Neil Diamond - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Though often derided by music critics and “serious” music fans, Neil Diamond is arguably one of the most popular songwriters and performers of the later part of the 20th century. Though his album sales in recent years don't match the level he established in the early 1970's, he continues to be a massive live draw, and has even tried to win back some critical favor with recording some recent albums in a less produced, more stripped-down manner. As a recording artist, Diamond ranks only behind Barbra Streisand and Elton John as the most successful adult contemporary artist of all time, racking up sales of over 115 million albums worldwide. Beyond being a performer, his songs have been covered by a literal legion of musical performers in virtually all genres of music, many of them scoring their own hits with Diamond's compositions.
Neil Leslie Diamond was born January 24th, 1941 in the borough of Brooklyn, New York. Neil was the oldest of two boys born to his parents Akeeba (Kieve) and Rose Rapoport Diamond. The Diamonds were first-generation Russian-Polish Jewish immigrants. With the exception of two years the family spent living in Wyoming while Kieve Diamond was serving in the military, Neil grew up in Brooklyn, though the family moved fairly often as his father was in the dry goods business and opened up a series of stores across the borough. Young Neil developed an interest in music, and started learning to play the guitar and singing after seeing a performance by Pete Seeger at a summer camp he attended. Diamond attended both Erasmus Hall and Abraham Lincoln High Schools, and while at Erasmus Hall, he sung in the school choir with a young lady named Barbara, (not yet 'Barbra') Streisand. Neil also took up an interest in fencing, and was good enough that by the time he had graduated from Lincoln High School in 1958, he had earned a scholarship in fencing to New York University, where he entered as a pre-med student. At the same time he was a student, he was also busy writing songs and trying to get them published. Diamond also kept his foot in performing, forming a duo with a friend, Jack Packer, called Neil & Jack. The two signed a recording and publishing deal with Duel Records in 1961, and released two singles, “You Are My Love” and “I'm Afraid”. Neither single proved to be a success, and the duo broke up when Packer started attending the Manhattan School of Music full-time. By 1961, Diamond had scaled back his class load, switching to NYU's School of Commerce, where he would remain a student off and on until 1965. Diamond never completed the requirements for a BA. Diamond kept trying his luck as a professional songwriter, signing first a deal with Sunbeam Music, then with Roosevelt Music. While at Roosevelt, Diamond collaborated with nine other staff songwriters to write the minor hit “Ten Lonely Guys”, recorded by Pat Boone. Another solo composition, “Santa Santa” was recorded by the band the Rocky Fellers, but met with limited success. Diamond kept working away, and eventually landed himself a singles deal with Columbia Records in 1963 as a writer and performer. His first single under his own name, “Clown Town” was released that summer, but the single bombed, and Diamond was soon dropped by the label.
Regardless, Diamond kept at it, and in 1965, one of his songs, “Just Another Guy”, was recorded by British heartthrob Cliff Richard. Also that year, Diamond got married to his first wife, Jay Posner, whom he would go on to have two daughters with. In early 1965, Diamond fell in with successful songwriting and production team Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and the duo liked what Diamond was writing, and got him a short-term contract with Trio Music publishing, a company owned by the successful songwriting/production duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Though Diamond's association with the company only lasted about three months, one of his songs, “Sunday and Me”, was recorded by Jay & the Americans and scored as a moderate hit, eventually reaching #18 on the pop charts. With one bona-fide hit under his belt, Diamond, Greenwich and Barry formed Tallyrand Music, set up to shop both Diamond's songs and him as a performer. By early 1966, Tallyrand had signed Diamond to a deal as a songwriter and performer with the company WEB IV, who ran the independent record label Bang Records. Though Bang was an independent record company, it was distributed by the major label Atlantic Records. Diamond had at first considered using a stage name, but decided on keeping his given name just prior to his first release on Bang. Diamond soon recorded his debut single for the company, “Solitary Man”, with Greenwich and Barry producing. (Barry and Greenwich would go on to produce all of Diamond's material while he was at Bang).The song was a modest hit, peaking at #55 on the pop charts. Diamond quickly followed “Solitary Man” with his next single “Cherry, Cherry”, which became an even bigger hit, climbing as high as #6 on the charts. The B-side of the single, “I'll Come Running”, was covered by Cliff Richard, and Richard had a Top 40 hit with the song in 1967. Because of “Cherry, Cherry”, music publisher Don Kirshner contacted Diamond to see if he had any more bouncy, upbeat songs in the style of “Cherry, Cherry” for a pop group that was being put together for a television show called The Monkees. Though it was originally intended for his debut album, Diamond played his song “I'm A Believer” for Kirshner, and when Kirshner liked it, Diamond, Barry and Greenwich laid down a backing track that was then taken to California and used as the backing track behind The Monkees vocals. By the time the song was released as The Monkees second single, the band were a full-scale teen phenomenon, and the single shot to the #1 position on the pop charts, where it stayed for seven weeks. Because of the success of “I'm A Believer”, Bang wanted to rush out an album by Diamond, so he and Berry and Greenwich quickly recorded a few more originals and some covers and released The Feel Of Neil Diamond in August of 1966. The album included his earlier singles “Solitary Man” and “Cherry, Cherry”, as well as a new single “I Got The Feelin' (Oh No No), which placed as high as #16 on the charts. Diamond was now a hot songwriter, for himself as well as other artists. British pop singer Lulu had a Top Ten hit in the U.K with her version of Diamond's “The Boat That I Row”, and The Monkees recorded two more of Diamond's songs, “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”, the latter becoming a #2 hit. Even while other artists were covering his songs, Diamond too was releasing singles, including “You Got To Me”, which reached #18 in early 1967, “Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon”, another Top Ten hit in May, and “Thank The Lord For The Night Time”, which reached #13 in August. During this time, Diamond also recorded another batch of songs, and released his second album, Just For You (Bang) in August of 1967. The album included another new single, “Kentucky Woman”, which peaked at #22 in November.
After going from relative obscurity to being a hit songwriter and performer in just two years, Diamond now found himself coming to odds with both his producers and record company. Though he knew he was capable of cranking out more pop hits, he wanted to be seen as a more serious singer/songwriter. He was also dissatisfied with the royalty rate he was receiving from Bang and WEB IV, and utilized a loophole in his contract to declare that he was free to sign with another label of his choosing, in this case a five year contract with Uni Records, a division of MCA Records. Though his ties with Barry, Greenwich, Bang and WEB IV were now severed, lawsuits and counter-lawsuits continued over the next nine years, until Diamond settled them and bought back the rights to his Bang material in 1977. Bang released one more single from Diamond off of Just For You, “Red Red Wine”, that stalled on the pop charts at #62, but had more of an impact years later in cover versions performed by Jimmy James & the Vagabonds, Vic Dana, Roy Drusky, Tony Tribe, and especially British reggae band UB40, who had a huge international hit with the song in 1983. The first single Diamond released for Uni, “Brooklyn Roads” failed to make much of an impact on the charts, and his next two singles, “Two-Bit Manchild” and “Sunday Sun”, didn't heat up much excitement, either. Regardless, Diamond released his debut for Uni, Velvet Gloves and Spit, in 1968. The album didn't fare well commercially, though some growth in Diamond's songwriting could definitely be detected. Other changes were afoot in Diamond's life, as his marriage to Posner had been deteriorating for some time. He divorced Posner in November of 1969, and married production assistant Marcia Kay Murphey just two weeks later. The two eventually had two sons together before splitting in 1996. Diamond also moved to California in 1969.
Deciding to try something new to help revive his career, Diamond enlisted the help of producers Chips Moman and Tommy Cogbill and recorded a new single “Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show” in Memphis. The song had country and gospel influences, and got him back on the pop charts, peaking at #22. Diamond returned to Memphis and recorded a whole album of new material, also called Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show (Uni)(1969). The album charted and did better than his previous album. It was his next single, “Sweet Caroline (Good Times Never Seemed So Good)”, released in 1969, that really blazed Diamond's return to the charts. The single got as high as #3 on the charts, and later Uni included the track on later pressings of Brother Love... Diamond was back on a hot streak, but this time under his own terms. His next single, “Holly Holy”, was another Top Ten hit, and was included on his next album, Touching You Touching Me (Uni), released at the end of 1969. Touching You Touching Me was even more successful than Brother Love... and went on to earn gold status within a year. Diamond's former label Bang had, of course, been paying attention to Diamond's resurgent popularity, and re-released his single “Shilo” that he had recorded with them, this time with a new backing track that sounded closer to his more contemporary albums. The single climbed to #24 on the charts, and later Diamond re-recorded the track himself and included it on later pressings of Velvet Gloves and Spit. Diamond now moved swiftly along and released another new album, Tap Root Manuscript (Uni) in the fall of 1970. The album was another huge success, spawning the singles “Cracklin' Rosie”, ( a #1 hit), “Soolaimon”, “Done Too Soon” and a cover of “He Ain't Heavy...He's My Brother”. Bang also re-released Diamond's earlier single “Solitary Man”, which charted at #21. Diamond also released the live album Gold (Uni) in 1970, which showcased some gigs he had played early in the year at the Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles. Diamond covered material from both his Bang and Uni catalogs, and was seen as his attempt to reclaim his older material with new, more dynamic versions. It also showed that Diamond was not just a songwriter, but also an exciting live performer, a distinction that would be one of his hallmarks throughout his career.
Diamond's dug deep for his next single, “I Am...I Said”, a personal confession that got him nominated for his first Grammy, (Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male), and was the first single off of his next album, 1971's Stones (Uni). Stones had a few Diamond originals, but was mostly made up of covers by songwriters he admired, including Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Jacques Brel, Tom Paxton and Randy Newman. Diamond scored another #1 hit with his next single, “Song Sung Blue”, which was the lead-off to his next album Moods (Uni), released in 1972. “Song Sung Blue” was so popular that it was nominated for Grammys in the Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year categories, and has been covered by countless artists in the years since. Moods itself was nominated for a Record Of The Year Grammy. It seemed Neil Diamond couldn't get any hotter, but he catapulted himself into superstar status with his next album Hot August Night (Uni), a document of his phenomenal 10-night stand at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in August, (obviously), of 1972. The album showcased material from throughout his career and showed Diamond to be a riveting live performer. The album was a huge worldwide success and went to gold status within a month of its release. After performing another series of shows at the Winter Garden in New York City later on in 1972, Diamond decided to step away from the live side of his career for a while so he could concentrate on other projects.
Fresh from his successes, Diamond signed a new deal with Columbia Records and started work on the soundtrack for a movie adaptation of Richard Bach’s meditative book Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The film hit many snags, and by the time it was released in theaters in late 1973, both Bach and Diamond had filed suit against the movie’s producer. The film received terrible reviews and closed quickly, but Diamond’s score, released as a regular solo album by him the same year, was another huge success and eventually climbed to #2 on the album charts. Diamond didn’t return to the scene until the fall of 1974, when he released Serenade (Columbia). Led by the hit single “Longfellow Serenade”, Serenade marked another successful gold album for Diamond, and also marked Diamond’s turn towards a slicker and mellower sound that seemed tailor made for the Adult Contemporary market. Diamond decided to return to the stage in 1976, and launched tours of New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. Diamond went back in to the studio with Band member Robbie Robertson producing and released the album Beautiful Noise (Columbia) in 1976. The album was a nod back to his early songwriting roots in New York, and contained the singles “If You Know What I Mean”, “Don’t Think I Feel” and the title track. In September of ’76, Diamond returned to the Greek Theater in L.A., and both recorded and filmed his concert there, later released as Love At The Greek (Columbia)(1977). Diamond also appeared in his own television special and continued to tour through most of 1977. His next album, I’m Glad I’m Here With You Tonight (Columbia), was released at the end of ’77 in conjunction with another television special, and continued Diamond’s streak of gold-selling albums. A song on the album, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”, was picked up by Barbra Streisand and covered on her 1978 album Songbird. A disc jockey heard both versions, and realizing they were in the same key, mixed the two versions of the song together, making for a virtual duet between Streisand and Diamond. The version caught on, and in 1978, Diamond and Streisand indeed recorded a duet of the song, which quickly went to #1 on the charts. When the duet was recorded, Diamond was working on a new album, and with the overwhelming success of the song, he quickly gathered together material he had been working on and released the album You Don’t Bring Me Flowers (Columbia) in late 1978. You Don’t Bring Me Flowers also contained the single “Forever In Blue Jeans”, another Top Twenty hit. Diamond returned in December of 1979 with his next album, September Morn (Columbia). Though Diamond scored a hit with the title song, the album didn’t sell quite as well as his previous albums, though it did end up going platinum by the end of 1980.
As if Neil Diamond wasn’t ambitious enough, his next project was his biggest yet. He was not only going to score and write songs for a loose re-make of Al Jolson’s famous early sound feature The Jazz Singer, but he was also going to star in the movie opposite Sir Lawrence Olivier and Lucy Arnaz. Though the movie was widely panned upon its release, Diamond scored another hit album with the soundtrack, which included the #2 hit “Love On The Rocks”, as well as two more Top Ten hits, “America” and “Hello Again”. In 1981, Diamond re-signed to Columbia, for, what was at the time, the most lucrative record contract ever signed, and quickly released another album, On The Way To The Sky (Columbia). Though the album was a success, it didn't quite reach the heights of some of his previous releases. Undaunted, Diamond pressed on and worked with songwriters Carole Bayer Sager and Burt Bacharach, both old friends from their days peddling songs in the Brill Building in New York in the early 60's, on his new album Heartlight (Columbia)(1982). The title song, based on the recently released Steven Spielberg movie E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, was an enourmous hit, and helped the album reach as high as #9 on the Billboard Album Charts. He toured heavily through the early part of 1984, and then continued writing with Bayer Sager and Bacharach to produce his next album, Primitive (Columbia)(1984). For the first time in quite some time, Diamond had an album that didn't sell well, and after the album was released, he headed back to the drawing board. At first he came up with a more personal, introspective album he called The Story Of My Life, but when he submitted it to Columbia, they rejected it and wanted him to come up with something that sounded more contemporary. Diamond went back and re-tooled the material with the help of Earth, Wind & Fire mastermind Maurice White, and included songs written by by more popular contemporary artists like Stevie Wonder and Bryan Adams. By the time his next album, Headed For The Future (Columbia)(1986) was released, there was only one song left over from his initial sessions. Diamond also appeared in another television special to help promote the album, but the album did just slightly better than Primitive. Though his albums weren't selling as well as they once were, Diamond was still a massive live draw, proven by his sold-out run of eight shows in Madison Square Garden and 14 shows back at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles in the summer of 1987. Diamond once again recorded the shows and released the live album Hot August Night II (Columbia) later that year. Even with the name of one of his most successful albums ever, the album failed to catch fire, and was the beginning of Diamond's albums not selling as well as they did in the 70's and 80's.
Diamond continued with releasing Adult Contemporary-styled albums through most of the late 80's and into the 90's, most of them connecting with his core audience, but not reaching out to any new fans. He released The Best Years Of Our Lives (Columbia) in 1988, produced by David Foster, and followed that with Lovescape (Columbia)(1991), produced by Peter Asher. Diamond also issued his first holiday collection, titled simply The Christmas Album (Columbia) in 1992, followed by a second volume in 1994. Columbia released a two-disc retrospective of Diamond's Bang and Columbia career in 1992, The Greatest Hits (1966-1992), with his hits on Uni being represented with live versions. Neil Diamond continued touring, and even though his record sales were not what they were, he was still one of the biggest concert draws on the road. After re-signing again with Columbia, Diamond recorded the album Up On The Roof: Songs From The Brill Building (Columbia)(1992), an album of covers that revisited some of the pop hits that were cranked out in the 1960's by some of Diamond's contemporaries. That was followed by another live album, Live In America (Columbia), a double CD set issued in 1994. For his next project Diamond ventured to Nashville and collaborated with country songwriters and artists for the album Tennessee Moon (Columbia)(1996). Many of Diamond's early hits had country influences, and many more of his hits had been turned into country hits by country artists, so the fit seemed to be a natural one. Columbia and Diamond finally got the permission to include his Uni material on a retrospective of his work, and the 3-CD box set In My Lifetime (Columbia) was released in late 1996. The set included demo versions and rarities from throughout Diamond's long and distinguished career. Reflecting Columbia's marketing of Diamond as one of the elder statesmen of pop, his next album was The Movie Album: As Time Goes By (Columbia), a collection of his interpretations of popular movie songs from throughout the twentieth century.
As the 2000's dawned , Diamond seemed ready again to push himself artistically, and after making a self-spoofing appearance in the 2001 comedy Saving Silverman, (which definitely raised his profile amongst younger music fans), he released the album Three Chord Opera (Columbia) in July of 2001. Three Chord Opera marked the first time he had worked on one of his albums without outside collaborators since the early 70's, and was his best selling album since Heartlight in 1982. In 2003, Columbia released another retrospective of Diamond's career, this time in the form of a massive five-CD/one-DVD retrospective of his live performances called Stages:Performances 1970-2002. Renowned producer Rick Rubin, who, as well as producing the likes of Slayer, Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was also responsible for the late career renaissance of Johnny Cash, was also a big Neil Diamond fan, favoring his earlier, more stripped down songs. Rubin proposed to Diamond that they work together on an album, emphasizing just Diamond's voice and guitar playing. Though Diamond was initially skeptical, the resulting album, 12 Songs (Columbia), was hailed by critics as a return to form for one of America's most treasured songwriters and ended up being Diamond's highest charting album in nearly 25 years. Diamond and Rubin worked together again on Diamond's next collection, Home Before Dark (Columbia), released in 2008. Home Before Dark was another album that stripped Diamond's songwriting back to its roots of relying on his distinctive vocals and guitar playing, and became, astonishingly, the first Neil Diamond album to debut at the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 Album Chart. At the age of 67, Diamond was the oldest performer to ever hold the #1 position on the U.S. album charts. Any doubts about his continued relevance as a songwriter and performer well into his fifth decade in the music business were laid to rest.