Jun 272012

Will Your Mystery Date Be a Dream or a Dud?

Well, our latest Mystery Date sure did have a deep voice, didn’t he, like he was singing from beneath the sea? The song was “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry,” performed by Fred Neil, who is thought of by pipe-tamping music lovers as a “Bleeker Street folkie” and who most of us young rock nerds learned after the fact was actually the author of lauded songwriter Harry Nilsson‘s biggest hit record, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the theme to Midnight Cowboy. This number is from a collection of sides he cut from 1957-1961.

I didn’t learn until today that he was a Brill Building songwriter at this point, having written Roy Orbison‘s “Candy Man” among other songs for Orbison and Buddy Holly. Funny the stuff we learn along the way.

In my mid-20s, after learning a little bit about who Neil was, I would also forever associate him with one of the only Tim Buckley song I’ve been known to identify and enjoy, “Dolphins.” That’s one of those songs I believe a lof of Serious, Young, Genre-Spanning Artists have tackled. Here’s Buckley performing it on English TV, which I can only hope will inspire our recently dormant friend Happiness Stan to chime in with a story relating this song to one of his old girlfriends. I’m also hopeful that the likes of the Hall’s Deep Thinkers and Relative Folk-Bluesologists—dr john, mwall, dbuskirk, and even The Great 48 via his ’60s folk-scene bred wife—step forth with some insights into this artist and suggestions for songs to investigate that are as interesting as the 2 I know.

Neil was serious about these dolphins. Sometime in the early ’70s, the already reclusive Cleveland-born, St. Petersburg, FL-raised songwriter would turn his attention to preserving dolphins. The mind reels at what kind of music they made together?


  19 Responses to “Mystery Date Revealed: Fred Neil”

  1. Shocking that I wasn’t able to guess correctly someone I’ve never heard of. When I first saw the name, I thought you were refering to Herman Munster. That would have been a lot more satisfying. Back to my Beatles and Stones.

  2. Thanks for the insight into the writer of Everybody’s Talkin’ — one of my favorite songs from childhood. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but growing up my parents had no rock ‘n roll in the house, but did have a cassette called “The Stars Are Swinging — 1970” and Harry’s version was by far the best song on that compilation. I think my dad got it free when he bought his Panasonic top-loader.

  3. But of course you know the song, “Everybody’s Talkin’.” Did you not know that Harry Nilsson’s biggest hit was not, in fact, an original? For 25 years that was all I knew about Nilsson and Neil. Then I learned a tiny bit more over the next nearly 25 years. Now I probably know all that I will need to know, unless Happiness Stan resurfaces with a story about an old girlfriend who played some Fred Neil album to death.

    Hey, if nothing else this Mystery Date may lead to some Day of the Dolphins discussion. I would hope you know that movie inside and out.

  4. pudman13

    Nilsson’s career arc is bizarre: He’s known as a songwriter, and the biggest hits he wrote were performed by others (i.e. Three Dog Night, Monkees), but his two big hits were both cover versions. Also, one of his most recognizable songs (“Courtship of Eddie’s Father”) is absolutely unavailble for purchase and always was.

  5. pudman13

    P.S. I very very rarely say this about any covers, but Nilsson’s version of “Everybody’s Talkin'” is better than Neil’s original. Karen Dalton also did some unforgettable Neil covers.

  6. YES on all counts! I’ve always thought the same thing. I’ve been meaning to open a specific Nilsson thread, but I may have to kick it off by being a royal a-hole. I’ve been trying to play “Good Cop” of late:) Stay tuned.

  7. I’m not making any judgment on the quality or importance of Fred Neil, but he does seem like a pretty tangential artist. His biggest song is known by being sung by someone who is best known (in my little world) as the guy Lennon was hanging with when he was tossed out of a club for wearing a tampon on his head. And even that song is best known as being a great background song in Midnight Cowboy. So, yeah, we’re going pretty deep to expect many people to know who F.N. is. I concede that other Citizen’s knowledge and range of taste go much deeper than mine.

  8. ladymisskirroyale

    Interesting, very interesting. I love RTH for contributing to my expanding encyclopedia of not-quite-useless trivia. I’m now looking for any opportunities to share my new knowledge (and annoy the crap) about “Everybody’s Talkin'”.

    Now that I’m on summer break, I’m finally getting around to catching up to dusty stacks of magazines that have been decorating our house for some time. In the March 26 issue of The New Yorker (The Style Issue!), there was an interesting article by John Seabrook called “The Song Machine” about the producers and song writers behind a lot of today’s Top 40 gloss. The article focused on Ester Dean who has been writing the hits for many current pop stars, especially Rihanna. The article reminded me of pudman’s comment, as it mentioned that many of the “top-liners” who create the vocal parts are singers themselves and often want to keep a potential hit as their own material to release, but when doing so, it isn’t as successful. Seabrook mentions that although these songsmiths may have lovely voices, they often don’t have that star quality that makes the song a hit. Neil’s original of “Everybody’s Talkin'” seems to demonstrate this.

  9. cherguevara

    Nilsson recorded “Everybody’s Talkin'” twice. The album version was used as a temp track in Midnight Cowboy, to be potentially replaced with “I guess the lord must be in new york city.” But, as happens with temp tracks, they got stuck on “Everybody’s Talkin’.” For some reason, they could not use the album version, so Phil Ramone re-recorded it and got a production credit. And “I guess…” ended up on the “Harry” album. I think other songwriters were also pitching tunes for that spot in Midnight Cowboy, I want to say Neil Young and Joni, can’t remember that part of the story though…

  10. misterioso

    Well, I never would have known either. Neil is in the category of “Village folkie scene guys” who were in Dylan’s circle but who don’t in themselves interest me all that much. Dylan himself seems to have rated him pretty highly and has some good words for Neil in Chronicles.

    Incidentally, to add to cherg’s last post, Dylan was supposed to have been approached to contribute songs to Midnight Cowboy and the story I have seen is that he came up with “Lay Lady Lay,” but for reasons I do not remember it was not used.

  11. misterioso

    “fa love pa”

  12. I hear you, chick. To restate the ground rules, though, the Mystery Date is not all about correctly guessing the artist. If so, a date like this one could be really boring (for me, at least). Without guesses involving Lerch, the Jolly Green Giant, et al, this would be a 10th the fun an exercise.

    Let’s review the ground rules here. The Mystery Date song is not necessarily something I believe to be good. So feel free to rip it or praise it. Rather the song is something of interest due to the artist, influences, time period… Your job is to decipher as much as you can about the artist without research. Who do you think it is? Or, Who do you think it sounds like? When do you think it was recorded? Etc…

  13. Fair enough. I’m just disappointed it wasn’t Fred Gwynne. “Oh Lily…”

  14. Not too sure about the absolute obscurity of Fred Neil. There were a lot of folk rock covers of his songs, the Youngbloods and Jefferson Airplane to name two off the top of my head. I’m at least aware of the guy and have heard at least a few of his versions of songs, but the absolute incongruity of that production which was very close to the Caravelle’s girl group arrangement and his mythic 60’s folkie beatnik image would probably have kept me from guessing even if I was more familiar with his voice.

  15. BigSteve

    I bought a Fred Neil compilation a few years ago, because I was tired of hearing about him without actually hearing him. I found it *extremely* underwhelming. So I’m not surprised that I didn’t recognize him. Dude can hit some low notes though.

  16. cherguevara

    I think Nilsson is much more than the guy with Lennon on that night. To be honest, I didn’t know much about him until he died and thus he came up in conversation and I realized I knew several of his songs. He’s just one of those people – you think you don’t know any of his music and then you realize that you probably know at least four of his songs.

    There was a story in that Lennon NYC documentary about that night, where Lennon asked the waitress at the Troubador, “Don’t you know who I am?” and instead of being impressed and showing him any respect he felt he was due, she said, “Yeah, you’re the asshole with a tampax on his face.” (Or something like that.) Apparently this was a significant notice to Lennon that he had gone too far.

    Anyway, I do think there is a pretty strong cult of Nilsson fans out there, and while he might be somewhat of an acquired taste, I think he at least rates a higher echelon than Fred Neil, Tim Buckley, etc.

  17. Happiness Stan

    Hi Gang! Fred Neil has pretty well passed me and my girlfriends by, I like the idea of him more than I’m really persuaded by his music. I’ve been having a bit of time of it for the last month, I’m just off to check out the threads I’ve missed. Cheers all

  18. I taught that film along with Grizzly Man in my animals and literature course this winter. Great ending: “All men–bad!”

  19. The best place to start is the compilation, The Many Sides of Fred Neil. I think no one writes or sings about existential longing better than Neil. Sure, there’s quite a backstory about his troubadour life and his massive influence on the folk music scene, but in the end of the day, there’s that voice, rich and soulful, that never fails to move me.

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