Fred Neil: A Long Time Coming

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Fred Neil’s cavernous baritone and wayward backing group were recorded directly to stereo for his ’66 self-titled solo album. Conservatively dressed, his curly head nodded over the microphone inside a Capitol studio webbed with shadows. “Everybody’s Talkin’” was finished in one take. Three years later Harry Nilsson covered it for the award-winning film Midnight Cowboy. The song burned the charts and Fred cashed it all in.

“‘Everybody’s Talkin’?’ I don’t know where he wrote that song,” says Vince Martin, his Brooklyn accent strong, blunt, almost English. He got up and shut a window. Vince struck fame in ’56 with The Tarriers for his song “Cindy, Oh Cindy” and on a cold night in ’61 Fred and Dino Valente (Chet Powers) wandered inside the Third Side Coffeehouse on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village to find Vince jamming next to Hoyt Axton. Dino introduced them and Fred and Vince began performing throughout the Village, winding duo arrangements of “I Know You Rider” or “Morning Dew.” “The myth is he wrote it in five minutes in a cab and it very may well be. I don’t think he wrote it that fast. Freddie wasn’t that fast. Freddie worked on songs,” he says. “Some of the riffs that Freddie did began as riffs, composed as riffs, but the finalization as a song, or as a beginning and an end, he’d read it over.”

Until dying of skin cancer in 2001 Fred lived in and out Coconut Grove, Florida, the bohemian artist colony on the outskirts of Miami that attracted musicians like David Crosby, Tim Hardin and Joni Mitchell. He resigned to a little house without a phone, strummed his guitar in front of the TV, drank St. Pauli Girl, bought a house in Woodstock, New York, had kids, got divorced, smoked dope and sang to Kathy and Suzy, dolphins from the Flipper TV series at the Miami Seaquarium.

“He was a Florida guy, raised in St. Pete. He loved the ocean, we swam we dove,” recalls Vince. “The water and the ocean were very germane to our lives at that time -– Florida, the bay, and you generally write about what you know or feel.” Vince discovered the Grove while chasing after a stewardess in ’61 and Fred followed, forging the serene, 85-degree folk haven as his escape from the city.

He was born in 1936 and raised on Treasure Island outside St. Petersburg by his grandmother who hailed from Alabama. His father sold Wurlitzer jukeboxes for a living throughout the south and brought Fred along. It’s fair to speculate he had his first dose of music out those pink and yellow sets. Until his arrival to New York there’s not much known of what he did or where he lived aside from joining the Navy at around 17 and adopting his grandmother’s last name. He only gave one interview throughout his entire life to Hit Parader Magazine in ’66.

According to an article written by Ben Edmonds for MOJO in 2000, friends spoke of Fred’s history with the Grand Ole Opry, how he wrote songs under several pseudonyms because he was too young to sign contracts; that he left home, hung around Memphis and ran about the circles of Sam Phillips, Jerry Lee Lewis, Otis Blackwell and Carl Perkins. In the late ’50s he hit New York, recording a few singles for Brunswick. It’s likely he acquired a reference from Buddy Holly who cut Fred’s song “Come Back Baby.”

He struck the Brill Building as a Southern Music staff writer. He and Jimmy Krondes paired up, writer of Earl Grant’s “The End.” Earning $40 a week and living off session guitar sets for artists Bobby Darin and Paul Anka, he slept on benches in Central Park before stumbling on a warmer Village. Len Chandler pushed him to the stage at Café Wha? and in ’60 he and songwriter Beverly Ross connected. She wrote the bubbly “Lollipop Lollipop.” The two worked over “Candy Man,” Southern slang for a pimp. Publisher Aaron Schroeder, overseer of such songwriters as Al Kooper and Randy Newman, peddled Fred’s demo to Roy Orbison’s producer and “Candy Man” was recorded as the B-side to “Crying.” At some point he married a Brill Building publisher (coincidentally Jimmy Buffet, a visitor of the Grove, first married a song publisher).

“When I found out he that wrote ‘Candy Man’ I said, ‘Hey man, you’re getting royalty checks.’ ‘Oh yeah, yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, fuck man hit me with 20 bucks, come on lend me 100.’ ‘Oh, okay, okay.’ He was not very forthcoming about those things,” says Vince. “He wasn’t cheap by any means . . . When Freddie had it we all partied, when I had it we all partied . . . Freddie didn’t care about the money, he had money coming. He always had a buck coming in. He could earn more, he turned down gigs for big money and it didn’t matter, I don’t know what mattered to Freddie. If you want to be dramatic and say the music, yes. But there was a compulsion there that had nothing to do with money.”

He became master of ceremonies at the Wha?. The reserved man on the scene introduced Karen Dalton, Bill Cosby, and Chet Powers till four in the morning. He played whenever he wanted for as long as he wanted, in particular when all the sailors, tourists, or Beats sporadically crowded beneath the low ceiling. It wouldn’t be long until Dylan arrived to eat hamburgers. The two divided up fees and Dylan got his start. (Interestingly enough, Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay” would be designed for the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack.) Fred then accompanied folk musician Bob Gibson in Chicago and LA before returning to a flourishing Village fan base.

In ’64 he and Vince quilted Tear Down the Walls. Produced by Paul Rothchild and milked with harp player John Sebastian (The Lovin’ Spoonful) and fretless bassist Felix Pappalardi (the “fourth” man of Cream), the album boils stark tones of blues-folk between tenor and basso. They were to host a live follow-up album at The Bitter End with The Bitter End Singers. Fred walked and Vince’s career dwindled.

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