As a Californian teenager, Julie Felix – who has died aged 81 – never imagined herself becoming a folk singer, but her guitar became a handy tool for expanding her social life, getting her into Santa Barbara’s fancier parties and coffee houses: “I ended up at the Unicorn in Hollywood where I sang Spanish songs, Michael Row The Boat Ashore, some Burl Ives. It wasn’t serious, but I got free beer.”
With long dark hair and mixed ancestry (Latin American on her father’s side, Native American and Welsh on her mother’s) she had the perfect beatnik look, and a trek around Europe in the early 60s eventually led her to become a long-term UK resident, ending up with two BBC TV series of her own.
In America, where she returned in the 1980s, her name meant nothing, and the anonymity suited her. The folk revival of the 2000s saw Julie Felix touring Britain again, though she would keep her best-known song Going to the Zoo under wraps unless there were children in the room: “I was singing this song in 1967,” she would laugh. “I’ll be singing this song all the way to Heaven.” Her unpretentious approach to music would lead to a varied career with plenty of unexpected gems in her catalogue, like these.
Though the Topic and Transatlantic labels were hip to the Soho folk revolution in 1964, the major labels were largely ignorant. Faced with Julie Felix’s debut album, her label Decca were initially wondering whether it should be marketed as classical or pop. A time capsule mix of old folk tunes and new, her uplifting and rather naive take on Ian Tyson’s Someday Soon was a highlight, and it became her first single.
“All I want is a good sound system” – if she had kept her folkie powder dry, Julie Felix could have been launched as an entirely different kind of singer in the 70s. This confident, self-penned chunk of leftfield glam has her daydreaming about holidaying in Spain: “I could take my synthesiser and a car full of booze.”
For her second Decca album in 1965, Felix had travelled to folk clubs around Britain to find untried writers with fresh material. Written by Devon’s Dave Evans, who went on to record two fine albums for Village Thing, The Road Makers was written about the Honiton bypass, though it reminded Julie of the destruction of Santa Barbara’s rather more exotic avocado orchards. “I’d hitch hike around Britain, people would put me up on the couch. It was like the dark ages back then – outside loos, no fridges! But you miss local colour when you reach the higher echelons, and I wanted to make my contribution to British folk music.”
A most peculiar Peggy Seeger song, with a similar finger-clicking minimalist sound to Peggy Lee’s Fever, it’s hard to tell if it’s an askew take on racism (“Never trust the Martian race!”) or a dig at the possible follies of space travel – “My cosmic husband died of mumps a hundred years ago,” sings the now-centuries old widow at the end. Either way, it’s a lot of fun, and would have fitted The Muppet Show to a tee.
A decidedly funky version – though it is a decidedly British kind of funkiness – of the song that is now possibly as associated with Margaret Thatcher as it is Judy Garland. Recorded in 1968, it was floor-friendly enough to have been played out by DJ Martin Green at his legendary Britpop club Smashing.
The song most associated with Julie Felix was this pretty irresistible Tom Paxton children’s song, a regular car singalong for families in the 1960s and 70s. Initially its impact was down to appearances on The Frost Report where Felix had become the resident singer (she had met David Frost in a lift on the way to a launch party for Someday Soon) but it had an afterlife with almost weekly plays on Radio 1’s Junior Choice. It was still getting regular plays – with unlikely bedfellows like Adam & the Ants’ Stand and Deliver – after Tony Blackburn took over the show in the early 80s.
A Donovan song about a Borstal escapee which was given a terrific, brass-driven workout on her 1968 This World Goes Round and Round album. Coming from a Californian, its everyday Englishness – “over double eggs, chips and beans they made a solemn vow” – sounds especially endearing.
In spite of her national fame, Felix never had a hit single in the 60s. Mickie Most, on the other hand – with the Animals, Herman’s Hermits and Donovan – couldn’t stop having hits, so when the pair teamed up on his RAK label in 1970, Felix was fast-tracked to Top of the Pops appearances. This gentle guitar and sitar-led Top 30 hit was written by Errol Brown and Tony Wilson, a year after they had formed Hot Chocolate.
Another Donovan song, Snakeskin has the same loose, chunky groove as his Barabajagal, which in turn had borrowed its clothes from Sympathy for the Devil. Following Heaven is Here and a Top 20 hit with a version of Simon & Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa, it was an impressive but possibly confusing step forward, and it flopped. That would be the end of Julie’s brush with the charts.
The 2018 album Rock Me Goddess was released just before Felix turned 80, though you’d not know it from her voice, which was a little deeper but otherwise hardly changed by age. A stand-out was this Latin-flavoured hand-clapper, with a chorus in Spanish, which nailed her colours to Labour’s mast: “I still believe in democracy, that’s why I’m voting for Jeremy.”
Felix first met Leonard Cohen on Hydra during a duffle-bag hike around Europe in 1962; they struck up a fast friendship before she moved on to Germany and, eventually, England, but they stayed friends for life. She released this song as a single in 1968, when Cohen was still far better known in Britain as a poet. At David Frost’s prompting, the BBC had given her a show, Once More with Felix, which ran for three years at the end of the 60s – her guests included Cohen, who made his British TV debut singing Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye as a duet with her.