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Clip: Everybody's Singin' "Everbody's Talkin'"

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  • Carl Z.
    The Echoes of His Mind Just Keep Reverberating By DAVID BROWNE Published: September 24, 2006 FORTY
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 24, 2006
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      The Echoes of His Mind Just Keep Reverberating

      Published: September 24, 2006

      FORTY years ago a standard was born, although completely by accident.
      In the fall of 1966 Fred Neil was recording a folk-blues album in Los
      Angeles. But he hadn't written enough songs to complete it, and he was
      getting anxious to return home to Miami. His manager at the time, Herb
      Cohen, quickly made a deal: Write one more tune and record it
      immediately, then you can go.

      With that, Mr. Neil retreated to a bathroom at the studio and, five
      minutes later, emerged with the new composition: a lanky, concise
      ballad — just two verses and a chorus, with one verse and the chorus
      repeated — that expressed his desire to go home, "where the sun keeps
      shining in the pouring rain."

      The song was cut fast, in one take, and Mr. Cohen made good on his
      promise. "He sang it once," he recalled, "and then we packed up, and I
      took him to the airport."

      Mr. Neil (who died in 2001) may have considered the number a
      throwaway, but in a case study of the unpredictable ways in which pop
      can work, the song, "Everybody's Talkin'," has quietly become a
      landmark of the classic-rock era. Most people know it from Harry
      Nilsson's orchestral-pop rendition, which hit No. 6 after being
      prominently used in the 1969 movie "Midnight Cowboy," but it has been
      recorded by nearly 100 artists, including Stevie Wonder, Willie
      Nelson, Neil Diamond and Liza Minnelli.

      This year five new or unearthed renditions have been released. The
      band Luna included a straightforward version on "Lunafied," (Rhino)
      its collection of covers. The jazz-pop singer Madeleine Peyroux turned
      it into a sultry saunter on her new album, "Half the Perfect World"
      (Rounder). Last week Julio Iglesias transformed it into a suave
      adult-contemporary love song on "Romantic Classics" (Columbia).

      Three older recordings popped up this year as well. The famous version
      was repackaged on a Harry Nilsson anthology. A previously unreleased
      take by Crosby, Stills & Nash was included on an expanded reissue of
      the trio's 1969 debut. And Mr. Neil's original recording, the one cut
      in a flash, re-emerged when Water Music reissued his 1967 album "Fred

      "Everybody loves that song," said Dean Wareham, leader of Luna, which
      recently broke up. The band first cut the song in the mid-1990's and
      went on to perform it on numerous occasions, including its farewell
      concert last year. Mr. Wareham said he was initially exposed to the
      song by his parents, who were Nilsson fans. "It's perfectly
      constructed," he said. "I can hum every guitar line and string part."

      Theo Cateforis, a music-history professor at Syracuse University,
      said, "Harmonically it's a very simple song, and it's easy to get a
      handle on the melody." But, he said, the lyrics also account for the
      song's appeal. "It's one of the great open-road songs, along with
      'Born to Be Wild.' It taps into a sense of freedom and taking a
      journey. The narrator wants to separate himself from the problems
      around him, which is a universal feeling that can apply to any era. It
      works as well now as it did in the 60's."

      According to BMI, the organization that tracks broadcast play and
      collects song royalties, "Everybody's Talkin' " has been played on
      radio and television a total of 6.7 million times, including 160,000
      times in 2005. In another possible sign of its ubiquity, it was even
      the basis for a plagiarism charge this year. Six Palms Music, the
      song's publisher, claimed that "I Don't Care What Your Friends Say," a
      new song used on "The O.C.," bore a melodic resemblance to it. The
      matter was settled out of court, and Third Story emerged with
      ownership of the disputed song.

      The many versions — and lives — of "Everybody's Talkin' " began soon
      after it was written. In the 60's and 70's Lena Horne used it as the
      basis for frisky jazz vocalese; Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
      turned it into pleading Philly soul; Bill Withers transformed it into
      a soul-funk stomp; Tony Bennett made it a big-band showcase; and
      Leonard Nimoy talk-sang his way through it. The oddest version,
      though, may be a disco makeover featuring Louis Armstrong.

      In the decades that followed, the song was rediscovered by alternative
      and indie rock types. Two British bands, the Beautiful South and the
      Jazz Butcher, resurrected it. In 2002 the techno producer Paul
      Oakenfold sampled the Nilsson version on his club hit "Starry Eyed
      Surprise." Two years later the Go! Team, an electronica collective
      from Britain, also used a sample of it in "Everyone's a V.I.P. to

      "I didn't know the song was covered or revered that much," Mr.
      Oakenfold wrote in an e-mail interview. He said he knew the song
      exclusively from "Midnight Cowboy" and "really liked the guitar line."

      It's not uncommon to encounter someone who knows "Everybody's Talkin'
      " but doesn't know much about Fred Neil, since he went out of his way
      to avoid anything approaching the spotlight. With a deep, resonant
      voice and hangdog face, he made his name in the mid-60's in Greenwich
      Village, where he wrote coffeehouse standards like "The Dolphins,"
      "The Other Side of This Life" and "Little Bit of Rain." He was so
      revered that Bob Dylan once opened a show for him.

      By the end of the 60's, though, Mr. Neil had retreated to Florida,
      rarely performing or writing new material. His cut of the royalties of
      "Everybody's Talkin' " — estimated by Mr. Cohen to be in the millions
      of dollars over the years — allowed him to live a reclusive,
      comfortable life.

      "He was a very sensitive person," said Robert Steinberg, Mr. Neil's
      lawyer. "He couldn't handle the music business."

      Mr. Steinberg said his client had been vehemently opposed to the
      placement of his most famous song in "Forrest Gump," saying he was
      "afraid they'd exploit it." Thanks to the particularities of Mr.
      Neil's publishing contract, however, the song was used in the film

      Mr. Neil's death was as low key as his life. On July 7, 2001, the
      police in Summerland Key, Fla., responded to an emergency call at his
      house. They found Mr. Neil, 65, unconscious on the floor. He had $13
      in his wallet and a last will and testament on a nightstand by his
      bed. He had been battling skin cancer (chemotherapy treatments were
      set to begin nine days later) and was pronounced dead of natural

      Until the end he remained a mystery even to those who knew and worked
      with him. Mr. Steinberg said he was still confounded by Mr. Neil's
      creative withdrawal. "Was it that he didn't want to be part of the
      business, or was he afraid of not living up to what he had done
      before?" he said. "I could never figure it out."

      But everyone agreed on one matter: Mr. Neil never thought much of
      "Everybody's Talkin'," despite its continued popularity and the
      lifelong revenue it provided.

      "He never gave the song much credence at all," Mr. Cohen recalled. "It
      was just a way to get out of the studio. He hated L.A."
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