Fred Neil: 1936 to 2001
Fred Neil, one of the most influential singer-songwriters of the early folk-rock era, died in his sleep on July 7 at the age of 65. Known to most listeners solely as the author of “Everybody’s Talkin'”, Neil had not released a complete studio album for more than 30 years.
Any attention he’d received was, perversely, due in part to his aura as something of a rock music Greta Garbo. He rarely sang in public and rarely appeared in public. He had no evident interest in continuing what had been an enormously promising career, or even in guaranteeing the strength of his growing cult reputation, granting few interviews and turning down opportunities to record or re-enter the music business. He seemed far more interested in lending support to the Dolphin Project, an organization dedicated to halting the capture and exploitation of dolphins worldwide.
If Neil did not care to sing or speak for himself, others were willing to carry the torch for him. He was a musician’s musician, appreciated more by his peers than by the record-buying public. Nilsson’s hit cover of “Everybody’s Talkin'” (#6 in 1969) is the one everyone knows, but Neil’s songs were also done by a who’s who of stars and cult icons, including Linda Ronstadt, Jefferson Airplane, Tim Buckley, Judy Henske, Sandy Denny, Judy Collins, the Youngbloods, and Peter, Paul & Mary.
Others were deeply influenced by his serene blend of folk, rock, pop, blues, country, jazz, and even Indian music. John Sebastian, David Crosby, Paul Kantner, even Barry McGuire all have testified to the inspiration Neil gave them, and it’s likely that folk-rock would not have developed as quickly as it did without Neil helping to pave the way.
Somewhat lost in the shuffle amidst the testimonials was the music by the man himself. In an approximately five-year spurt starting in the mid-1960s, he recorded five albums for Elektra and Capitol before virtually retiring around the early 1970s.
Only two of those (1965’s Bleecker And MacDougal and a self-titled album in 1967) were consistently fine from start to finish. Yet at his best, Neil, with his lower-than-low baritone, beguiling melodies, and lyrics that were at once wry and beatific, was magnificent. Hear not just “Everybody’s Talkin'”, but also “The Other Side Of Life”, “Little Bit Of Sunshine, Little Bit Of Rain”, and especially “Dolphins” (recently covered by Beth Orton), and it’s the sound not just of a man reaching to the bottom of his soul, but continuing right down to the bottom of his soles, so deep was his well of emotion.