
On Thanksgiving 1976, Neil and Peter Childs happened to be in San Francisco, after playing at a Dolphin Project benefit a few days earlier. They attended The Band’s star-studded Last Waltz concert, but Neil refused an invitation to perform.
Neil’s pathological aversion to the spotlight continued to manifest itself in his insistence on taking possession of, and apparently destroying, any recordings of his benefit sets whenever possible, robbing the world of some potentially historic performances.
Neil’s scattered ’70s appearances generated some rave reviews that translated into renewed record-company interest, despite his prior combative relations with his labels. The buzz resulted in Neil’s new managers, longtime Bob Dylan impresario Albert Grossman and Woodstock festival organizer Michael Lang, negotiating a $120,000 advance from Columbia Records for a new Fred Neil album to be released on Lang’s Columbia-distributed Just Sunshine imprint.
When no new recordings were forthcoming after several months, Columbia, like Capitol before them, put Neil on suspension for his failure to deliver the material they’d paid for. With litigation looming and a substantial chunk of the advance frozen by Columbia, Neil was eventually coaxed into Coconut Grove’s Bayshore studio to cut some tracks, despite the fact that he had no new songs written, with the inexperienced but trusted Ric O’Barry producing some of the sessions. After multiple attempts, an album’s worth of material, provisionally titled Walk On Water, was culled from the sessions and submitted to Columbia.
Despite his efforts to make the world forget him, Fred Neil’s small but potent body of recordings retains its brilliance decades after its creation.
Columbia deemed the tapes to be unsatisfactory, but liked the material enough to decide that Neil should rerecord it with the renowned jazz-funk band Stuff. In March 1978, Neil and the members of Stuff recut the songs in four days in an East Orange, New Jersey studio. The recordings fulfilled Neil’s contractual commitment and staved off the prospect of litigation. But Columbia execs, having apparently lost their enthusiasm for the prospect of promoting an album by a singer-songwriter who no longer wrote songs and refused to tour, ultimately declined to release either version of the proposed album.
Despite such half-hearted threats to reenter the music industry, Neil was satisfied to remain a recluse, happy to spend his time with his family and the dolphins. His last public appearance apparently took place in 1981, sitting in with his old Village friend Buzzy Linhart at an outdoor concert at the Old Grove Pub in Coconut Grove.
Neil managed to leave his mark in other ways, influencing such acolytes as Bob Dylan, Karen Dalton, Dino Valenti, John Sebastian, Richie Havens, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Tim Hardin, Paul Kantner, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons, Peter Tork, Jerry Jeff Walker and Jesse Colin Young.
In 1987, Neil’s obsession with privacy took on a new edge after his girlfriend was killed in a freak automobile mishap. That incident apparently had a devastating effect on Neil, sending him into a spiral of guilt and depression from which he seemingly never recovered. He disappeared for a while to Texas and Mexico, and later relocated for a few years to coastal Oregon. He eventually gravitated back to Florida, where, at Ric O’Barry’s request, he signed on to help out at a local dolphin sanctuary.
In Florida, Neil increasingly cut himself off from friends and family, often operating under various aliases. He rarely saw his old friends, and new acquaintances generally had no idea who he was, or who he had been. He had seemingly lost interest in being Fred Neil. Having long neglected to seek medical attention for a skin growth that turned out to be cancerous, Neil died before he could begin a planned program of treatments.
Regardless of his efforts to discourage attention, Fred Neil’s greatest music—exemplified by his folk landmark Bleecker & MacDougal and his electric breakthrough Fred Neil—has lost none of its ability to touch the soul. As long as his music can be heard, he will remain a success.