Neeley considers himself a baritone, and is known for his extremely wide vocal range and rock screams – notably the G above high C (G5) in "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)" from Jesus Christ Superstar.
Neeley was born in Ranger, Texas, United States. He signed his first record deal in 1965, at age 22, with Capitol Records. He and his group, The Teddy Neeley Five, recorded an album titled Teddy Neeley. They played the club circuit for years, and at one point their name (on a marquee) appeared in the pilot episode of Dragnet 1967.
In 1968, Neeley starred in the Los Angeles productions of Larry Norman's rock musicals Alison and Birthday for Shakespeare, with Norman, Richard Hatch and Kay Cole. Then, in 1969, Neeley played the lead role of Claude in both the New York and Los Angeles productions of Hair. He also appeared on the controversial, unaired episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that prompted CBS to cancel the series.
Neeley originally auditioned for the role of Judas, seeing it as a great opportunity to play a character few understand. However, when Ben Vereen was chosen for the role, Neeley signed on as chorus and also became the Christ understudy. This particular opportunity led to his taking on the title role in the Los Angeles stage version (which played at the Universal Amphitheatre) after receiving a standing ovation during a performance earlier in the tour. Castmate and close friend Carl Anderson was touring also as a Judas understudy.