Fred Neil - Biography
Fred Neil was a huge influence on the first generation of Greenwich Village singers, songwriters and guitar players. He only recorded five albums under his own name in a sporadic career that lasted little more than two decades. Neil's entire reputation rests on three of these albums: Tear Down the Walls, credited to Martin & Neil (1964 Elektra), Bleeker & MacDougal (1965 Elektra) and Fred Neil (1967 Capitol). Still, they’re all perfect in different ways, featuring Neil’s unique fusion of blues, folk, Gospel and pop. With a baritone that could rumble the nails out of the floorboards, a bluesy understated guitar style, and a way of saying much with few words, his albums still sound fresh today.
Unlike most of the early folkies that hailed from the East Coast or the Midwest, Neil came from Florida (although he was born in Cleveland as Fred Morlock in 1936) and had first hand experience with blues and jazz. Neil’s father serviced jukeboxes throughout the south so he was exposed to all kinds of music at a young age. He met Louis Armstrong when he was a kid, when the older musician saw him hanging around the back door of a black club Armstrong and his band were playing. Armstrong eventually recorded Neil’s “Everybody’s talking.’”
Neil sang in a gospel group at a local black Baptist church and played guitar from a young age, but most of his life is shrouded in mystery. (His stage name was his grandmother’s maiden name.) He did join the Navy and allegedly spent years in Memphis and Nashville trying to break into the music business. Various friends say he knew Elvis, Sam Phillips, Otis Blackwell, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins and he may have played in Buddy Holly’s post Crickets band and on the stage of the Grand Ol’ Opry, but the accounts are contradictory, even those attributed to Neil himself.
In 1958 he moved to New York and got a staff writer job at Southern Music in the Brill Building. He cut six singles that went nowhere, played various record sessions, once contributing guitar to Bobby Darin’s hit “Dream Lover,” and worked as a session singer. He wrote for other publishers but the pop tunes he was turning out had little relation to the songs that made his reputation. In 1960 he began playing open mikes and hung out with other young songwriters including Tim Hardin and Vince Martin. He hosted the Monday Hoot at Café Wha? Where he met Peter and Paul, (before Mary), Tiny Tim, Hoyt Axton, Joan Rivers, Bob Gibson and Bob Dylan, who played his first sets at the Wha?
In 1963 he was splitting his gigs between New York and Coconut Grove and Ft. Lauderdale, FL. He started singing with Vince Martin as a duo around the same time. Elektra signed Martin & Neil and released Tear Down the Walls (1964 Elektra) with future Lovin’ Spoonful and Even Dozen Jug Band leader John Sebastian on harmonica and guitar, and future Mountain bass man Felix Pappalardi on guitarron. Neil didn’t like performing live, even though Tear Down the Walls was a folk hit. Neil decided to go solo when a live album was suggested as a follow up. In 1965 Neil recorded Bleeker & MacDougal (1965 Elektra), his first masterpiece. It included 13 soon to be standards including “Candy Man” which had been a hit for Roy Orbison, “Other Side of This Life”, “Little Bit of Rain” and the title track. It was an acoustic album, but had an electric blues/rock vibe and the power of Neil’s vocals remains undiminished to this day.
Folkies, blues players and rockers were covering Neil’s songs, but he was uncomfortable promoting himself. Neil moved to Coconut Grove around the time Tear Down the Walls was released and returned to New York mostly to perform. Neil signed with Capitol Records in 1966 and cut his eponymous masterpiece, a dark brooding album that followed in the folk rock footsteps of his pals Steven Stills and David Crosby. It was recorded live in the studio and includes Neil’s most popular tune “Everybody’s Talkin’” as well as “The Bag I’m In,” “Sweet Cocaine”, “The Dolphins”, and an eight minute improvised jam “Cynicrustpetefredjohn Raga”. The album became an FM radio staple on its release in 1967, but again Neil refused to cooperate by touring or doing any kind of self-promotion. He made two more albums for Capitol, Sessions (1967) a loose jam-based album of mostly covers that went nowhere and Other Side of The Life (1971), a contract fulfilling collection of live tracks and duets with other artists performing songs he’d already recorded several times.
Although Neil never made another album under his own name, he continued performing, sometimes as a duo with Vince Martin, sometimes solo. He contributed vocals and guitar to Martin’s debut If Jasmine Don’t Get You the Bay Breeze Will (1969 Capitol). In 1969 Neil moved to Woodstock, NY and sold his publishing rights to “Everybody’s Talkin” for the money to build a home. He lived in Woodstock several years and made various recordings there that have never seen the light of day. In 1977 and 1978 he recorded sessions for a Columbia album that was never released. By the early 80's, Neil had become a recluse. It was reported that even family members didn’t know where he was. Neil died in 2001 of complications due to skin cancer.