Fred Neil (16th March 1936 –7th July 2001) was one of the most compelling folk singer-songwriters in the 1960s and early 1970s. His marvellously deep, rich and impossibly low baritone enchanted everyone who has ever heard a Fred Neil song – and continues to do so. Surely one of the most beautiful voices in music. Bob Dylan said, “Fred had a strong, powerful voice, almost a bass voice, and a powerful sense of rhythm. He used to play mostly the type of songs that Josh White might sing. I used to sing and play harmonica for him, and then once in a while get to sing a song.”
Yet as performer success eluded Fred Neil, mainly because it was the last thing he pursued. A reluctance to tour didn’t help much either (a trait he shared with Bobby Charles and Harry Nilsson). According to his producer, Nik Venet, Fred was “probably the most famous and financially successful ‘cult artist’ in the history of the world…and could have been even bigger if he’d wanted to be….but he just didn’t!” Fred Neil showed up unexpectedly and was gone before you knew it. A loner and somewhat of a recluse, he was exceedingly hard to get to know and thus remained an enigma to most. John Sebastian, who played on his two Elektra albums, describes his background as “sketchy”. He is best known to the world through other people’s recordings of his material, such as ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’, made famous by Harry Nilsson as the theme to the movie Midnight Cowboy (and earned a Grammy) and ‘Other Side of This Life’, recorded by several but most notably by Jefferson Airplane.
Fred Neil was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida. His father was a representative of Wurlitzer jukeboxes and he took Fred with him while he ‘stuffed jukeboxes’. By the mid-1950s Fred Neil had drifted to New York where he briefly worked as one of the Brill Building songwriters, and also as session guitarist – in that capacity he can be heard on Paul Anka’s ‘Diana’. He recorded a demo with Mort Shuman for an upcoming Elvis Presley film but the song was not used, and he played guitar on a demo of Bobby Darin’s ‘Dream Lover’. But in the meantime, he also recorded a number of his own compositions himself for different labels – be it with little success – which decades later would be collected and released as Trav’lin Man – The Early Recordings.
Fred Neil met Vince Martin in 1961 and they performed as a duo, eventually recording Tear Down The Walls for Elektra in 1965, a folk album containing their own compositions as well as some traditional songs. Later that same year Fred Neil’s first solo album was recorded and released, Bleecker & MacDougal (Elektra, reissued in 1970 as Little Bit Of Rain). Remaining true to folk rules, it did not contain drums. In 1963 he sang on three songs on an album called Moanin’ n’ Groanin’ by Tip & Tinker with Charlie Scott (George “Tip” Tipton and Joseph “Tinker” Lewis). It is available on iTunes. We’ve included all the songs on the album as it is not known which three he sang on.
His sophomore solo effort, the self-titled Fred Neil (Capitol, reissued as Everybody’s Talkin’ in 1969) followed in 1966 and made the transition to full instrumentation. It was recorded during his residences in Greenwich Village, New York and Coconut Grove, Florida and contained one of Fred Neil’s best-known songs, ‘The Dolphins’. His passion for dolphins had begun in mid-1960s when he began visiting the Miami Seaquarium. Together with Ric O’Barry (who initially trained the five dolphins used on the Flipper shows but switched radically to combating the captivity industry after Kathy, one of the Flipper dolphins, died) Fred Neil founded The World Dolphin Foundation on Earth Day 1970, which is dedicated – in Fred’s own words – to stopping the capture, trafficking and exploitations of dolphins worldwide.
Sessions (Capitol) was released in 1968. More experimental and casual, it comes across as musicians indulging themselves without being aware the tape was rolling. Other than a live album in 1971, Other Side Of This Life (Capitol), also containing some rarities/leftovers, Fred Neil did not release another album. Many of his 1970s recordings remain unissued, including a 1973 session with Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cipollina and some Woodstock recordings with guitarist Arlen Roth. He recorded an unreleased album in Bayshore Studios (Miami) for Just Sunshine Records (label owned by his new manager, Mike Lang, of Woodstock fame) with Harvey Brooks on bass and Pete Childs on guitar. Fred Neil also jammed with John Stewart, Johnny Cash, Vince Martin and Kris Kristofferson in Nashville during the sessions for John Stewart’s California Bloodlines, which Venet produced with Howard Solomon management. None of the recordings were released. In a later interview, Ric O’Barry claimed that Fred 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 Fred 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, John Braheny, Bobby Ingram and Billy Roberts (composer of ‘Hey Joe’). But to this day, none of these recordings have seen the light – officially or unofficially.
In 1971 Fred Neil wrote the liner notes to Karen Dalton’s album In My Own Time – see entry for ‘Blues On The Ceiling’. Fred Neil left Woodstock in the mid-1970s and retreated to his home in Coconut Grove, Florida where he mainly spent the last 25 years of his life assisting with the preservation of dolphins, performing in public mostly at gigs for the Dolphin Project Revue in Coconut Grove. He continued to play, but only for those close to him. With John Sebastian on harp, Harvey Brooks on bass and Pete Childs on guitar, he made a rare appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in July 1975. In 1977, he played a benefit show for the Revue in Tokyo. His last public performance was in 1981 at an outdoor concert at the Old Grove Pub in Coconut Grove, where he joined Buzzy Linhart for one song and stayed onstage for the rest of the set.
Fred Neil battled skin cancer and died on 7th July 2001, aged 65.
Enjoy viewing the complete Fred Neil Song Lyrics.
For more information on the Dolphin Project see:
Ric O’Barry’s DOLPHIN PROJECT
Or check out this Ric O’Barry interview:
Interview with Ric O’Barry