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Neil Diamond

The author of the MONKEES’ signature tune `I’m A Believer’, as well as a plethora of nicotine-stained karaoke favourites, NEIL DIAMOND began life as a Brill Building songwriter before racking up a string of mid-60s hits in his own right (`Cherry, Cherry’, `Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon’, `Kentucky Woman’ and `Sweet Caroline’). An endearing combination of pop smarts and rootsier influences shaped evergreen 70s chart-toppers `Crackin’ Rosie’, `Song Sung Blue’ and `You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’ (with Barbra Streisand) – the hit list goes on… and on… and on…
Born Neil Leslie Diamond, January 24, 1941 in Brooklyn, New York, by the time he’d graduated from the local Abraham Lincoln High School and embarked upon a degree at New York University, Neil had already begun writing and recording. As one-half of the duo Neil & Jack (with fellow singer/acoustic guitarist Jack Parker), the budding singer/songwriter released a couple of EVERLY BROTHERS-styled singles for Duel Records in 1962 (`You Are My Love At Last’ and `I’m Afraid’), before cutting a one-off solo 45 (`At Night’) for Columbia Records the following year.
Upon dropping out of university, NEIL DIAMOND began working full-time as a staff writer for various publishers (while toying with the name of Noah Kaminsky), providing material for the likes of CLIFF RICHARD, JAY AND THE AMERICANS and, most successfully, The MONKEES, for whom he wrote the aforementioned 1966 chart-topper, `I’m A Believer’; and, a little later, `A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’.
Rewind back several months or so, the scribe had signed a fresh contract with Bang Records (then an Atlantic spin-off) and had already scored a Top 10 hit with `Cherry, Cherry’, which followed on from the minor chart success of his definitive `Solitary Man’. Both highlights from his debut LP, THE FEEL OF DIAMOND (1966) {*6}, as well as `Oh No No’ (its Top 20 title `I Got The Feelin’ (Oh No No)’), the set also featured a handful of covers, including PAUL SIMON’s `Red Rubber Ball’ (soon-to-be a hit for CYRKLE), RITCHIE VALENS’ `La Bamba’, JOHN PHILLIPS’ `Monday, Monday’ and Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich’s `Hanky Panky’.
A subsequent string of other Barry/Greenwich-produced smash hits ensued over the next year, sophomore set JUST FOR YOU (1967) {*7} spawning `Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon’, `Thank The Lord For The Night Time’, plus `Cherry, Cherry’ (again!) and `Solitary Man’ (again!!), while the unmistakable `Red Red Wine’ (soon-to-be covered by Tony Tribe, and later UB40), `The Boat That I Row’ (borrowed by LULU), `Shilo’ (a DIAMOND re-issue hit in 1970) and his original of `I’m A Believer’, all proved his weight in gold. Wrapping his ominous baritone around hook-driven, rootsy pop-rock, DIAMOND had created a songwriting formula that was irresistibly populist yet enduring, his success encouraging him to push for full creative control and make it as a credible singer/songriter in his own right.
Uni Records duly offered him the deal he was looking for and, despite the relative failure of the experimental VELVET GLOVES AND SPIT (1968) {*6} – encasing three minor chart hits `Brooklyn Roads’, `Two-Bit Manchild’ and `Sunday Sun’ – plus BROTHER LOVE’S TRAVELLING SALVATION SHOW (1969) {*6}, the gold discs began rolling in toward the turn of the decade; the title track and the anthemic `Sweet Caroline (Good Times Never Seemed So Good)’ shot into the Top 30 and Top 5 respectively; the latter being discreetly added to the LP as copies flowed out from the pressing plant.
Waxing lyrical a la `Sweet Caroline’, but obviously omitted from the US version of his Top 30 follow-up set, TOUCHING YOU, TOUCHING ME (1969) {*7}, the record established DIAMOND’s credentials/ambitions by way of a tasteful array of accompanying covers from the likes of FRED NEIL (`Everybody’s Talkin’’), JERRY JEFF WALKER (`Mr. Bojangles’), JONI MITCHELL (`Both Sides Now’) and BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE (`Until It’s Time For You To Go’) – a minor hit, while also spawning a self-penned Top 10 entry in `Holly Holy’.
Recorded live at the Troubadour (in Hollywood), GOLD (1970) {*7} was a prospective fan’s dream, featuring several of his greatest hits under one roof, backed by his own “Travelling Salvation Show” army and a raucous spirit not witnessed since the days of ELVIS. The songsmith’s soothing sophistication and/or with that gentle, grooming contemporary ballad in tact, DIAMOND had the raw energy and star quality to ignite a room in seconds.
Buoyed by attendant Top 30 volleys, `Soolaimon (African Trilogy II)’, `Cracklin’ Rosie’ (his inaugural UK Top 3 hit) and a cover of Bob Russell & Bobby Scott’s `He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ (a hit soon for The HOLLIES), TAP ROOT MANUSCRIPT (1970) {*8} reached beyond America and into homes all over the globe; wherein he attempted an ambitious “world music” side-long suite entitled `The African Trilogy (a folk ballet)’.
Despite his wish to be recognised as a “serious” singer/songwriter, DIAMOND just couldn’t help penning gloriously catchy, future karaoke classics like `I Am… I Said’ (a transatlantic Top 5), but in his heart there was always room for his own deep renditions of other people’s songs. Not quite rolling or even tumbling, the dice was again thrown on the table for STONES (1971) {*6}, a record spotlighting no less than six staples, namely `The Last Thing On My Mind’ (TOM PAXTON), `Husbands And Wives’ (ROGER MILLER), `Chelsea Morning’ (JONI MITCHELL), `If You Go Away’ (JACQUES BREL), `Suzanne’ (LEONARD COHEN) and `I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ (RANDY NEWMAN).
Opening with the sing-a-long `Song Sung Blue’, the implicitly self-penned MOODS (1972) {*6}, also housed two further Top 20 beauts in `Play Me’ and `Walk On Water’. Contemporary-pop or soft-rock, the star of DIAMOND was subsequently set free on one of music’s greatest live double albums, HOT AUGUST NIGHT (1972) {*9}, an hour-and-a-half concert capturing his lavish showmanship and cemented his superstar status for eternity.
The Columbia corporate were so impressed they stumped up around 5 million dollars for his record-breaking signature later that year, their investment paying off as the JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL (1973) {*8} soundtrack ended up coining in more cash than the film itself. The score was his escape from the limelight, although it still brought him a great deal of success and renewed credibility – in the movie world at least – having peaked one spot off the top. Arranged and conducted by prolific film composer in his own right, Lee Holdridge (who’d worked with Neil over recent years), with a plethora of classical musicians behind him, “JLS” hit the right notes from day one; producer and musical director Tom Catalano and sound engineer Armin Steiner must also take some credit.
Opening with `Prologue’, Neil took a back seat, letting the atmospheric orchestra set the lush, romantic tone. `Be’ – the first of four pieces by that title (this one sub-titled “Introduction Of Jonathan”), and the longest by far – opened DIAMOND’s vocal account; his deep, spiritual voice and lyrics gracing every note. The theme and flow of the film continued with the instrumental `Flight Of The Gull’, while `Dear Father’ (a prayer of sorts) showed the man in hymnal, minimalist lyricism mode. It must be said, Neil took on the role of Hall Bartlett’s avian fantasy character with some gusto.
`Skybird’ (the instrumental piece) was a bright segue vignette before his voice got into full gear once again by way of the beautiful `Lonely Looking Sky’. This piece and two others, the aforementioned `Be’ (“Jonathan Returns”) and `Dear Father’ (very Elgar’s “Nimrod”), gleaned the reprised orchestral treatment by way of `The Odyssey’ medley, 9 minutes-plus of Lee Holdridge at work. `Anthem’ was a surprise vocal/choral number, a piece to enchant the local church minister with its “holy, holy” approach and the weakest by far. `Skybird’ (the song), discovered DIAMOND in “Una Paloma Blanca” mode, a melodious sing-a-long that cut away all too soon. `Dear Father’ got another instrumental run out, while the previously mentioned `Be’ (the Top 40 hit version/edit) book-ended what was a remarkable piece of music. His “I’m A Believer” motif had never been more keenly appropriate.
Back on terra firma, orthodox release SERENADE (1974) {*5} attempted to re-address the equilibrium lost by his previous flight of fancy. Slushy and sentimental, with a touch of the Caribbean thrown in by way of `Reggae Strut’, the Top 3 record (No.11 in the UK) might’ve name-dropped a few historical artists in `Longfellow Serenade’ (a surprise Top 5 hit) and `The Last Picasso’, but to many fans this was a low-point.
His Malibu neighbour ROBBIE ROBERTSON duly lent DIAMOND a modicum of street-cred by producing 1976’s return to form, BEAUTIFUL NOISE {*7}, a concept effort based on Neil’s formative years as a Brill Building protege. The star pairing were still to appear on The BAND’s “The Last Waltz” rockumentary movie, and there was a distinctive bond as the singer crooned his way through `If You Know What I Mean’, `Don’t Think… Feel’ and the UK-only title track hit.
On the back of a cash-cow double-set, LOVE AT THE GREEK (1977) {*5} – taped the previous September at The Greek Theater in L.A. – I’M GLAD YOU’RE HERE WITH ME TONIGHT (1977) {*4} showed up his tendency to shine through with schmaltzy sentimentality (producer Bob Gaudio contributed the title song), while bookend pieces featured two covers, the opening `God Only Knows’ (The BEACH BOYS) and the finale `Free Man In Paris’ (JONI MITCHELL).
The antipathy of the burgeoning punk/new wave scene, housewife’s choice DIAMOND kept racking up the hits, scoring his third domestic No.1 via the Barbra Streisand duet, `You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’ (a solo song from his previous effort). YOU DON’T BRING ME FLOWERS {*6} – the album – also projected another karaoke fave in the shape of country-tinged sing-a-long hit, `Forever In Blue Jeans’; cheesy MOR maybe but great stuff all the same.
Sticking with the tried-and-tested Bob Gaudio production unit (he of The FOUR SEASONS fame), SEPTEMBER MORN (1979) {*3} bordered seriously on easy-listening. Scribing the opening two cuts with chanson pop artist Gilbert Becaud (the Top 20 title track and `Mama Don’t Know’), DIAMOND then trusted in a sunny-day, Caribbean version of his `I’m A Believer’, while mining the vaults for pop tunes `The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)’ (penned by Gaudio & Bob Crewe), `Stagger Lee’ and `Dancing In The Street’.
Surprisingly perhaps, the man’s biggest success was yet to come, arriving in the shape of his multi-platinum soundtrack to a re-make of the 1920s Al Jolson movie, THE JAZZ SINGER (1980) {*6}, in which DIAMOND himself starred alongside Laurence Olivier. “What is jazz to Neil Diamond and what is Neil Diamond to jazz?” asked Variety back in the day; and they had a point. The Jewish Elvis had about as much of a handle on jazz as glam rockers SLADE, whose mid-70s bio-pic “Slade In Flame” was as brutally realistic a portrait of the music business as DIAMOND’s effort was an embarrassing, PG-certificate gloss on the subject. And despite the pointless title, and the fact that it was sandwiched between two of the poorest albums of his career, the soundtrack sold by the skipful.
Such was showbusiness, and that’s what “The Jazz Singer” dealt in – flag-waving bombast as in the third of three Top 10 hits, `America’, where tinny synth and hollow platitudes (“freedom’s light burning warm”) schlep together like hot dogs and mustard. This soundtrack was where the schmaltz got out of hand, overpowering glory ballads like `Love On The Rocks’ and `Hello Again’ (the other Top 10 breakers), and even kitsch belters like `Hey Louise’. Strangely, considering the huge success of the album, DIAMOND was never to score (or act in) another movie.
Despite chalking up another major hit in `Yesterday’s Songs’, a sharp decline in sales for the self-penned parent set ON THE WAY TO THE SKY (1981) {*3} was slightly unsettling for a man who’d just celebrated his 40th birthday. But maybe he’d “middle-aged” too soon, or maybe there were more peaks and troughs to come.
The polished MOR balladry of the title song from HEARTLIGHT (1982) {*3} brought further Top 5 success in his homeland, but even in other songs penned alongside legendary scribes BURT BACHARACH and CAROLE BAYER SAGER (the hit `I’m Alive’ was not one of them), DIAMOND could not rekindle his Midas touch. The derivative PRIMITIVE (1984) {*3} also found Neil treading water if not drowning in a stagnant pond of romantic mush. The backward-looking HEADED FOR THE FUTURE (1986) {*3} attempted to bring him up to date without much success, while HOT AUGUST NIGHT II (1987) {*5} was a pale reflection of its in-concert predecessor.
Ditto for studio albums THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1988) {*4} – showcasing a morose, cringe-worthy take of TRACY CHAPMAN’s `Baby Can I Hold You’ – and LOVESCAPE (1991) {*3} – lightened only by his KIM CARNES duet on Albert Hammond & Diane Warren’s `Don’t Turn Around’ (ASWAD or ACE OF BASE fans will recognise the hit – only just!).
When the festivities had burnt out after THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM (1992) {*4} – his version of CAT STEVENS’ hymnal `Morning Has Broken’ the exception – DIAMOND revisited the era of the Tin Pan Alley songsmith with the critically-mauled UP ON THE ROOF: SONGS FROM THE BRILL BUILDING (1993) {*4}. Produced by Pete Asher, duets with DOLLY PARTON on `You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’ and MARY’S DANISH on `Do Wah Diddy Diddy’, were welcome rest-bites to an album full of glow, wonderment and a 50-something singer seemingly content with supping his proverbial pipe by the fireside. But then just when one had thought he’d lost all his street-cred points, up came alt-rockers URGE OVERKILL, who demonstrated his kitsch appeal to brilliant effect with their “Pulp Fiction” OST performance of `Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon’.
On the back of a 2-hour, double-set helping of LIVE IN AMERICA (1994) {*5} and another dollop of THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM, VOLUME II (1994) {*3}, DIAMOND was ready to don his Stetson and kick off his muddy boots deep down in Nashville for 1996’s TENNESSEE MOON {*5}. A transatlantic reunification with the Top 20, it saw Neil collaborate, or simply sing, with a whole barn of country stars, among them WAYLON JENNINGS, BETH NIELSEN CHAPMAN, HAL KETCHUM and CHET ATKINS.
DIAMOND had his own shot at celluloid interpretation on 1998’s THE MOVIE ALBUM: AS TIME GOES BY {*5}, labouring over the likes of `Unchained Melody’, `Moon River’, `When You Wish Upon A Star’, `My Heart Will Go On’, `Ebb Tide’, the title track, and a raft of other dirges.
Into the new millennium, DIAMOND decided to reconfirm his identity as a singer/songwriter with THREE CHORD OPERA (2001) {*6}, his first album of wholly original, self-penned material in nigh-on three decades. Opening salvo, `I Haven’t Played This Song In Years’, was an ode to breaking up (the similarly lovelorn `You Are The Best Part Of Me’ was romance personified), while the set’s theme seemed to reflect on loss; now aged 60, his second marriage had long since passed in divorce – around the mid-90s – but the “solitary man” was reaching out again – to a whole new audience as well as his stalwart fanbase.
Having midwifed some of the starkest music of the late JOHNNY CASH’s career, Rick Rubin proved why he remained the most perceptive, far-sighted and disciplined producer in the business; pushing DIAMOND into similar self-restraint, he finally steered him in the right direction, stripping away decades of studio flab. 12 SONGS (2005) {*8} was the result; more of a performance piece than any long player he’d ever recorded. Received in the press as something akin to the holy grail, it was an album DIAMOND had threatened to make his whole career.
The arrangements on `Oh Mary’, `Delirious Love’ and `What’s It Gonna Be’ were typically sparse: his acoustic guitar fitfully allied with sombre organ lines, and on `We’ – one of the record’s sole breezy moments, some clownish brass. Chart-wise Top 5 (on both sides of the Atlantic), DIAMOND achieved his highest placing since his “Greek” and “Jazz Singer” days a generation earlier, decades during which his voice had scarcely changed, losing none of its gravelly suave, and finally gracing an album built to last.
Never looking a gift-horse in the mouth, Rubin’s golden OAP was back with a chart-topping sequel in 2008, HOME BEFORE DARK {*7}. Augmented by the likes of DIXIE CHICKS’ Natalie Maines (on `Another Day (That Time Forgot)’), bassist Smokey Hormel, guitarist Matt Sweeney (ex-CHAVEZ) and a handful of HEARTBREAKERS, Neil travelled deep into his soul for `Pretty Amazing Grace’, `If I Don’t See You Again’, `One More Bite At The Apple’ and `Forgotten’.
Bypassing another HOT AUGUST NIGHT/NYC: LIVE FROM MADISON SQUARE GARDEN (2009) {*5} – recorded exactly 365 days before its release! – and his perennial festive cheer in A CHERRY CHERRY CHRISTMAS (2009) {*4}, 2010’s DREAMS {*6} took DIAMOND away from Rubin and into the world of cover versions (again!). This time a reflective country-rock twist was given to the likes of BILL WITHERS’ `Ain’t No Sunshine’ and LESLEY DUNCAN’s `Love Song’, while he strolled through the songwriting geniuses of LENNON-McCARTNEY, RANDY NEWMAN, LEON RUSSELL, HARRY NILSSON, FREY-HENLEY, LEONARD COHEN, GILBERT O’SULLIVAN, among others.
Reuniting with Capitol Records (who’d presented “The Jazz Singer” way back), NEIL DIAMOND teamed up with producer DON WAS (Not Was) and assistant JACKNIFE LEE for the self-scribed Top 3 set MELODY ROAD (2014) {*6}. Allowed to express his contemporary-pop motifs in order to resurrect a sense of the late-60s/early-70s, a newly-married DIAMOND opened up his heart and let the sunshine in by way of `Marry Me Now’, `First Time’, `The Art Of Love’, `Sunny Disposition’ and the title track – but there was, as always `Something Blue’ and `In Better Days’. Fans of the man had come to learn over time (50+ years!) that singing happy songs was not DIAMOND’s forte. Then again, with his festive/fireside set, ACOUSTIC CHRISTMAS (2016) {*5}, contradiction was always at the core of the man’s extensive catalogue.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS-BG // rev-up MCS May2015-Nov2016

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