Singer Julie Felix: friends with Leonard Cohen and dinner with David Frost

'First lady of folk' Julie Felix

'First lady of folk' Julie Felix - Credit: Archant

Ahead of her gig, Folk legend Julie Felix talks to Liz Thomson about singing with Cohen and playing the Albert Hall.

Key JULIE FELIX into YouTube and up pops footage from her 1968 BBC series Once More with Felix. She’s wearing a cornflower-blue mini-dress, her dark hair falling over her face.

Perched next to her, swathed in taupe roll-neck and tweed jacket, is Leonard Cohen, looking more than ever like Dustin Hoffman.

Both are picking Spanish guitars, tunings slightly awry, as they duet on Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye. Cohen’s dark eyes never leave her face.

It was his first appearance on UK TV.

“Leonard was a special friend for a while,” says Felix, as we chat over Pimm’s in her tranquil garden.

“We’re still in touch.”

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Cohen - well-established as a Canadian poet and novelist - was in the first flush of international success as a singer-songwriter.

Felix was already a fixture on the British music scene, familiar to viewers of The Frost Report where her topical songs punctuated sketches by the likes of John Cleese and Ronnies Barker and Corbett.

The two had met a few years earlier, when Cohen was living on Hydra, the Greek Island on which he wrote some of his most famous songs and where he lived with Marianne, his most celebrated muse.

Felix, a theatre major who’d graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara, was ricocheting around Europe, having sailed from New York to Patras where there was just enough time to see Maria Callas in Medea before catching a ferry to Hydra for a couple of months.

In true beat style (‘hippies’ arrived in 1967), she bummed around the Mediterranean: to Venice, Rome, then Marseilles, hitchhiking with backpack and guitar.

In Barcelona she hung out with jazz musicians, thumbing a ride to Paris with one of them.

In Ibiza, “where I got off with this sculptor guy Godfrey Stephens”, she sang in local bars until the guardia civil spotted that she had no carnet de trabajo.

So it was on to Germany, where an American general offered her work playing air force bases – “and me anti-war, though I wasn’t so politically-minded then.”

An unapologetic 78, Felix has been singing ever since and plays the Kalamazoo Club in Crouch End.

It’s more than 50 years since she played the Albert Hall when The Times hailed her as “Britain’s first lady of folk” even though she was born and brought up in Southern California, one of two daughters of Mexican and American parents, both of whom had Native American blood.

The cheekbones which the young David Frost so admired are still in good shape. The two were living in the same King’s Road apartment block.

“We met in the lift, quite a slow lift. David lived on the fifth floor and I was on the third so by the time we got to the ground floor we’d had quite a long conversation. He asked what I was doing, so I said I launching my record at the Elevator Club on Park Lane – and lo and behold he came along.

After that he took me to dinner with the guy who was putting together The Frost Report. What a break!

There were only two channels in those days!”

Felix – whose father was a Mariachi musician - never looked back and she’s been here ever since.

“I found Europe so much more rich and civilised.”

And for one brief shining moment London was very cool – ‘swinging London’, as Time’s cover story defined it.

On King’s Road, the parade went by and when Julie wasn’t watching it she was on the scene, going out not just with Frostie but with Paul McCartney and Graham Nash, playing with folk legends such as Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, Dave Swarbrick and John Renbourn, who taught her clawhammer technique.

John Lee Hooker, Josh White, Tim Buckley, Billy Preston, Donovan, Jimmy Page and Dusty Springfield guested on her shows.

She played the 1969 Isle of Wight Pop Festival - John and Yoko in the audience - and hung out with Bob Dylan, nervous about his first major performance since the motorcycle crash of July 1966.

“I had to run from the party and catch the last ferry because I was doing some filming in Gibraltar.”

Along the way, Felix campaigned and marched for 60s concerns that are now part of the mainstream, including the eco-charity On Wings of Waste, explored the Divine Feminine and the matriarchal cultures of peace-loving ages past.

In the 1980s, she ran the New Age Folk Club in Belsize Park, which combined music with speakers on “the Aquarian arts”.

“I try to live in the moment – I don’t sing songs nostalgically. I’ve lived a long time so I bring validity.

When you sing live, you’re tapping into a great energy. People open their hearts and that’s spiritual to me, my way of praying.”

Julie Felix plays the King’s Head in Crouch End Hill on 8 July at 8.30pm. Bookings: