Julie Felix, who has died aged 81, played a key role in bringing folk music into the mainstream in the 1960s with her striking looks, early covers of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen songs and high-profile appearances, including her own television series. At one point she was tagged as “Britain’s leading lady of folk” and “the UK’s Joan Baez” even though she came from California and had a Mexican background.
Inspired by Jack Kerouac’s book On The Road, she was on a beatnik adventure hitchhiking through Europe singing Mexican songs in bars, with no plan or aspirations for a career in music, when she landed in London in 1963. Gravitating to the burgeoning folk movement at London clubs like the Troubadour and Bunji’s, she was the first folk act signed to a major UK record label.
Her self-titled debut album for Decca in 1964 mixed traditional material with covers of songs by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and was produced by Mickie Most, who also worked with hit acts the Animals, Herman’s Hermits and Donovan and later set up his own label, RAK, masterminding the success of Hot Chocolate, Suzi Quatro and Mud.
Natural charisma, a voice of rich purity – and a hotline to the songs of social commentary capturing imaginations in America but which had previously barely reached the UK – elevated her to the forefront of the new British folk movement. She sold out a solo show at the Royal Albert Hall, and songs that ranged from Tom Paxton’s children’s ditty Going to the Zoo to Bob Dylan’s ferocious protest song Masters Of War became familiar anthems.
Meanwhile, a chance meeting with David Frost in a lift at a block of flats where she was staying in London led to a weekly slot on his new satirical new BBC TV show The Frost Report, which in turn resulted in her own show – the BBC’s first colour series – which featured guests as diverse as Dusty Springfield, the Kinks, Bee Gees and Spike Milligan, and also gave an influential platform for then lesser-known artists like the Incredible String Band, and Leonard Cohen, who she had first met on the bohemian Greek island of Hydra on her “beatnik” road trip. She and Cohen remained close friends for the rest of his life.
Her Once More With Felix and The Julie Felix Show remained a staple BBC Two diet through the late 1960s, while she survived a potential scandal after being arrested for possession of drugs at Heathrow Airport in 1968.
She also had a hit single with an old Mexican song, El Condor Pasa (which was also covered by Simon & Garfunkel) and became closely identified with the new protest movement and the alternative youth culture of swinging London, which included romantic liaisons with Frost and Paul McCartney.
Yet fame rested uneasily on her shoulders. Unassuming, but also strong-willed, principled and increasingly politicised, she loathed the idea of being a packaged pop commodity, rarely wore make-up, refused to adhere to the sexy stereotype of females in the public eye at the time and was riddled with insecurity. “It’s great being famous but there’s a guilt that you don’t deserve it,” she said. “I’d hide when the doorbell rang.”
After giving birth to her daughter Tanit in 1971, she brought her up as a single parent long before it was socially acceptable, and left Britain, initially to live in Norway. There she recorded a couple of albums for a Swedish label and had some success with her 1976 record Hota Chocolata, but then effectively withdrew from music and returned to California for respite.
She never achieved great success in America, but back home she discovered her spiritual side, studying yoga, meditation and astrology.
Julie Ann Felix was born on June 14 1938 in Santa Barbara, California. She attributed her musical passion to her father, a Mexican mariachi guitarist and accordion player with American Indian blood, who had emigrated to America in his teens, as well as her Welsh American mother’s fondness for Burl Ives records.
Taught guitar by her father, she cut her teeth playing Santa Barbara coffee houses while working at a school for mentally disabled children. Inspired by the American beat poets, she styled herself as a “troubadour” and took off for Europe, busking her way through Germany, France, Italy, Ibiza and Greece before winding up in England.
She had written her first song in her early teens, but while her own songwriting took a back seat during her first flush of fame, she found herself writing about more spiritual matters during her disenchanted escape from the commercialism of the music industry.
She worked for the Christian Aid and Freedom From Hunger charities in Africa, supported CND and became increasingly involved in feminism, campaigned against the Gulf War, championed women’s and gay rights and became involved in the landmine protest movement.
Inspired by a peace march through Central America in the 1980s, she started performing again at peace protests and refugee benefit concerts.
Returning to the UK to live in Hertfordshire, in 1994 she set up her own label, Remarkable Records, to release her first album in more than a decade, Branches in the Mist. This triggered a fresh wave of activity, which included setting up Britain’s first New Age Folk Club – the Magic Messenger, named after a track on Branches in the Mist – to provide a platform for budding poets and musicians.
A visit to Glastonbury sparked her interest in the Goddess movement dedicated to female deities and she launched Goddess Tours, taking groups on visits to stone circles, holy wells, standing stones and goddess shrines, and she performed at Glastonbury’s Goddess Conference last year. It was, she laughed, a counter to the perception that “God was a man and all men are gods …”
With her appetite for singing fully restored, she once more became a cherished performer, touring frequently and celebrating her 80th birthday with a concert at the Charing Cross Theatre in London in 2018 with a string of guest artists who included her old friend John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin playing mandolin and the singer Madeline Bell.
Her 22nd and final album Rock Me Goddess (2018) largely featured her own material and was full of references to astrology, ecology and Mother Earth. Her voice remained strong and passionate and the album, heavily featuring Peter Knight on violin, was well-received.
She continued to perform with her customary vigour and had been planning to tour again this summer when she was struck down by a sudden illness. She is survived by her daughter.
Julie Felix, born June 14 1938, died March 22 2020