Fred Neil

TrackAlbum
Wild Child In A World Of TroubleTear Down The Walls
Blues On The CeilingBleecker & MacDougal
Little Bit Of RainBleecker & MacDougal
Other Side To This LifeBleecker & MacDougal
The DolphinsFred Neil
I've Got A Secret (Didn't We Shake Sugaree)Fred Neil
Everybody's Talkin'Fred Neil
Send Me Somebody To LoveSessions
Fools Are A Long Time ComingSessions
December's DreamThe Many Sides Of Fred Neil

 

Fred Neil photo 1

Fred Neil on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal

 

 

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Fred Neil playlist

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

I’m going where the sun keeps shining, through the pouring rain

Fred Neil had easily the most distinctive voice in the early Dylan folk era and a seriously good song writing talent to go with it, but somehow he managed to find only limited fame beyond the New York club scene. Rolling Stone referred to him as “something of a cult figure without the following” (source: Rocking My Life Away: Fred Neil written by Anthony DeCurtis). That was a tad cruel but how many people have real awareness of the man other than as composer of Everybody’s Talkin’ as sung by Harry Nilsson (and strongly featuring in the backing track to the film Midnight Cowboy), and possibly The Dolphins as sung by Tim Buckley and a few others. Fred didn’t help himself by a gradual move towards retirement from the music business from 1971 onwards. His last official release came that year, though the LP, entitled Other Side Of This Life, was little more than live takes of already recorded numbers with other tracks which were ‘in the can’, and even some of those were alternate takes.

In truth, Fred’s withdrawal from public attention had already begun. In “The Mojo Collection” the review of the 1967 LP, Fred Neil, is headed with the words “Recluse comes out of hiding long enough to leave an indelible footprint in the sands of pop history” and that statement is backed up with the line: “By the time of the album’s release, Neil had retreated to his Coconut Grove sanctuary from which he’d ventured forth only under duress”.

So the world has been left with a small but discreet legacy of recorded music: a handful of obscure singles mainly in a pop vein and then four and a half albums split between Elektra and Capitol of which the last, as already mentioned, was seemingly put out as a stop gap in the hope that Fred could be enticed back into a studio one day. However I should add that, under the heading “Later Life And Death” the Wiki article on Fred tells us in no uncertain terms that later recordings do exist but they “remain unissued”.

His second solo album – the one referred to a couple of paras back – was given the title Fred Neil, possibly with a view to giving his career a restart. It’s now the critics’ favourite and deservedly so though it didn’t make too many waves or achieve any commercial success at the time. Below you’ll find one of its many fine tracks, Green Rocky Road, introduced by that also distinctive twelve string guitar:

And that track isn’t even in my selections. Fred Neil was that rare beast: an album, every track of which I wanted in my Top Ten. However, temptation to jump straight into discussion of the set wouldn’t be fair to Fred or the reader so doing things in a chronological order wins out.

He was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1936 but raised in St. Petersburg, Florida. Exposure to popular music came early due to his father’s job as jukebox engineer for the mighty Wurlitzer; the role entailed travel throughout the south eastern states and access to southern music. There are uncorroborated stories that locate Fred in the Sun Studio in Memphis in the mid-fifties (source: Fred Neil: The Other Side Of Greenwich Village 60’s Folk Scene on Perfect Sound Forever) and that Buddy Holly played guitar on one of his singles (source: a comment in 45cat) but it’s possible that some myth-making was going on along the lines of Fred’s peer, and later occasional harmonica accompanist, Bob Dylan. In fact. after doing his bit for Uncle Sam via a spell in the US Navy in 1957, young Fred travelled to New York where he landed a job in the famous Brill Building writing songs which hopefully would turn into hits making our hero a rich man. It didn’t quite happen but he did get himself a shared credit for Candy Man which found itself in a substantial number of homes since it was on the other side of Roy Orbison’s biggie, Cryin’, in ’61.

Apart from appearing in the capacity of guitarist or backing vocalist on demo discs and maybe even released discs – depending on what you believe – for the likes of Paul Anka and Bobby Darin, Fred did manage to persuade a few companies to let him record a single or two over the period 1957 to 1963. I’m reliably informed that these used to be as hard to find as needles in the proverbial but in 2008, a CD was released – on the Fallout label and with the title Trav’lin Man: The Early Singles – which contained all twelve sides of the six singles which had appeared up to 1961 across a miscellany of labels. It would be gratifying to be able to report that there were some unexpected gems within this hoard but sadly that isn’t the case. Most essays on Neil state that the records were in a rockabilly vein which is slightly misleading. To an extent it’s true about the A-side of the first single, You Ain’t Treatin’ Me Right but it doesn’t apply elsewhere in this bunch and, even on this performance, the descent into Fred’s lowest bass register pushes the record strongly towards novelty rather than something more punchy. 1959’s Take Me Back Again (which wasn’t written by Fred) may be the best of the tracks, but as Thom Jurek observes in his review of the album in AllMusic, it was somewhat influenced by Conway Twitty’s It’s Only Make Believe. Thom closes with the words “He was – unlike the reclusive songwriter of later years – a hustler, a young man of great ability who hadn’t quite focused his vision but had plenty of talent. For that reason alone these tracks are worth hearing at the very least.”

One would surmise that minimal hustling was required by Fred Neil and Vince Martin to land a contract with Elektra. The duo were already operating as a successful club act and folk pop vocal groups as opposed to individuals were seen as a good commercial bet ever since the breakthrough made by the Kingston Trio way back in ’58 with Tom Dooley, followed by Peter, Paul and Mary from ’61 onwards. Add in that Elektra were the youngest and arguably the sharpest of the folk labels and top it all with the fact that Martin had pedigree; he had already fronted the Tarriers folk group on his/their recording of Cindy, Oh Cindy in 1956; that might have been some time ago but it did make the US Top Ten.

The resulting album, Tear Down The Walls credited to Martin & Neil and released in 1964, superficially has a Kingston Trio air about it (to 2019 ears that is) but listen a bit more and treasures reveal themselves. Vocally, Martin’s light tenor was ‘of its time’ in terms of folk pop but it meshed surprisingly well with Neil’s deep and resonant bass. The backing team of John Sebastian, harmonica, and Felix Pappalardi, guitarrón (a Mexican guitar/bass hybrid) had already been working with the singers in a club environment so brought a lived-in feel to the arrangements (which were credited to Neil). There’s also an argument that, although every instrument was still acoustic, those arrangements had a feel to be found years later on folk rock records. Note that another year would elapse before Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home got released.

The set was roughly half and half, non-originals and originals. The former ranged from a Hank Williams number (a fine take on Weary Blues From Waitin’), through several trad. arrs., (some from blues origins), to a couple of contemporary folk/protest numbers. Richie Unterberger, who wrote the sleeve notes for the 2019 rerelease of the album, singles out the boys’ version of Bonnie Dobson’s Morning Dew as his choice amongst this grouping and I see no reason to disagree with him. While it’s nothing like as radical a reinvention as the Tim Rose version in 1967 it still packs a bit more wallop than the Dobson original. And, judging by the slight changes to the wording that are present in the Neil/Martin version, one would suspect that Rose used this track as his start point.

Of the originals, Vince Martin is credited with one – Toy Balloon – while his partner gets a whopping six. And like the non-originals there’s diversity in the Neil numbers which take in blues (again) in I Got ‘Em and the raga-like Baby, more traditional folky sounding stuff like Dade County Jail and an apocalyptic future (like Morning Dew) in Red Flowers – “Red were the flowers, growing out of the ashes of war”. Most distinctive of the bunch are the title track and Wild Child In A World Of Trouble. It’s this last with Fred singing solo which serves as a pointer to some of the real standout tracks on the first and second solo albums.

Wild child’s in a world of trouble
Quiet child’s in a world of pain
Lost child’s in a world of sorrow
Searchin’ children in a world of shame
Searchin’ children in a world of shame

(Fred’s the gent on the left, the more gaunt looking of the pair)

The Fred Neil blues persona which had been sketched in with a few deft strokes on Tear Down The Walls was realised as a fully fleshed entity on his first solo album Bleecker & MacDougal. Initial impressions would suggest that every other track was a blues (and all Neil-written this time), but the sequencing was actually slightly more subtle than that. His blues were almost invariably medium to fast tempo with none of the slow ‘woke up this morning’ stuff. The key word in the last sentence was “His”. While any other white blues singer circa 1965 would attempt to sound like Mississippi John Hurt or someone of that ilk, Fred sounded like Fred; fatalistic, resigned sometimes, but you knew he’d get through. Yes, there was probably a bit of Hooker in there and possibly a few others but they were all blended together into something you could only call a Fred Neil blues.

I’m aware that I could be said to have erred in my selections by not including much of this side of Fred’s music but that’s only because his ‘other’ music was so remarkable. For a flavour of Fred Neil blues take a listen to the title track which, with its single chord approach, isn’t a million miles from a rock number, and his version of the number that the Big “O” chose as a flip, Candy Man. It’ll be apparent from these tracks that the accompaniment was slightly fuller than in the previous set. Sebastian and Pappalardi had been joined by Pete Childs on guitar and very, very occasionally he put his acoustic model down and picked up an electric one, which was still seen as near heresy in the folk world.

Two of the thirteen numbers were ones I can only describe as “blues but not blues” in that they inhabited the blues world lyrically and feeling wise but didn’t conform to recognised chordal patterns. Yonder Comes The Blues was a folk singer’s easy-going style blues, conventional but still very well done. Blues On A Ceiling was anything but conventional. Whilst all in sevenths, a chord that shows off the ‘blue notes’ in an octave, it also had unexpected ones rubbing together – I suggest that guitarists reading this should take a quick look at the guitar tabs. For non-guitarists let’s just say that this sequence created elements of unease even while resolution came as per normal. Lyrically the images were vivid and beyond conventional blues – and there’s that phrase again.

Blues on the ceiling
Over my head
Running down the walls
Across the floor
And over my bed

The most well-known number on Bleecker & MacDougal was undoubtedly Other Side To This Life. One site lists 20 cover records spread across the years from 1965 to 2018 (see also Footnotes for more on covers). Melodically, the number wasn’t a million miles from a twelve bar blues performed in near strum-along mode but with sufficient difference to make things intriguing – it was the sort of thing that sounds as if it might have been in a minor key but wasn’t. Certainly in part it was the lyrics that appealed to a sixties audience, whether they’d read Kerouac or not. Stanzas like “Would you like to know a secret just between you and me / I don’t know where I’m going next, I don’t know who I’m gonna be” and “Well my whole world’s in an uproar, my whole world’s upside down / I don’t know where I’m going next, but I’m always bumming around”, sounded as if they might have been autobiographical but probably weren’t.

He does deploy a minor key (and a lonely flautist) on The Water Is Wide, one of only two numbers on the album which could be called ballads (and the only cover in the set). The key fits the downer stance of the opening lines – “The water is wide and I cannot cross over” – but there are hints of a happy ending along the lines of love will find a way. However, I’ve given the nod to the other ballad, Little Bit Of Rain, as my final selection from this album. (Was he aware of the expression “What does a little bit of rain matter?” one wonders.) I’ll give you the first verse and request that you just let the song and performance sink in. Analysis seems redundant.

If I should leave you
Try to remember the good times
Warm days filled with sunshine
And just a little bit of rain
And just a little bit of rain

I stated earlier that Fred Neil was “the critics’ favourite and deservedly so”. On replaying some of the tracks on Bleecker & MacDougal, I’m inclined to slightly refine that and state that there’s very little between the two in terms of feeling, inventiveness and sheer listenability (and the AllMusic critic Thom Jurek bucks the trend and states that Bleecker is the record to have).

Before diving into the songs from Fred Neil, a few general statements might be helpful:

* A change of label meant a change of producer, from Paul Rothchild to Nik Venet. While Rothchild was still in relatively short trousers in the role having worked predominantly with artists in the folk arena, Venet already had a much wider range of experience having started out in jazz in the mid-fifties and then joined Capitol where he worked with artists across a wide spectrum of popular music; he was the man who signed the Beach Boys to the label in ’62. Venet had also known Neil since the Brill Building days and was the man responsible for him signing with Capitol.

There’s a quote from Venet in “The Mojo Collection” which originally appeared in Goldmine magazine:

“None of those songs are remixed; everything you hear on the albums I did with Fred are as they happened in the studio, What you hear there is all Fred Neil. There were no arrangements; no one rehearsed.”

* The album was electric and a drummer was involved for the first time. That doesn’t mean that it took the full-on amped-up electric blues sound of Highway 61 Revisited. Fred and Nik’s usage of some of the instrumentation that was the norm for intelligent pop records at that time was subtle and in some respects was a natural successor to the sound on Bleecker & MacDougal.

* Only Pete Childs was retained as support musician on Fred Neil, none of the others had worked with Fred before. Notable among them were Cyrus Faryar who had already been a member of the Whiskeyhill Singers and the Modern Folk Quartet; it was Faryar who played the bouzouki which appears towards the end of The Dolphins. Other support musicians included drummer Billy Mundi who also played with Tim Buckley, Dylan and Frank Zappa, and Canned Heat’s Al Wilson who took the John Sebastian role on mouth harp.

* Blues numbers, or perhaps I should say explicit blues numbers since there was an underlying blues sensibility to much of what Fred did, virtually disappeared in this set. What replaced them were largely ballads and numbers that didn’t fit into such conveniently labelled boxes. Richie Unterberger, who’s written as much if not more about Fred than anyone, has come up with the following (and the quote appears in more than one place in his writing so he evidently feels it’s important).

“Neil also eschewed conventional verse-chorus-bridge structures in favour of loping, elliptical compositions in which atmosphere and emotional phrasing were more important than direct or didactic messages.”

Whether Nik Venet pushed Fred for a higher percentage of ‘proper songs’ rather than blues semi-retreads or whether Fred just turned up with them – he was unpredictable – we don’t know. Certainly, Venet recognised quality when he heard it. The Dolphins and Everybody’s Talkin’ were given pole position on sides one and two respectively. Take a listen to the two originals,

 

… and then play the Buckley and Nilsson covers. Both of the latter sound over-arranged/produced and there’s a feeling that creeps up on you that each singer is acting out a role rather than fully relating to the lyrics. Buckley was a known fan of Neil and there are elements of faint pastiche in his interpretation (though the strange thing is that you expect Tim to soar to the heights based on his natural vocal tendency, while Fred would go the other way and find comfort in the depths). Both covers were laid down well after the originals were cut – in ’73 and ’69 respectively – and the Buckley take on The Dolphins is less rocky than the Neil cut which had subdued slashes of reverb guitar providing a limpid form of drama, while the Nilsson record takes us back to folk pop days with a layering of highly professional easy listening thrown in, which might fit the more positive lyrics in the bridge but is at odds with the alienation expressed in the verses. I could say more but perhaps not; the Buckley and Nilsson records are good records in their own right.

That’s tracks 1 and 6 which leaves 2 to 5 and 7 to 9, all of which are very good if not quite up to the quality of the pair just discussed.

Due to the consistency of quality throughout the album I pondered for ages on further selection(s) and eventually put it to one side, completed most of the rest of the piece and then returned.

I discarded one track, Cynicrustpetefredjohn Raga, the seven and a half minute instrumental that closes the set; I’ve nothing against it but it doesn’t display Fred’s attributes overly well. This still left me with six having already made mention of Green Rocky Road. On the basis that all deserved selection (including Green Rocky Road) I eventually plumped for I’ve Got A Secret (Didn’t We Shake Sugaree) which followed Dolphins as track #2 on the album. Okay I admit that there was another reason: was there any way I could not select a song containing the line “I’m gonna go to heaven in a split-pea shell”?

And the line wasn’t even a Neil original. With very slight change it came from the great Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten as indeed did the whole song with some modification from Fred. The melody line is an absolute charmer with some jaunty whistling setting the scene, and it’s only when you get to the final line of the first verse that you realise something somewhat heavier is being revealed. In the Neil version it sounds like “Everything I have, down in pawn” although the final three words could be “done in pawn”. The meaning of those words is clearer in the Cotten original – “Everything I got is done and pawned” and I would comment that she almost clips off the “ed” in “pawned” which would make the versions closer. There’s a fine essay on the original Libba Cotten song in Pancocojams which includes some digging into the meaning of the word ‘sugaree’.

But those other songs on the album all deserve a few words each and a clip (and they’re on our Spotify playlist):

That’s The Bag I’m In – sees Fred in near goofy hipster mode – can’t do anything right but does he care – are those “blue memories” taking too much space?

Badi-Da – he gets so tired that words don’t even come at times and Badi-Da fills in nicely – all underpinned by an intriguing melody line – closing out with some harmonica blues riffing – also present are strong hints that it’s the city life that’s getting him down

Faretheewell (Fred’s Tune) – the Neil variant on the traditional number which often appears under the title Dink’s Song and one that has been sung over the years by a goodly number of artists from Pete Seeger onwards – the usage of minor chords, restricted melodic changes and slow tempo give this performance a haunting air not found in peer versions – it also doesn’t sound remotely folky and I don’t think the reader needs me to expand on that observation

Everything Happens – “It happens every time, there’s really nothing I can do” – she’s turned elsewhere and Fred is aching – there’s a sneaky part of my brain which does wonder whether the repeated “It happens” is actually an implied “S**t happens” – either way it’s harnessed to another fine melody and structure

Sweet Cocaine – maybe with some irony, this performance is the most upbeat on the whole album, to the extent that it almost sounds triumphal – like Faretheewell, the song is not an original and the connection/lineage here is to the stream of songs usually appearing under the title Cocaine Blues with the first recorded version believed to be the one from the Reverend Gary Davis – this take isn’t that one but from a concert he gave at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in ’64 – I’d use the word ‘elegance’ about the Neil interpretation which doesn’t come to mind when listening to other versions – I’d also comment that if I regret the omission of any one song in my selections, it would be this one

Solo album #3 from Fred, Sessions, didn’t, and still doesn’t, receive rapturous applause from the critics. Its under-production appeared to be deliberate to the extent that many of the numbers sounded as if they’d been captured at little more than an early rehearsal stage (see also Footnotes). Of its seven tracks, all bar two were over five minutes long and a couple topped eight. This could have been because producer Venet was going along with the new fashion for extended work-outs on songs which wasn’t restricted to rock groups, or simply because Fred didn’t turn up with enough material so elongation became the order of the day. Maybe it was a combination of the two. The title might suggest the former but that could have been an afterthought. The fact that there were two explicit covers included tends to support the lack of numbers theory but I should emphasise that this is all theorising.

For me, those two covers are among the most interesting on the album. The Neil version of Herb Metoyer’s Fools Are A Long Time Coming wasn’t strictly a cover in that Metoyer, a relatively rare black artist in the then New York based folk set, hadn’t recorded it himself. At the time, his entire recorded oeuvre consisted of one LP, Something New, recorded for Verve Folkways in ’65 and “Fools” wasn’t on it. However, according to AllMusic – Richie Unterberger again – Herb and Fred were friends having been introduced by Joni Mitchell, and one would presume that Herb was in the habit of including the number in his live act. If you knew nothing about the song’s origins, you would have assumed that it was written by Neil himself. Rhythmically and melodically it came from the blues while its lyrics echoed the world of a man wherein silver linings were highly unlikely to be found.

If you see a rainbow in your backyard
You better turn your head around the other way
There ain’t no gold on either side, baby
Only fools look there for gold anyway

The song comes to a natural end just before the three minute mark but you can almost visualise Venet in the glassed-off control booth urging the musicians for more, more, more, with the result that the twin acoustic guitar attack (mixed with maximum stereo separation) picks up again after a little stuttering giving the listener a two minute plus coda. Whether it adds a lot is debatable but it’s not displeasing.

The other cover is a more straightforward proposition: it’s simply the best version of Percy Mayfield’s slow blues, Please Send Me Someone To Love (under the marginally changed title Send Me Somebody To Love) from a white artist that I’ve heard with the proviso that there are a lot of versions I haven’t heard, with the site SecondHandSongs listing 143 versions. More than that, the Neil version with its prominent stand-up bass doesn’t sound shabby compared with the one from the song’s composer or from other major black artists like Dinah Washington, Solomon Burke or B.B. King.

“Send Me” is one of the album’s short songs; the other, Felicity, is certainly worth attention but got squeezed out by numbers.

Which leaves me with the other long numbers. I’ve put some musings on this topic in the Footnotes but let’s just say here that I don’t love this album quite as much as its two predecessors.

Sessions was Fred’s last studio album. As mentioned earlier, Capitol followed it with Other Side Of This Life which might well have been the label trying to extract their ounce of flesh from the man. Side one of the set – or the first six tracks in CD/MP3 speak – came from a live performance in Woodstock which I understand was specially recorded for the album; apparently Neil was contractually committed to another LP. Side 2 consisted of alternate takes of released songs plus material not previously considered strong enough to release.

The live portion of the album on which he’s accompanied by another guitarist, Monte Dunn, is uniformly strong, particularly when you consider that the man’s heart might already have been in Florida. The songs all come from his solo studio outings and there’s no ‘Dylanisation’ involved; Fred sticks broadly to the arrangements on those albums, adding a slightly more pronounced blues strut to the title song which opens the album – possibly as a nod to the Airplane version – and reducing the length of Roll On Rosie, which made its first appearance on Sessions, from a whopping eight and a half minutes to under four. To these ears, the newer version is the better of the two and suggests that Fred wasn’t prone to extending his songs unduly in a live environment.

While there are no absolute standouts in the studio leftovers portion of the set all the tracks are of interest. The two alternates, Badi-Da (from Fred Neil) and Felicity (from Sessions) could well have stood in for the chosen tracks without any loss in quality of those albums. Of the other three, Ya Don’t Miss Your Water is one that could come up in a pub quiz – that’s if pub quizzes ever include reference to Fred Neil which I somehow doubt – in that it features Gram Parsons as harmony vocalist and, yes, it is the William Bell song with a ‘Ya’ replacing the more conventional ‘You’. In later years the track found its way onto a collection of Byrds related odds-and-sods entitled Byrd Parts released by the splendid Australian Raven label. This is it:

… and yes, a shiver runs up the spine when Gram sings “You don’t miss your water” solo on the repeat of the closing line.

And that’s it. Almost. Fred disappeared off to Coconut Grove, Miami to be with his beloved dolphins. While he didn’t entirely give up music – he appeared at benefits for the Dolphin Project and notably at the 1975 Montreux Jazz Festival backed by old colleagues John Sebastian, Pete Childs and Harvey Brooks – appearances were rare. There are well documented reports of recordings having taken place in the seventies (see Wiki) but nothing has publicly emerged.

Fred Neil died of skin cancer in 2001.

Compilations of his material appeared over the years but we’re still without one that comprehensively covers both the Elektra and Capitol years. In 1998, Collector’s Choice Music released a two CD set which does an excellent job on his Capitol material; The Many Sides Of Fred Neil is still available and contains, in full, the material from his three albums plus six previously unreleased tracks from the Capitol vaults. Sleeve notes were written by Richie Unterberger – who else!

Two of the unreleased tracks from Many Sides are blues standards, Trouble In Mind and How Long Blues but intriguingly they’re given highly contrasting arrangements with the latter proceeding at an absolute gallop. Given its duration of nearly ten minutes and stylistic approach the track could well have fitted on the Sessions set, it’s at least as good as if not better than some of the longer numbers on the album.

Elsewhere there’s yet another take on Other Side To This Life and it’s up to the standard of the Bleecker & MacDougal original – Fred’s enunciation doesn’t differ strongly from that cut, it’s the backdrop that’s undergone renovation. Which leaves us with two Neil compositions and one from another source. I’m making the last my final selection. The song is called December’s Dream and Unterberger, quite rightly, mourns its omission from the Fred Neil album (apparently it was cut within that timeframe); its presence there could have made an already excellent album even better.

I can see her slowly walking
Through the empty streets of morning
Who she’s with I cannot tell
His face fades with the others
In the endless spell of dreams I know so well

I’ve mentioned Richie Unterberger as a more than significant writer on the subject of Fred Neil. I’m closing with two quotes from his “Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers”:

“David Crosby actually turned me on to Fred Neil. Freddie was very evocative of a certain soulfulness that was generally lacking in the folk movement. His voice was deeper than most, came from an unexplained source, and therefore was sort of semi-mystical to us sort of whitebread middle-class children. Freddie just led us to places that normal folksingers didn’t go.” Paul Kantner

There was an outage of three weeks or more in the production of this essay. I had selected the Kantner quote before downing tools. When I returned to writing I played several Neil tracks before picking up the virtual pen again and it was only then that it struck me how apt those words from Paul really were. Most ‘folk singers’ – and I put the descriptor in quotation marks since it was the term in use in the early to mid sixties – do not display the emotive qualities that you find in black soul music or in some pop or rock vocalists. For example, Roger McGuinn, a key associate of Crosby and who’d started out in folk, didn’t possess that “certain soulfulness”. Fred did.

“The album Fred Neil, [Buckley] and I and all of our friends think of as one of the four or five albums of the ’60s. I don’t care what-all lists or sales charts anybody wants to throw up. To me, it’s like the Kind of Blue of the ’60s. [Miles Davis’ classic jazz album] Kind of Blue is a disc you can listen to over and over, you never get tired of it, it’s eternally fresh. And so is that Fred Neil album.” Larry Beckett (lyrics writer for Tim Buckley)

Newcomers to Fred Neil might initially be slightly put off by that bass voice and see it as limited to the expression of resigned or fatalistic material (and yes, I’ve used those words too). Greater immersion in his recorded oeuvre should bring a realisation that this isn’t true at all; that voice was able to convey a wide range of emotions both on his own material which was often very strong, and in covers of traditional or other material where he’s often able to cause a rethink about the song in question. His retirement to Florida robbed the world of a performer and songwriter who was head and shoulders above most of the other artists who were given such labels in the sixties. We are told that said retirement made him happy. That has to be a satisfactory ending to our tale.

 

Fred Neil photo 2

 

FOOTNOTES

1. A YouTube search for post-Capitol recordings from Fred was largely unfruitful though it did reveal an audio only clip of him singing The Dolphins backed by Joni Mitchell and Debbie Andersen (first wife of Eric) at a “California Celebrates The Whales” benefit concert held in the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento, California in 1976. It’s certainly Fred on lead plus his 12 string; it’s also recognisably Joni singing harmony though, arguably, she starts trying a little too hard as the song progresses.

2. What my search did reveal was a number of interesting clips from the pre-Elektra period (or possibly in parallel with). Below are some of the results. All can claim full authenticity other than the final one:

– One clip holding the three tracks that Fred recorded for an LP entitled Hootenanny: Live At The Bitter End which was released in 1963. It was a compilation of live recordings from the Bleecker St. night club cum coffee house. Four artists were included with the other three being Len Chandler, Jo Mapes and Bob Carey. In his review of the album for AllMusic, Richie Unterberger is complimentary about Fred but less so about the others:

“These tunes find his rich folk-blues fusion fully formed and are highly recommended to Neil fans. All of the other performers sing sincere, twee coffeehouse folk that illustrates (if only in retrospect) just how necessary it was for gutsier artists like Neil to come along and blow them out of the water.”

The clip contains all three Neil tracks from the album in order; these comprise Linin’ Track, The Sky Is Falling – a Neil composition which he didn’t go on to re-record – and That’s The Bag I’m In. There’s an intriguing comment from a gentleman called Robin Dunn:

“Thanks for adding this. Interestingly at the end of ‘Linin’ Track’ Fred asks Major Wiley to join him and they go into a rendition of ‘Grizzly Bear’ – composed by Fred Neil/Beverly Ross/Aaron Schroeder. This was recorded as a rockabilly 45 rpm single in 1962 by a very Elvis sounding Jack Scott. Released on Capitol. Can be found on YouTube.”

For completeness, here’s the Jack Scott record which saw release in January 1962 according to 45cat. The composers are as listed by Robin but the song title has an extra “i” in it, viz. “Grizzily Bear”.

– A clip entitled Tales from the Flick #4 – Martin & Neil. As the number indicates, this is but one of a series of live clips on Peter Lee Neff’s YT channel featuring different artists performing at the Flick Coffeehouse in Miami. The date given is ‘mid 60s’ and Vince Martin and Fred Neil are backed by a trio which includes Felix Pappalardi on guitar. The three songs are Cocaine Blues, one I don’t recognise and Tear Down The Walls.

– A duet with an even more enigmatic early sixties folk figure, Dino Valente (sometimes Valenti). It’s entitled I’m Gonna Run though it also appears on the Many Sides compilation as Stormy Weather. The uploader of the YouTube “I’m Gonna Run”, a lady or gent going by the name of “plusgloss”, also provides a fascinating comment:

“In his 1999 autobiography, Richie Havens told the story of how Neil and his first musical partner, Dino Valente, would bring the house down: ‘Fred and Dino blew the room out completely. They closed their set with ‘What’d I Say’, which was a strange move for the typical folk singer. But neither Fred nor Dino were typical anything. They extended the tune with a call-and-response, like gospel singers. Then they left the stage and worked their way through the crowd, their guitars in the air, still shouting the song as they marched out the back door. The crowd was in an uproar. Then after a minute their voices could be heard again, still singing as they came around the building, in through the front door and back onto the stage.”

A clip purporting to be Fred with David Crosby and Les Baxter’s Balladeers. It’s claimed that Fred is the figure who steps from the background singers to take something of a lead role at approx 1:17 in. I’d say that the jury is out on this one. The group, the Balladeers formed by Les Baxter was in existence at the time – Wiki refer to them as a “conservative folk group in suits”. David Crosby is definitely documented as a member of the Balladeers circa 1962. Jerry Yester, later to be a founder member of the Lovin’ Spoonful was also a member for a spell. As far as I can see there’s no record of them recording or performing with Neil but timewise it could have happened.

3. The only other early song writing credit for Fred that gets mentioned in the articles on the man is Come Back Baby which was recorded by Buddy Holly but didn’t see release till well after Buddy died. Confusingly, Fred also recorded a song with that title – it appeared on Other Side Of This Life but it was a different song entirely.

4. I stated that Neil had recorded singles up to 1963 but then went on to say that the Trav’lin Man CD contained all the tracks from the singles up to 1961. The one single which didn’t get included in that album was the 1963 disc recorded with The Nashville Street Singers with the tracks Long Black Veil and Bottom Of The Glass, both of which later reappeared on Many Sides. And, if Spotify is to be believed, Trav’lin Man has now been joined by several further albums all recycling the same material.

5. The first cover of Other Side To This Life was probably the Lovin’ Spoonful version which appeared on their debut album Do You Believe In Magic. It’s likely that it was the Spoonful who were first responsible for the switch to “to” instead of “of” in the song’s title. However, it’s Jefferson Airplane who have the strongest connection with the song. Their version which eventually appeared in the live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head was reportedly a major feature of their live set for years. They – Grace and Paul in particular – were particularly keen on Fred’s music, and the word/name ‘Pooneil’ which appears in more than one of their songs comes in part from Grace’s nickname for the man: “Pooh”. More recently – in the year 2000 to be more precise – a solo acoustic take of the song from Gram Parsons saw the light of day on Another Side Of This Life: The Lost Recordings Of Gram Parsons.

6. I commend the reader to Wikipedia’s lengthy but informative article on the song, The Water Is Wide. It opens with the line: “The Water Is Wide (also called “O Waly, Waly” or simply “Waly, Waly”) is a folk song of Scottish origin, based on lyrics that partly date to the 1600s”, moves on to the song’s history showing evolution of and variation in the lyrics, lists many of the performers from a range of musical cultures who’ve recorded it and ends by listing appearances of the number in film and television.

7. Like many things relating to Fred Neil there’s scant information available about why he switched from Elektra to Capitol after one shared album and the solitary solo LP, given that Jac Holzman, founder and owner of Elektra, was in the process of building a stable of artists that he hoped would be the envy of every other label. One could surmise that there might have been some bad feeling when Neil left, because, in “Follow The Music: The Life And Times Of Elektra Records In The Great Years Of American Culture”, there’s a quote from Paul Rothchild about Fred which starts:

“He was on Elektra. For my sins I had to produce him. He was a brilliant songwriter and a total scumbag. The forerunner of the unreliable performer, the original rock flake.”

Rothchild goes on in that vein for a long paragraph. Given Holzman’s position as co-author of the book (which is largely about him and what he achieved) it’s unlikely that there would not have been tacit agreement between Rothchild and Holzman, otherwise the quote wouldn’t have appeared.

8. There’s an informative article from long-term Neil accompanist Pete Childs on the Fred Neil website. I say long-term since Pete used to sit in with Fred in the very early days when he, Pete, was living in an apartment with John Sebastian. It continued through to the Florida retirement when Pete would visit and Fred would introduce him to individual dolphins. The article contains a tribute to Fred from Pete which forms a rebuttal to the above words from Paul Rothchild:

“So I remember this wonderful man as the finest artist I ever worked (played) with, and as a friend whose memory I treasure. I’m sure I’ll be seeing him again.”

9. Under the heading ‘Cocaine Blues’, there’s a fine essay in Wiki on the subject of the various different songs with that title or variants of it plus the miscellany of versions of those songs. The writer states that “Gary Davis was a key influence on the folk revival singers of the early 1960s” and goes on to say that “Sweet Cocaine by Fred Neil (1966) is loosely based on the same song”.

10. I stated that Richie Unterberger had written as much if not more about Fred than anyone. However, a quick Amazon check reveals that that may no longer be strictly true. As of August 2019, there’s a new book from Peter Lee Neff entitled “That’s The Bag I’m In: The Life, Music And Mystery Of Fred Neil”. Billed as the “First biography of the legendary singer-songwriter Fred Neil”, I don’t have a copy and there’s no preview, however the author does have a Facebook page on Fred and the book.

I can also add a little more about Richie and Fred. Richie is the main contributor to the Fred Neil site, having written sleeve notes (or liner notes in US speak) for the re-released albums plus the 2CD set The Many Sides Of Fred Neil. Richie also devotes a chapter to Fred in “Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries of ’60s Rock”. That’s in addition to mentions in his “Turn! Turn! Turn!: The ’60s Folk-Rock Revolution” which later formed part one of “Jingle Jangle Morning: Folk Rock In The 1960’s”.

11. In the AllMusic Herb Metoyer biography, Richie Unterberger (yes, again) wrote the following in relation to the song Fools Are A Long Time Coming:

“As Metoyer recalled in a piece he contributed to a Fred Neil website, ‘I wrote it as a reflection (of) the many foolish things we are compelled to do over and over again, some whether we want to or not’.”

Richie also noted that: “Something New was the only album by Metoyer, who became a helicopter and career military officer, and has also done book cover design, poetry, and short story writing.” I should state that the beginning of that sentence is no longer true; in 2010 Metoyer was enticed out of semi-retirement to record an album entitled, This Is The Time.

12. An unusual feature of the Sessions album was that the take number was included with each song title on the original LP sleeve, and only one number – Felicity, the briefest and first – got above take 2 (information from Unterberger though it’s confirmed by Discogs – I’ve not seen or heard the vinyl and only know the songs from the Many Sides compilation). One would presume that the addition of the (low) take numbering was to reinforce the impression of a near raw and deliberately unglossy product.

13. It might be assumed that those long and semi-improvised songs on Sessions were prompted by similar song-stretching from early Neil acolyte, Tim Buckley. The assumption, though, is not born out by release dates: Happy Sad, the first Buckley LP to contain material in that style was recorded in December 1968 and released in July 1969 while the Neil album was recorded during October 1967. There were, however, two Buckley numbers which extended beyond six minutes on his previous set, Goodbye And Hello, though it should be said that both were heavily arranged rather than improvised. Muddying up the assumption even more, was the fact that Buckley was already making use of both vocal and instrumental improvisation and extending numbers in his live appearances.

What we do have is a vocal snippet from Fred which appears at the start of Merry Go Round, the first number to get near the six minute mark on Sessions. Before the song kicks in, Fred says, “Nik, this is very short and there’s no reason to stretch it because it says it and you know” and then it’s straight into the number. The song itself is heavily based on a poem by Langston Hughes with the same title, which compares the merry go round of life for a black person (with the implied “living in the USA”) to racial segregation using the term “Jim Crow section”. The Neil song finishes with the line, “Where’s the Jim Crow section of your merry-go-round for a boy who’s black” on roughly the 1:20 mark. There’s then a brief instrumental interlude after which Fred breaks into the traditional In The Pines, starting with the words “Black girl, black girl don’t you lie to me, tell me where did you stay last night” after which the songs blur together. While the other long songs on Sessions don’t share the relative complexity of Merry Go Round they do have minimal lyrics and improvisation is the order of the day.

Conclusion? A partial success only. Tim Buckley is still the obvious comparison even disregarding any direct influence. Van Morrison is another though Astral Weeks and later albums were recorded well after Sessions. In both cases it could be said that the extemporisation seemed to come more naturally to Buckley and Morrison and they were more adept at providing light and shade within such numbers. I’d add the usual rider that any thoughts of mine are largely subjective and that such differences aren’t great.

14. If I was slightly dismissive of Nik Venet’s production abilities in my comments on Sessions, I should apologise. Nik will forever sit on an elevated plateau in my memory for his marvellous work on John Stewart’s California Bloodlines which was recorded not all that many months after Sessions.

15. If anyone takes a look at the track listing for the Other Side Of This Life album and guesses or assumes that Come Back Baby is the Neil composition that got recorded by Buddy Holly, it’s not. The track is a conventional blues not a million miles away from Send Me Somebody To Love but paling beside the merits of that song. It’s well performed though and has Les McCann on the piano stool.

16. The Fred Neil site has a piece by John Braheny recounting how his song, December’s Dream, got written. It makes reference to the earlier version from Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys under its original title, December Dream.

17. If you thought that the title change above smacked a little of pedantry then here’s another: the song which appears on Bleecker & MacDougal as Other Side To This Life definitely has “to” rather than “of” in the listing. Elsewhere, and that includes the header of the third Neil Capitol album together with the appearance of the song in that album and on The Many Sides, the word “of” is used. I’ve tried to stick with this approach though I appreciate it could originally have been accidental.

18. Our Esteemed Editor was more successful in his digging than yours truly; he managed to find the only live clip of Fred on YouTube to contain visual as well as aural content. And it’s good, very good. Coming from the retirement period – more precisely from August 1976 – it’s headed The Dolphin Project/Rolling Coconut Revue (presumably a dig at Bob’s Rolling Thunder Revue) and features Fred singing The Dolphins accompanied by several of his early compatriots including John Sebastian, Pete Childs, Monte Dunn and Vince Martin. Coconut Grove folk hero Bobby Ingram is also present. This is the clip. Fred looks extremely happy or a tad stoned or a bit of both, but he still delivers.

19. I referred earlier to the 2010 Herb Metoyer album entitled This Is The Time. Within it there’s a number written by Herb as a tribute to Fred to which he has given the title, Fred Neil’s Song (probably in full knowledge of Dink’s Song). Though a touch on the sentimental side (and given an easy-listening framing), it still seemed a fitting way to close this piece.

For years I wondered where you had gone
Then someone said that you’d gone home

 

Fred Neil photo 3

(l to r): Bob Dylan, Karen Dalton, Fred Neil – Cafe Wha? 1961
(photo: Fred W. McDarrah)

 

Fred Neil (1936–2001)

 

Fred Neil website

Fred Neil discography

“That’s The Bag I’m In: The Life, Music And Mystery Of Fred Neil” by Peter Lee Neff (Blue Ceiling Publishing 2019)

Fred Neil biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Eric Andersen, Tim Buckley, Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Jefferson Airplane, Lovin’ Spoonful, Percy Mayfield, Nilsson, Peter, Paul & Mary, Tim Rose, Jack Scott

TopperPost #812

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Sep 15, 2019

    Like most people I discovered Fred through the cover versions by people like Tim Buckley (‘Dolphins’ was on a Tim compilation I bought one of my first trips to London in 1985 or 1986) and Eric Andersen. Later on, when I started exploring his own recordings, I discovered what a truly superb singer and soongwriter he was. This great piece does justice to an artist who is still massively under-appreciated….

  2. Rob Webb
    Oct 7, 2019

    Terrific post, Dave. I think I must have come to Fred via Nilsson but great to get this biog/analysis. He had such a rich voice. And what songs.

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