Memories (Murray Kronis)

I first met Fred Neil in the summer of 1962 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. At the time I was a native Torontonian, a young dentist, single, about the same age as Fred (I was 5 months older) at 26 years, and it was my habit to visit the folk music clubs in Toronto as a regular patron. But let me give you some details of myself first. I was mostly self-taught on the guitar and 5-string banjo since 1956, soaking up all the different styles as best I could and participating in the weekly hootenanny organized by the Toronto Guild of Folk Musicians, of which I was a charter member. In fact, I was well-known in the “in-group” of the local folk scene. I did this for the sheer joy of making music and sharing what I knew of folk music instumental styles. My previous musical background was as a classical violinist since age 8. That helped me to quickly learn to play the guitar and banjo in the early years; but I didn’t become a fiddler until I moved 90 miles north of Toronto with my family to take employment at the government-run mental hospital at Penetanguishene, Ontario on the shores of Georgian Bay in 1982. After 5 years, I met the local fiddlers in 1987 and started to learn old-time fiddling (waltzes, jigs and reels) and compete at fiddle contests.

So now back to the summer of 1962. I was interested to hear and meet, if possible, the folk musicians on the club circuit as they visited Toronto. When Fred played the Purple Onion Club in late August, I was very impressed with his skill and songs on the guitar. If I remember correctly, I found him easy to talk to, and because he was new to the city I was able to direct him to good Chinese restaurants. In fact, I believe we went together for Chinese food after his opening gig. He asked me about what was going on in the city that week and I told him that one of the big events was the annual Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), a huge fair with exhibits in many buildings and a large midway full of rides and side-shows. He was very interested and wanted to know how to get there. I offered to go with him because I had a car and enjoyed the “EX” (as we called it). He agreed, and so, on a lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon, Fred and I went to the “EX” for a few hours at the Toronto waterfront by Lake Ontario. I tried to entice Fred into some of the buildings to look at exhibits and displays, but Fred said no, he’d rather spend his time on the midway, with the rides and side-shows.

I can’t recall specific details of which rides we went on, or which side-shows amused us, but I recall Fred getting excited to visit a booth which displayed a lot of flashing lights amid claims that it was the result of work done by a computer which could give a readout of your personality and prospects, if only you would input certain data on a questionaire, for a fee, of course. Fred took the challenge and got his readout/result page. I wouldn’t bother because I thought it was pure hype. Fred then studied the page intently. However, when I asked him about the results, he said he wanted to keep them private. So I let it go. By that time, it was late afternoon, so we left the EX and I dropped Fred off where he was staying so he could get ready for his gig that evening. He thanked me and said that he really enjoyed the afternoon.

At another time, between sets of his gig at the Purple Onion, where Fred sang such songs as “That’s The Bag I’m In” and “Everybody’s Talking at Me”, I asked Fred questions about his picking syle and his music. I noticed that he used a flat pick between his thumb and his index finger, with fingerpicks on the middle and ring fingers of his right hand. He said that he’d done this for so long, it had just naturally evolved over time. I said it gave him some advantages and contributed to his personal style and sound on the guitar. Then I asked him how he would describe his music and I could almost see a glint in his eyes. Well, he said, he didn’t worry too much what other people thought, especially the recording industry which would prefer that he played something identifiable like blues or folk or something. What he does is mix something blusey together with something from jazz and any other influence that he feels is right for the song he’s writing.
As I look back on it now, I realize that he was talking about his music as a fusion of influences and styles from folk, blues, jazz and whatever, but the word “fusion” never came up in our conversation. Fred was ahead of his time. I see that now, but at the time I only knew that his songs blew me away.

Years later, in 1969, when I went to the movies with my wife to see “Midnight Cowboy”, I got a shiver of delight throughout my spine as the movie opened with “Everybody’s Talking” sung by Harry Nilsson. I said “Hey! That’s Freddie’s song!” ; and I felt good that Fred’s career was getting a big boost.

As I was saying, Fred had a few visits to Toronto in the mid-sixties. In the summer of ‘ 64 or ‘ 65 ( just before Dick Farina died from a motorcycle accident), I recall that Mimi and Dick Farina were appearing just a few doors up the street from the “Onion” at the Gate of Cleve coffee house and I was there. Fred came in to hear Mimi and Dick, between his sets at the Onion. When he saw me, he smiled broadly and said “Hya doc”, his usual greeting for me.

Even today, it feels good to remember Fred as a friend.

Dr. Murray Kronis (retired)
Penetanguishene, Ontario