Fred Neil, the influential folk musician whose song “Everybody’s Talkin’ ” became the theme of the film “Midnight Cowboy” but who turned his back on the fame that seemed to be his for the asking and became one of pop music’s legendary recluses, has died. He was 64.
Neil was found Saturday at his Florida home in Summerland Key by a friend, Kathleen Brooks, who had been checking in on him regularly, Morris County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Becky Herrin said Monday. She said Brooks told deputies that Neil had been ill with cancer.
“His death was unexpected,” Brooks said.
During the 1960s, when he released three albums, Neil shunned anything relating to fame and celebrity, and was said to prefer playing privately for friends. Over the years he refused virtually all requests for interviews.
“He was really a very private person,” Brooks said Monday. “There really isn’t anything I can tell you. His main interest was with the Dolphin Project,” a nonprofit dolphin-rescue organization he founded in 1970 with marine biologist Richard O’Barry, who once trained dolphins for the “Flipper” TV series. Neil “was the support system,” Brooks said. “I can’t get more specific than that.”
Neil’s second album, “Fred Neil,” included a song “The Dolphins” that expressed his respect for the mammals. It was also recorded by folk singer-songwriter Tim Buckley.
It was Harry Nilsson’s 1969 recording of “Everybody’s Talkin’ ” that put Neil’s song into the pop music mainstream, a realm Neil never entered with his own recordings.
Neil’s biggest hit seemed to express his disdain for the public life and to telegraph his retreat from it:
Everybody’s talkin’ at me
I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’
Only the echoes of my mind. . . .
I’m goin’ where the sun keeps shinin’
Through the pourin’ rain
Goin’ where the weather suits my clothes.
Neil was born Jan. 1, 1937, in St. Petersburg, Fla., but as little is known of his early life as of his doings over the last three decades.
“Fred was mysterious; his background was sketchy,” John Sebastian once wrote of Neil. Before he formed the folk-rock group Lovin’ Spoonful, Sebastian played on Neil’s first album, “Bleecker & MacDougal,” in 1965. The Lovin’ Spoonful recorded one of Neil’s best-known songs, “The Other Side of This Life,” which also was recorded by Jefferson Airplane and the Youngbloods.
Though he remained a mystery man for most of his life, he was a hero to members of the burgeoning folk revival in the early 1960s, renowned for his rich baritone voice, his handling of the 12-string acoustic guitar and his haunting songs of self-exploration.
“I used to play in a a place called Cafe Wha?, and it always used to open at noon and close at six in the morning,” Bob Dylan told an interviewer in 1984. “It was just a nonstop 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 Talkin’ ’ that was in the film ‘Midnight Cowboy.’
“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 [folk-blues singer] Josh White might sing. I would play harmonica for him, and then once in a while get to sing a song.”
Noted Sebastian: “It was the voice that got you first . . . that honey-laden baritone with the Southern lilt. Fred Neil would slump over that mike with his big, fat 12-string [guitar] and the walls would move. . . . Waitresses would melt in their tracks.”
His first song of note was “Modern Don Juan,” which a pre-stardom Buddy Holly recorded in 1956. Neil moved to Greenwich Village in the late 1950s and joined the growing number of musicians taking an interest in playing folk music. He also wrote “Candy Man,” which Roy Orbison recorded and put out as the B side of his 1961 hit “Crying.”
None of Neil’s four albums released between 1965 and 1971 made the national charts, but he acted as a guru for many younger musicians.
“He showed me where to eat, where not to go, how to roll a proper joint, where to get guitar strings,” David Crosby once said of Neil, whom he met in New York in 1961. “He taught me a sizable chunk of what music was about, and even more about the whys and wherefores of being a musician. He was a hero to me.”
Of Neil’s withdrawal from the public eye, Jefferson Airplane singer-guitarist Paul Kantner said: “It was rightfully deserved; he was treated rather brutally by the music business, and he was a gentle soul.
“He sort of showed how to be a dignified white boy playing music and not have to play black. He was very cool just being Freddy,” Kantner said shortly after a concert Monday night in Pittsburgh. “He gave all us poor little middle-class white boys a star to shoot for.”
Neil’s friend Brooks said he had some relatives, but she would not elaborate. No funeral or memorial services have been announced.