I have a lasting impression of Fred Neil. It was early in the morning, about 3 AM, and I was listening to WPHD-FM out of Buffalo NY, waiting for sleep to come. Suddenly, there was protracted dead air that made me feel eerily alone. Out of the silence came the “The Water Is Wide”. It was immediately otherworldly and soothing; the expressive sonorous tone was kind of like being wrapped in a warm fuzzy blanket. Still more silence after the cut, and, in a calming voice, the DJ came on: “That was your basic genius, Fred Neil”. It was like the word of God.
I’ve since heard many versions of the song but none can compare to Neil’s take. He inhabits the song and owns it as only Fred Neil can. It’s proof positive that once Fred Neil performs a song, even a cover, it instantly becomes and will always remain a Fred Neil song.
If you’re not familiar with Fred Neil, it’s probably due to the fact that he was ambivalent about his career, and in turn, promoting it. As Lisa Kindred, one of his Village contemporaries, aptly put it: “Freddie found a lifestyle not a career”. Articles reported only what the reluctant and secretive Neil would divulge; (he only ever granted one published interview – in a 1966 issue of Hit Parader). Of course, that added to the mystery and the legend. And rumours thrived, further feeding the myth that is Fred Neil. (One of those rumours, though unsubstantiated, begs to be repeated because it fits so perfectly. Namely, that Jimmie Rodgers, “The Father of Country Music” / “The Singing Brakeman” might have been his biological maternal grandfather).
Here’s what we know for sure: Fred Neil was born in Cleveland OH in 1936 and died in Summerland Key FL in 2001. Between those dates, we know that Fred’s father serviced jukeboxes around the country (at a time when 50% of 45’s manufactured were destined for jukeboxes). He brought young Fred along with him on his service calls and the jukebox education played a major role in the development of Fred’s appreciation of a large variety of music. That appreciation would serve him well as he went on to establish a career in the late 50’s as a Brill Building songwriter, a sometime session musician, and later as a performing and recording artist.
(As a Brill songwriter there is documentation of two songs recorded by other artists: “Come Back Baby” by Buddy Holly and “Candy Man” by Roy Orbison. At the same time, Neil also enjoyed some notoriety as a session musician; he was first call when a 12-string guitar player was required, and he played guitar on Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover”. Lastly, if you’re interested in hearing what Neil sounded like on his 50’s recordings – prior to his Village emergence – check out “Trav’lin Man: The Early Singles” that was released in 2008 on the Fallout label. The compilation is comprised of 12 singles that Fred performs in primarily a Rockabilly style.)
As a child, after relocating from Cleveland to St. Petersburg FL – although he would move to various locales – Fred became firmly established as a Florida resident, (if only part-time at some junctures), for the rest of his life. (The fact that Fred moved constantly as a child would influence Fred’s well known bohemian lifestyle later in life). During his preteen and teen years Fred displayed nascent vocal talents both in the church choir and musical productions. Along the way, Fred, who began playing as an 11 year old, also became quite proficient on guitar.
It was in 1960, that Neil became a part of the burgeoning Greenwich Village scene that featured poetry readings, (in the last days of the NY’s Beat scene), and was home to Folk artists (primarily) as well as serving as a magnet for intellectuals and musicians playing a full spectrum of genres including Blues, Jazz, and Country. As such, there were no rules as it related to musical boundaries which suited Fred perfectly.
Word spread quickly, proclaiming Neil as a “must see” with his mix of Gospel, Jazz, Blues, Folk, and Tin Pan Alley material delivered with a seductive, bottomless baritone against a backdrop of his alternately staccato and shimmering 12 string played with impeccable off beat and on beat timing. Performing solo, or as a duo, (usually with Vince Martin or Dino Valenti), or with a backing contingent (e.g. The Buzzy Linhart Trio), Neil played to packed houses at all the fabled Village haunts, be it Café Wha, Gerdes Folk City, The Gaslight, The Night Owl, among others.
(As he established his reputation Neil, in his own way, gave back to the community by mentoring emerging artists – including one Bob Dylan who’s first Village gigs were backing Neil on harmonica. Numerous others that Neil took under his wing and looked to Fred for inspiration include Steve Stills, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Tim Hardin and David Crosby to name but a few.
In further testament to that fact, in a 1970 Rolling Stone interview, Stills said “Freddie taught me just about everything I know about the guitar”. And Stills and his band mates, before settling on Crosby Stills & Nash, were thinking of calling themselves “Freddie’s Children”. That is, of course, until Neil heard about it; and nixed the idea).
Although Fred had a deep love for the music, he hated the industry. In his words, “They’ll hang you from the highest tree”. Thus the hyper sensitive Neil shunned the spotlight, was said to be terrified of the trappings of success, and was very protective of anything that he committed to tape. Although there are rumoured to be numerous additional recordings – notably those with a young Bob Dylan – only 5 albums were officially released in the 11 years that Fred was active:
- Tear Down The Walls (w / Vince Martin; 1964)
- Bleecker & MacDougal (1965)
- Fred Neil (1966)
- Sessions (1967)
- The Other Side Of This Life (1971)
Not one was a commercial success due to the record company’s lack of promotion stemming from Neil’s reluctance to tour in support of the records. But, with the exception of “The Other Side Of This Life” – released to free Neil from Capitol Records recording commitments – are all hailed as masterpieces. Of note, “Tear Down The Walls” is held in many circles as the definitive Folk Rock album of all time. And, “Fred Neil” features the original peerless version of “Everybody’s Talkin’” that served as the theme for the Academy Award winning “Midnight Cowboy”, (and ignited the recording career of singer songwriter Harry Nilsson).
New York, however, proved to play a major role in greasing the rails for Fred Neil’s long slide into reclusive obscurity. It became evident that Neil’s fragile make-up was no match for the Village scene with its allure of drugs, its enablers, and its hustlers. Neil relocated to Coconut Grove Fla. – that had its own bohemian club scene – to escape the madness of the city life. And, aided by his love of sailing and nature, Neil quickly acclimated to the laidback lifestyle of the Grove. He also developed an interest in preserving dolphins and co-founded The Dolphin Research Project. The organization is dedicated to stopping the capture, and trafficking of dolphins worldwide.
But while the Grove was where he wanted to be, Fred knew that the Village is where he had to be. As alluded to in the title song of his first album, “Bleecker & MacDougal”, there was a fair amount of ping ponging between the Grove and the Village in the 60’s with Neil always looking for a way out.
After a relocation to the comparatively idyllic Woodstock NY in 1969, Neil left New York State for good in the mid 70’s and spent the rest of his life in Southern Florida. He continued his involvement with The Dolphin Project, and thus began a long retirement. He performed only occasionally – almost exclusively locally – in support of The Project. For all intents and purposes, Fred Neil quit performing altogether in the late 70’s.
Involved with The Dolphin Project till his death, Fred Neil succumbed to cancer on July 7, 2001.
As mentioned previously, stories abound as to other recordings. Accordingly, following is information regarding validated unreleased recordings that are, if nothing else, intriguing. These recordings attest to Neil’s artistic range and depth and would have added significantly to the Fred Neil legacy.
Firstly, is an album’s worth of material that Neil recorded that will probably never see the light of day because the master tapes can’t be found. With the working title of “Ivory, Fats, & White Boy Blues”, the recordings feature Neil teaming up with Ivory Joe Hunter of “Since I Met You Baby” fame and Harmonica Fats. It could very well be, in keeping with the perfectionist Neil’s penchant for erasing recorded material, that these recordings may have suffered a similar fate.
The other recordings, actually slated for a Columbia Records release, comprised an album essentially covering Bobby Charles tunes. The album, initially cut in Florida with Neil’s handpicked session players, was found to be lacking by Columbia execs. Subsequently, at the label’s insistence, the same songs were cut once again in L.A. with Fred backed by the NY Funk / R&B collective Stuff (???). In the end, Columbia didn’t release either version due to the lack of new Fred Neil material and the knowledge that Fred would never tour in support of the release.
Fred Neil’s career, albeit relatively short, burned brightly; illuminating the lives of many, and influencing a generation of singer songwriters. Like his contemporaries, and sometime musical partners, Dino Valenti and the broken Karen Dalton, Fred Neil was a tortured soul. (Case in point, “Wild Child In A World Of Trouble” has a strikingly autobiographical ring to it). As painful as it must have been, there’s no denying that it played a vital role in his art.
Suggested Fred Neil Playlist:
- Other Side Of This Life
- Bleecker & MacDougal
- Send Me Someone To Love
- Wild Child In A World Of Trouble (w / Vince Martin)
- Blues On The Ceiling
- The Water Is Wide
- Mississippi Train
- I’ve Got A Secret
- Little Bit Of Rain
- Prettiest Train
- Handful Of Gimme
- Yonder Come The Blues
- That‘s The Bag I’m In
- Sweet Cocaine
- The Dolphins
- Everybody’s Talkin’
- Rico Ferrara, October 2020