Born on January 1, 1937, in St. Petersburg, FL; died on July 7, 2001, in Summerland Key, FL. Addresses: Record company--Collectors' Choice, P.O. Box 838, Itasca, IL 60143-0838.
While singer-songwriter Fred Neil has never been a household name, his song "Everybody's Talkin'," recorded by Harry Nilsson in 1969 for Midnight Cowboy, remains a favorite on oldies radio stations. Unlike Bob Dylan and other folksingers from the 1960s, Neil purposely avoided the spotlight, and eventually dropped out of the music business altogether. The reissue of classic albums like Bleecker & MacDougal and Fred Neil in the 1990s, however, proved that he was a major talent. "Moody, bluesy, and melodic," wrote Richie Unterberger in All Music Guide, "Fred Neil was one of the most compelling folk-rockers to emerge from Greenwich Village in the mid-'60s." Mark Brend in American Troubadours noted that Neil was "a natural baritone of rare depth, resonance and casual power." Little is known about Neil's personal life, however. "The apparent facts about Fred Neil are few," wrote Brend, "and most of those that are available are darkened by some shadow of doubt."
Neil was born in 1937 in St. Petersburg, Florida. His father worked for Wurlitzer, a jukebox manufacturer, and he sometimes took his son along when he traveled to nightspots in Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida to install and repair the machines. In the 1950s Fred Neil moved to New York where he pitched pop songs at the Brill Building (a music publishing and recording center). In 1956 a then-unknown Buddy Holly recorded one of his compositions, "Modern Don Juan," and in 1961 Roy Orbison included "Candy Man" on the backside of "Crying." By the late 1950s Neil had moved to Greenwich Village where he lived a double life, playing folk music in the coffeehouses by night and pitching pop songs at the Brill Building by day.
In 1963 three of his songs appeared on a compilation album released by the FM label called Hootenanny Live at the Bitter End. He also established himself in Coconut Grove, Florida, where a lively folk scene had grown up around singer Vince Martin in 1961. In 1964 Neil and Martin recorded Tear Down the Walls for Elektra, with John Sebastian, later of the Lovin' Spoonful, on harmonica, Felix Pappalardi on bass, and Paul Rothchild as producer. "Tear Down the Walls was not a big seller," noted Brend, "and a planned follow-up with Martin was aborted." Despite the album's lukewarm reception, songs like "Wild Child in a World of Trouble" documented Neil's growth as a writer.
Neil's first solo album, recorded in 1965, established him as an influential singer-songwriter. Bleecker & MacDougal was named after the streets that formed the heart of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village. The cover featured a now-classic photograph of Neil, guitar case in hand, crossing the intersection against a backdrop of neon lights. Unlike a number of folk albums recorded in the early 1960s, Bleecker & MacDougal featured full arrangements, with tasteful electric guitar by Pete Childs. Neil wrote 12 of the 13 songs, including, "Other Side of This Life," one of his most-covered pieces, and "Candy Man," the single Orbison recorded in 1961. The well-written songs, expert musicians, and fine production by Paul Rothchild made Bleecker & MacDougal a record "that endures as one [of] the greatest of all New York folk-based singer-songwriter efforts from the 1960s," noted Unterberger in the album's liner notes.
After finishing the album, Neil bought a home in Coconut Grove, where he moved with his wife, Linda. He traveled less and less frequently to New York and other outlying folk scenes. To make ends meet, the reclusive Neil decided to record another album.
Despite the critical success of Bleecker & MacDougal, Neil left Elektra for Capitol Records, where he teamed with producer Nik Venet, noted for his work with the Beach Boys. In late 1966 in Los Angeles they began to record Fred Neil, an album many critics believe surpasses Bleecker & MacDougal. The album included Neil's best-known song, "Everybody's Talkin'," as well as one of his most moving, "The Dolphins." Although Venet's added drums to the arrangements, shifting the album's overall sound closer to folk rock, it still sold poorly. "Neil was reluctant to perform or give interviews, and would casually disregard requests to appear on television," Brend wrote. "Yet without any significant public profile, he remained widely admired among contemporaries."
Neil recorded two more albums for Capitol, Sessions in 1968 and Other Side of This Life in 1971, but neither matched the quality of his previous efforts. He was offered the opportunity to rerecord "Everybody's Talkin'" in 1969 for the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack but declined. Harry Nilsson recorded the song instead and it became a huge hit. Neil, however, reaped songwriting royalties from the song, allowing him to live his secluded life.
He attempted to record one more album for Columbia in 1973, but the sessions were never issued. He continued to perform sporadically in 1975-76, attending charity functions to benefit the Dolphin Project, an action group dedicated to the abolition of dolphin captivity that he cofounded on Earth Day in 1970. Neil made his last appearance with Jackson Browne, Richie Havens, and others at a benefit concert in Japan in 1977.
While Neil spent the remainder of his life out of the limelight, the impact of his music returned to the forefront in the late 1990s. Collectors' Choice issued The Many Sides of Fred Neil in 1998, a compilation of his three Capitol albums; Elektra reissued Tear Down the Walls/Bleecker & MacDougal in 2001. Portraits of Neil appeared in Unterberger's Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers and Brend's above-mentioned American Troubadours. Despite this renewed attention, Neil maintained his privacy and continued to work on the Dolphin Project. "Neil's best moments on record were ... characterized by graceful writing and richly tailored arrangements," wrote Robert Hilburn in the Los Angeles Times, "that seemed to defy the conventional compromises of the pop world--musical touches that reached straight to the heart of human emotion and experience." Neil, who had been ill with cancer, passed away at his home in Summerland Key, Florida, on July 7, 2001.
by Ronnie D. Lankford Jr
Fred Neil's Career
Wrote songs for music publishers at the Brill Building in New York City, 1950s; performed at Greenwich Village coffeehouses, late 1950s; recorded Tear Down the Walls with Vince Martin, 1964; released first solo album, Bleecker & MacDougal, 1965; recorded three albums for Capitol Records: Fred Neil, 1967; Sessions, 1968; and Other Side of This Life, 1971; performed sporadically in the early-to-mid-1970s; played final public concert in Japan, 1977; reissued Capitol albums under The Many Sides of Fred Neil, 1998, and early Elektra albums as Tear Down the Walls/Bleecker & MacDougal, 2001.
- Selected discography
- (With Vince Martin) Tear Down The Walls , Elektra, 1964.
- Bleecker & MacDougal , Elektra, 1965.
- Fred Neil , Capitol, 1967.
- Sessions , Capitol, 1968.
- Other Side of This Life , Capitol, 1971.
- The Many Sides of Fred Neil , Collectors' Choice, 1998.
- Tear Down the Walls/Bleecker & MacDougal , Elektra, 2001.
- Brend, Mark, American Troubadours: Ground Breaking Singer-Songwriters of the 60s, Backbeat Books, 2001.
- Denver Post, July 15, 2001, p. E08.
- Los Angeles Times, January 22, 1999, p. 6; July 10, 2001, p. B9.
- "Fred Neil," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 15, 2003).
- Additional information was obtained from the liner notes by Richie Unterberger to Bleecker & MacDougal, Collectors' Choice, 2002.