“He was freckled like a spotted dolphin”
It’s only right that this tribute to Fred Neil begins and ends with one of his most beloved and personal songs, “The Dolphins.” With few exceptions, Fred Neil preferred the company of dolphins – sleek, sensitive, majestic mammals of the oceans – over people.
The native Floridian was very much like a dolphin himself, enigmatic, mysterious and intractably smarter than he let on. “I met Fred in Coconut Grove during the Flipper years,” recalls Ric O’Barry, who trained the bottlenose dolphins used on the popular 1960s television show. “We became good friends. Diving and sailing buddies.”
They were approximately the same build, with curly reddish-brown hair. “Except,” O’Barry says, “he was freckled like a spotted dolphin.”
Neil had complete access to the animals in O’Barry’s care at the Miami Seaquarium, where the trainer lived on-site. “Fred spent a great deal of time trying to communicate with the Flipper dolphins using his 12-string guitar,” adds O’Barry. “His human/dolphin communication work progressed into dolphin protection; something that he became passionate about.” He would sit for hours at the edge of the lagoon where a dolphin named Kathy lived, strumming his guitar for her.
It was Fred Neil who introduced Stephen Stills to O’Barry in 1970 – the three of them went sailing in Biscayne Bay, and the talk, naturally, turned to dolphins. O’Barry discussed his recent epiphany, that dolphins were sensitive and highly intelligent creatures, and that keeping them captive, as playthings, was inhumane.
Lit up like a roman candle, Neil told his pal the rock ‘n’ roll star about his sonic experiments. “It’s not necessarily the music,” he said, in a conversation recounted in O’Barry’s book Behind the Dolphin Smile. “It’s the tone and the sound of sustained chords. When Kathy heard a chord on the 12-string, she had the gentlest way of putting her snout on the vibrating strings themselves and on the wooden box, feeling it like it was something special. And it is, to them. I’ve worked with them a lot, and they seem to like the D chord best.”
When O’Barry left the Seaquarium to begin his Dolphin Project, it was Stills – already a multimillionaire at 25 – who provided the initial seed money. “Fred didn’t have any money in those days,” O’Barry said. “He didn’t donate money, but he donated much of his time to the Dolphin Project.”
“People idolized Fred Neil,” says John Sebastian, who knew the Floridian troubadour from the early 1960s folk scene in Greenwich Village. “Once you’d heard him, you realized there was no competing with him: ‘There’s no doing this any better than he does it.’”
“His throat gave out those deep sonorous, mellifluous tones,” Eric Andersen explains, “like the kind of tones you hear in the low range of a tenor sax of Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, or in the low-tones of Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby. Fred’s voice actually bore the trademarks of having its own unique intrinsic thing, not found anywhere else on the scene with the possible exception of the amazing Tim Hardin.”
“There were always beautiful women chasing him,” declares Sebastian. “We were growing up in Greenwich Village, and all our cute girls were Italians, and Jewish. And here was this guy whose girlfriends all looked like Yvette Mimieux.” It was said that Fred could “pull waitresses from 40 yards,” Sebastian laughs. “It came down to a kind of Piscean sadness about him that women could not resist. As well as the fact that he sang so well.”
His big baritone voice could reach down so low – often when you least expected it – and hit a note that would rattle your ribcage. His songs brought blues, jazz, rock and roll and the fluid rolls of Indian ragas together.
No, there was no one like him, not even close.
“I always trusted and felt of Freddie as a big brother I never had,” Andersen adds. “Of all the Village people and songwriters, he was my favorite, the real deal. I didn’t see him a lot, but we connected.”
Recalled Sebastian: “Fred had something nobody else in Greenwich Village had, with the possible exception of Odetta: A gospel background. He knew what singing in church was. I think a lot of his vocal signatures, also, came from that rockabilly, early rock ‘n’ roll Southern influence … Odetta would always tease him and say ‘You see all those freckles, Fred? You’re one of us.’”
Eventually, Neil left New York for South Florida for good. Bobby Ingram remembered the first time he laid eyes on him, in a brand-new Grove coffeehouse called Trivia. It was 1964. “He was onstage, wearing a sport coat – which you didn’t do in Florida – and he had his cuffs folded up outside the sport coat sleeves, the way we did in those years. And he was wearing these goddam leprechaun shoes. As I recall, they were green. Them stupid pointy-toed things you see at the renaissance fair. And he was playing rockabilly on an acoustic guitar.”
Everyone, Ingram says, followed him.
“It was all about Fred. Fred was the bait. When people knew Fred Neil was hanging around Coconut Grove, the ones that mattered started coming down. Sam Hood built the Gaslight Café South, and Simon and Garfunkel came. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and on and on.”
Unfortunately, the main attraction didn’t always show up. “Fred was always kinda scared,” notes Ingram. “You had to coax him up onstage, until you got him wound just right, or if he was happy with who he was playing with
Between 1965 and 1971, Neil recorded five albums (one as a duo project with Vince Martin). Subsequently, he never signed another contract. It wasn’t so much that he was skeptical about the music business (although he was); it wasn’t that he had fallen victim to substance abuse (although the stories about his intake were legion).
From all accounts, Fred simply lost interest in music. He didn’t burn out; nor did he fade away. He simply slow-dissolved into the universe. He raised a family in the Grove, and eventually moved to Summerland Key, where he died of skin cancer in 2001.
All these years later, what we have are the songs, some fun and frolicsome, others filled with a beautiful, aquatic sadness, weary and blue. The lyrics are prescient: On “Everybody’s Talkin’” he details the life he longs for (“I’m going where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain/Going where the weather suits my clothes”). Then there’s “The Other Side of This Life,” “Ba-De-Da” and “The Dolphins,” all of which chronicle the continuous search for something intangible.
Fred Neil went looking for the dolphins in the sea – and he found them. And he found so much more.