Fred Neil is most remembered for Everybody’s Talkin’, written for the landmark film, Midnight Cowboy. Neil’s song wouldn’t have been used except that Dylan delivered his song – Lay, Lady, Lay – too late. Performed for the soundtrack by Harry Nilsson, Everybody’s Talkin’ reached #6 on the Billboard Chart.
Neil wrote many tunes that are worth checking out, such as A Little Bit of Rain, Blues on the Ceiling, and Coconut Grove. Personally, I find his performance style a bit one-dimensional, although his voice is distinctive. Outside of Everybody’s Talkin’, Neil never had much commercial success, and basically dropped out of the music scene in the early seventies.
Neil was one of the stars in the very early days of the Greenwich Village folk music scene at the time Dylan arrived from Minnesota. He mentored many of the youngsters, such as Karen Dalton, Tim Hardin, and many others, including Bob Dylan. Below is an excellent photo of Dylan, Dalton, and Neil performing. If you’re not familiar with Dalton, check out her very excellent album, It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You Best, which includes covers of Neil’s A Little Bit of Rain and Blues on the Ceiling.
According to early Dylan biographer Anthony Scaduto, Neil was one of the first to recognize Dylan’s talent. Neil was often the headliner at the local Village clubs, such as the Cafe Wha? and The Gaslight. Dylan was singing for free at the time, perhaps sharing with other starving artists the money received from passing the “basket.” (Scaduto says the concept of passing a basket was the idea of Hugh Romney (better known as Wavy Gravy). Romney went on to found The Hog Farm and eventually become famous for his eccentric cameo in the Woodstock documentary.
The headliners were paid, so Neil would give Dylan a dollar for backing him on harmonica. Perhaps that experience inspired these lines from Dylan’s Talkin’ New York.
Well, I got a harmonica job, begun to play
Blowing my lungs out for a dollar a day
I blowed inside out and upside down
The man there said he loved my sound
He was raving about he loved my sound
Dollar a day’s worth
Dylan talked about Neil in an interview with Bert Kleinman in 1984.
I used to play in a place called Cafe Wha? and it always used to open at noon, and closed at six in the morning. It was just a non-stop flow of people, usually they were tourists who were looking for beatniks in the Village. There’d be maybe five groups that played there. I used to play with a guy called Fred Neil, who wrote the song “Everybody’s Talking” that was in the film “Midnight Cowboy.”
Fred was from Florida I think, from Coconut Grove, Florida, and he used to make that scene, from Coconut Grove to Nashville to New York. And he had a strong powerful voice, almost a bass voice. And a powerful sense of rhythm … And he used to play mostly these types of songs that Josh White might sing. I would play harmonica for him, and then once in a while get to sing a song. You know, when he was taking a break or something. It was his show, he would be on for about half an hour, then a conga group would get on, called Los Congeros, with twenty conga drummers and bongoes and steel drums. And they would sing and play maybe half an hour. And then this girl, I think she was called Judy Rainey, used to play sweet Southern Mountain Appalachian ballads, with electric guitar and small amplifier. And then another guy named Hal Waters used to sing, he used to be a sort of crooner. Then there’d be a comedian, then an impersonator, and that’d be the whole show, and this whole unit would go around non-stop. And you’d get fed there, which was actually the best thing about the place…
For more about Fred Neil, see this article. It’s kind of long, but note these interesting paragraphs concerning Dylan/Neil.
Charlie Brown, who ran the Gaslight South in Coconut Grove, said about the Dylan-Neil partnership: “Dylan wasn’t a very friendly person and I don’t think him and Fred really got along. I think they had a bit of a rivalry going up there. They were the two masters. They saw each other as the competition.”11 Yet, Paul Colby, who later would be Bitter End’s owner, has claimed that Fred Neil and Bob Dylan jammed and recorded some songs at the Chip Monk’s (Village Gate’s lighting engineer) basement, that have never been released. 12
Bob Dylan has recently revisited his very first years in the Village recording folk-blues versions of traditional songs Neil adapted. In fact, Dylan still plays “Cocaine Blues” (credited to Reverend Gary Davis), a song he first recorded with Richard Fariña and Eric Von Schmidt, on the rare album recorded in London Dick Fariña & Eric Von Schmidt (Transatlantic, 1963). Officially Dylan would later release “Cocaine Blues” as B-side for the single “Love Sick” (Columbia, 1999).
“Sugaree” (written by Elizabeth Cotten) was recorded by Neil as “I’ve Got A Secret (Didn’t We Shake Up Sugaree)” for his eponymous album (Capitol, 1967). Dylan would later include his version of the Neil recording in his ’90’s sets. Finally, “The Water Is Wide,” a traditional number that had been another Neil’s favourite, was performed in the mid-’70’s by Bob Dylan. There’s a one version of this, with Joan Baez on vocals, recorded during the Rolling Thunder Revue Tour, released recently in the Bootleg Series Vol. V: Live 1975 (Columbia, 2002).
I’ll wrap this up with a link to an interview with singer and Dylan-contemporary David Blue. In the interview, Blue describes the folk scene in the Village during Dylan’s early years. Neil gets a mention at around the 9:35 mark.