Neil Diamond is among the greatest pop songwriters of the modern age.
He is among the top-grossing performers and best-selling recording artists of all time. Diamond’s prolific half-century as a professional musician has yielded one of the most enduring catalogs in American popular music.
To date he has placed 56 singles in Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart and 48 albums (including compilations) on its Top 200 album chart. He has sold more than 125 million records and set attendance records at venues all over the world. A charismatic and captivating performer, he’s been referred to as the “Jewish Elvis.” In reality, he’s bridged generations with his music, serving as a missing link between the iconic poles of Elvis Presley (rock and roll) and Frank Sinatra (adult pop).
Diamond is a product of New York. He was born and – except for a few childhood years spent in Cheyenne, Wyoming – raised in Brooklyn. He received a guitar for his 16th birthday, took some lessons, grew interested in songwriting and began making demos. He recalls the first self-penned tune that convinced him songwriting was in his blood: “On my fifth try I came up with ‘Blue Destiny,’ the song that got me hooked,” he wrote in his notes for In My Lifetime box set. “When I played it back... it made an immediate emotional connection. ‘Blue Destiny’ actually touched my 17-year-old heart and got me started on a lifetime journey of expressing myself through songs.”
His first release was the Everly Brothers-style single “What Will I Do.” Credited to Neil and Jack – a duo he’d formed with Jack Packer, a high school pal, it was released in 1961 on the Duel label. His first solo single, “At Night” b/w “Clown Town,” would be his only release during a brief affiliation with Columbia Records in 1963. (He would return to Columbia in the Seventies, after recording for Bang and Uni.)
Diamond undertook pre-med studies at New York University but dropped out six months shy of graduation in order to write songs for $50 a week for Sunbeam Music. At one point he worked in the prestigious Brill Building, briefly serving in the employ of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. However, the constant scrutiny and commotion of the Brill Building got to him, so he disembarked for the solitary setting of a small rented room above the Birdland jazz club. With only a piano for company, Diamond found his voice and began turning out the kinds of songs that would mark him as a singular talent.
Although he didn’t have a partner like many of his Brill Building colleagues, Diamond still identifies himself most closely with the songwriting fraternity. “I see my peers and contemporaries as songwriters – people like Woody Guthrie, Alan J. Lerner, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich,Gerry Goffin and Carole King,” Diamond said in 2007.
Like several fellow tunesmiths on the New York scene, including fellow Brooklynites Neil Sedaka and Carole King, Diamond wrote for others while dreaming of a recording career for himself. After a few years of scuffling, Diamond was discovered by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry; the three of them formed Tallyrand Music as a vehicle to publish, produce and promote Diamond’s songs. Bert Berns signed Diamond to his new Bang Records label. The initial session yielded his first three singles: “Solitary Man,” “Cherry Cherry” and “I Got the Feeling (Oh No, No).” Produced by Barry and Greenwich, these acoustic guitar-driven rock and roll songs were Diamond’s first chart hits.
Moreover, Don Kirshner – of Aldon Music and Colgems Records – placed Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” with the Monkees, whose version topped the charts for seven weeks and was the biggest song of 1966. Three months later, the Monkees’ also cut Diamond’s “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.”
Meanwhile, Diamond steadily racked up more solo hits on Bang, including “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “Thank the Lord for the Night Time” and “Kentucky Woman.” In 1968, Diamond moved to the West Coast and a year later signed to the Uni label. His hit streak continued with “Sweet Caroline” (Number Four) and “Holly Holy” (Number Six). Writing and recording at a dizzying pace, Diamond released two major albums in 1969 and 1970: Touching You Touching Me and the ambitious Tap Root Manuscript, which found him delving into African forms and rhythms on such songs as ”Soolaimon.” He scored his first Number One hit toward the end of this pivotal and prolific year with “Cracklin’ Rosie.”
He moved to Columbia Records in 1973, inaugurating this new association with his soundtrack to the film Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Exploring new-age lyricism and neoclassical themes, it spent eight months on the charts, rose to Number Two in the U.S. and sold 10 million copies worldwide. It also inaugurated a new phase in Diamond’s career that found him moving toward an adult-pop style as he approached middle age.
In truth, Diamond never exuded the youthful, carefree nature of a rock and roll rebel. The seriousness of purpose that was evident from the earliest years of his career made him well-suited to a more mature style. Such middle-of-the-road adult-pop hits from the Seventies and Eighties as “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” “September Morn,” “Love on the Rocks” and “Heartlight” didn’t particularly appeal to the hardcore rock crowd. Yet Diamond’s willingness to embrace adulthood, unlike so many who pursued eternal adolescence, made him a different sort of rebel – one who aged gracefully through the different stages of his life.
In a 1976 Rolling Stone interview, he offered the view that his life and songwriting were inseparable, and that writing songs was therapeutic. “I’m an imperfect emotional being trying to figure out some way to give some kind of substance and meaning to my life,” he said. “I write these little songs and go and sing them in a recording studio and, later, in front of a lot of people. It seems an odd way to gain an inner sense of acceptance of the self. But it’s what I do.”
In addition to his songwriting ability, Diamond became one of the most renowned live performers of the age. Hot August Night, a live album cut in 1972 at the Greek Theater, spent a year and a half on the charts. He would record two other albums at the Greek, which became his home base as a life performer. The dimensions of his onstage appeal are such that he would set records here and abroad. On his 1986-87 tour, which included eight sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden and 14 at the Greek Theater, he performed for 1.7 million people in 61 cities.
Diamond has routinely paid homage to his Fifties and Sixties rock and roll roots in concert. On record, he’s occasionally revisited past times as well. In 1976, he recordedBeautiful Noise, an album about the glory days of the Brill Building era that was produced by the Band’s Robbie Robertson. A year later he turned in a memorable performance of “Dry Your Eyes,” from Beautiful Noise, at the Band’s Last Waltz concert. In 1993, he cut Up On the Roof: The Songs of the Brill Building, an album of classic pop songs by fellow New York writers. In 1996, he took stock of his career with In My Lifetime, a retrospective three-disc box set that dug all the way back to his earliest demo recordings.
He’s gradually returned to a more stripped-down songwriting style that recalls the simplicity of his early days. In 1996, he headed to Nashville to cut the country-flavoredTennessee Moon. In 2005, producer Rick Rubin had Diamond strip himself back to song-oriented basics on 12 Songs.
Regardless of setting or style, emotional honesty has been a constant in Diamond’s career. “I’ve never tried to be what I’m not,” he allowed. “I am what I am: raggedy, over-the-top, heartfelt, emotional, reflective, passionate, angry and sad at times, which began long before I ever started writing song.”
Neil Diamond (vocals, guitar, piano; born January 24, 1941)