Famously reclusive, he was an influential figure on the 1960s New York folk scene, and was occasionally backed by the young Bob Dylan on harmonica at the all-night Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village.
He took flight almost from the day Harry Nilsson turned his song, Everybody's Talkin' into a global hit in 1970, following its use as the theme of the Dustin Hoffman-Jon Voight movie Midnight Cowboy (1969).
Neil rarely gave interviews, could not stomach fame, and appeared repulsed at the success of his song, a disdainful commentary on human alienation in public life. In fact, it had already appeared on Neil's 1966 solo album, alongside another song, The Dolphins, which reflected his fascination with mammals.
Unimpressed by the trappings of fame, and with no interest in exploiting the opportunities offered by his hit, Neil had withdrawn by 1971 to set up a dolphin rescue project in Florida with marine biologist Richard O'Barry, who trained the dolphins for the television series Flipper. He refused all attempts to persuade him into a comeback, and devoted the rest of his life to protecting dolphins.
Even in the 1960s, he was a fiercely private character. Born in St Petersburg, Florida, he first came to attention in 1956 playing guitar with Buddy Holly, for whom he wrote the single, Modern Don Juan, before Holly cracked the charts. He also wrote Candy Man, the B-side of Roy Orbison's 1961 hit, Crying.
On the back of this success, Neil moved to New York. Dylan later nominated him as one of his primary inspirations: "He had a powerful bass voice and a powerful sense of rhythm. I'd play harmonica for him, and once in a while get to sing a song." Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley and David Crosby were strongly influenced by Neil, and his songs were also covered by Richie Havens, HP Lovecraft and Casey Anderson.
In the early days, Neil performed in a duo with Vince Taylor, with whom he recorded the album, Tear Down The Walls. His first solo album, Bleecker & Mac Dougal (1965), named after streets in Greenwich Village, became a benchmark for many emergent young singer-songwriters, with one of the songs on the album, The Other Side Of This Life subsequently covered by Lovin' Spoonful, Jefferson Airplane and the Youngbloods. It was also the title of a live album recorded in Los Angeles, with the country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons among the backing musicians.