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Trav'lin Man: The Early Singles

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Album Review

It's hard to imagine the late Fred Neil as a rockabilly singer, given his reputation as a folksinger and deeply influential songwriter who had his tunes recorded by everyone from Tim Buckley ("Dolphins") to Harry Nilsson ("Everybody's Talkin'"), Dion, Bob Dylan, and others. But prior to the Greenwich Village folk scene, Neil wrote for the likes of Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and Billy Lee Riley. He was a song hustler: he would demo his tunes and get them shopped to anybody who was hot at the moment. That said, Neil was also a recording artist during this period, if not a terribly prolific one. He recorded six singles between 1957 and 1961 for Epic, Look, Brunswick, and ABC-Paramount. Fallout, the wonderfully idiosyncratic reissue label from the United Kingdom, has assembled all of them in one place for the very first time. Neil wrote seven of these tunes, while Floyd Tillman, Arthur Altman, and the teams of Barry Mann/Joe Shapiro and Roy Alfred/Wally Gold penned the other tracks. This is a compelling historical document to be sure, but more than this, it's also a decent listen for, say, ten of the dozen. The early rockabilly sides include "You Ain't Treatin' Me Right," which was directly influenced by Jerry Lee Lewis, the Big Bopper, and Johnny Burnette. Its flip side is a honky tonk ballad, a real crying-in-your-beer slab inspired in equal parts by Hank Williams and Ray Price. While it's less a novelty number than the A-side, it's more interesting — especially with the plinking-plunking upright piano and the solo of Neil whistling! "Listen Kitten" is right out of the Buddy Holly book, and may have been written for him and rejected. It was recorded by "Freddie Neil." "Take Me Back Again" was directly influenced by Conway Twitty's "It's Only Make Believe." Its flip is another original penned with Jimmy Krondes called "Heartbreak Bound," which walks a strange line between Elvis, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Ray Charles! Johnny Cash could have done the country rockabilly in "Trav'lin Man" — it's got that hard bass swagger and the steady shuffle, and yet slips into contemporary doo wop on the choruses with Nashville production and a Scotty Moore guitar solo. What all these comparisons prove — with the exception of the two utterly dreadful final cuts written by teen pop songwriting teams of the era — is that Neil was restlessly trying out different identities and writing as many different kinds of songs as well as recording them. He was — unlike the reclusive songwriter of later years — a hustler, a young man of great ability who hadn't quite focused his vision but had plenty of talent. For that reason alone these tracks are worth hearing at the very least.

Biography

Born: 16 March 1936 in Cleveland, OH

Genre: Singer/Songwriter

Years Active: '60s, '70s

Moody, bluesy, and melodic, Fred Neil was one of the most compelling folk-rockers to emerge from Greenwich Village in the mid-'60s. His albums showcased his extraordinarily low, rich voice on intensely personal and reflective compositions, sounding like a cross between Tim Buckley and Tim Hardin. His influence was subtle but significant; before forming the Lovin' Spoonful, John Sebastian played harmonica on Neil's first album, which also featured guitarist Felix Pappalardi, who went on to produce...
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Trav'lin Man: The Early Singles, Fred Neil
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