Clip: Everybody's Singin' "Everbody's Talkin'"
The Echoes of His Mind Just Keep Reverberating
By DAVID BROWNE
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,
"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."