In 1966, at the height of the folk music boom in Britain, David Frost’s satirical television show The Frost Report featured a young American folk singer whose thoughtful songs, strong voice, charm and good looks endeared her to audiences, turning her into a household name. Within a year, Julie Felix, who has died aged 81, was hosting her own television series, with an impressive list of special guests.
Having landed in England in 1964, Felix performed in folk clubs in London, including the famous Troubadour in Earls Court, and on the strength of a tape of her singing that was sent to Decca, she was signed to the record label. Living on the third floor of a Chelsea block of flats, she was on her way to her debut album’s launch when she met Frost, a fifth floor resident, in the lift. Frost tagged along and, impressed by her singing, persuaded the BBC to engage her for his forthcoming television series.
In the meantime, Felix appeared on the Eamonn Andrews Show to sing the single Someday Soon from her eponymous first album; this was so popular with the television audience that she was invited back the following week. Taking a brief time out as a humanitarian ambassador for Christian Aid in Lebanon, Jordan and East Africa, Felix returned to London to appear at a sell-out solo concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
Two more albums followed quickly, leading the Times to call her “Britain’s first lady of folk”, thus ignoring her American origins. In 1967 Brian Epstein engaged Felix to perform with Georgie Fame: the Fame & Felix concerts were so successful that the weeklong run was extended to two weeks. Cat Stevens was the support.
The Frost Report programmes, whose writers included Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett and John Cleese, had a weekly theme; Felix would sing several songs that fitted the theme to Frost, who chose the song she would perform.
Frost was instrumental in persuading the BBC to give Felix her solo television programmes, the first colour series on BBC2. Once More with Felix was broadcast from 1967 to 1969 and was followed by The Julie Felix Show, which transferred to BBC1. Each week Felix was joined by guests, and they often performed a song together. With Leonard Cohen, who made his British television debut on the show, she sang his song Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, and with Mike D’Abo of Manfred Mann, it was Bob Dylan’s Fare Thee Well, his reworking of the traditional folk song The Leaving of Liverpool. Other guests included Dusty Springfield, Donovan and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, but her favourite was Spike Milligan. Even an arrest for possession of marijuana in 1968 failed to dent her television popularity, and the programmes were syndicated around the world, including in the USSR.
At this stage in her career, Julie wrote very few songs, preferring to interpret some of the excellent songs that were being written by other, mainly American songwriters. Exposure on her television programmes brought these songs to a new mass audience. It was Tom Paxton who wrote the song that is most associated with Felix, Going to the Zoo, and the Canadian Gordon Lightfoot wrote Early Morning Rain. She was the first person to popularise Cohen’s songs in Britain. But the singer whose songs she covered the most was Dylan. Felix appeared on the same concert bill as him at the Isle of Wight festival in 1969, his first performance following his near-fatal motorbike accident.
After moving to the Fontana label, for which she released the albums Changes (1966) and Going to the Zoo (1969), she recorded Clotho’s Web on Mickie Most’s RAK label. RAK also released a single, the Simon and Garfunkel song that took her into the Top 20 charts in 1970.
Felix was born in Santa Barbara, California, to Lorenzo Felix, a mariachi musician of Mexican origin, and his wife, Doris (nee Roderhaver), who had Native American and Welsh ancestry. After attending Westchester high school, Los Angeles, she studied at the University of California, Santa Barbara, graduating in speech and drama. Although surrounded by music at home – her mother introduced her to the songs of Burl Ives – Felix never envisaged a career in music. Nevertheless, she sang in coffee houses in California before, thirsty for adventure and carrying the guitar that her father had taught her to play, she travelled to Europe in 1962, spending time on the Greek island of Hydra where she first met Cohen before he had started writing songs. Having sung in cafes and clubs around Europe, she arrived in London in 1964.
The popularity of Felix’s television programmes meant that her concert tours were invariably sold out, but as the 1970s progressed musical tastes changed. Felix moved to Norway, where her song Hota Chocolata topped the country’s singles charts. Felix then stopped performing for several years, returning for a while to California where she became active in peace campaigns in Central America.
Back in Britain by the early 1990s, she resumed her career, singing now in larger folk clubs, arts centres and more intimate concert venues, and building a dedicated fan base with her warm and generous performances. On her own record label she released an album of Dylan songs, Starry Eyed and Laughing, in 2002. Her most recent album, Rock Me Goddess, was released in her 80th birthday year.
Although often described as a protest singer, it was only after her time back in California that she became an active campaigner - for Latin American refugees, women’s rights, peace projects and against landmines. Her campaigning also had a spiritual dimension and she wrote songs of healing and self-realisation. She established Goddess Tours, which arranged pilgrimages to sacred sites. In 2019 Felix sang on Glastonbury’s acoustic stage and she continued performing until just a few weeks before her death.
She was briefly married to David Evans in 1967, and is survived by her daughter, Tanit, from another relationship, and her sister, Elena.
• Julie Ann Felix, folk singer, born 14 June 1938; died 22 March 2020