The film What About Bob? posits, “There are two types of people in the world: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.” Maybe, but the likes win by a landslide: Diamond has sold over 115 million albums, placing him third in Adult Contemporary after Sir Elton and Barbara Streisand. In 2011, he outshone himself: He was named a Billboard Icon, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and honored at Kennedy Center.
Oddly, happenstance, not intent, started Diamond into music. Young Diamond enjoyed singing around campfires at summer camp, but had the Dodgers not left Brooklyn in 1957, he would more likely have become an MD.
“My parents saw that I was glum and they decided to invest in a guitar for me,” Diamond recalls. “They paid it off at a dollar a week, it was $10 for the guitar, and they said the guitar would be mine if I took 10 lessons.”
Within a year he was writing songs and hopping the subway to run songs by the pros in Manhattan. Tin Pan Alley was home to the song publishing business from the 19th Century, when people bought sheet music and played it at home themselves. With the advent of recording, the songwriters provided the material the singers and bands performed, but that was changing. Elvis and Chuck Berry were among those writing their own songs, which kept record sales and publishing profits within the same company.
“Doors opened for people who could sing and write their own music,” Diamond relates, “and I stepped through the door and didn’t turn back.”
That oversimplifies Diamond’s rise. The first major hit he penned was “I’m a Believer,” performed by The Monkeys. He quickly disavows that the song was written for them.
“Their producer came and heard some songs I was recording for my own album,” he explains, “they picked a few of those out and recorded them. I’m not very good at writing for other people, but they liked that group of songs that I had written for myself, and I was happy for them to record them.”
Indeed, his songs are often intensely personal, and for the rest of his career, his hits were mostly his own first. He signed with Bang Records in 1966, and hit the charts with “Solitary Man,” followed by “Cherry, Cherry” and “Kentucky Woman.” Despite his machine-like manufacturing of hits, he says he has found no formula, and each is uniquely crafted.
“You have to start wherever you can start,” he says. “Usually with me it’s with a melodic idea that sets an emotional tone or mood, and then I try to put lyrics with it that reflect that mood and make them feel that they are one piece, not a [separate] music or a lyric.”
He writes primarily for emotional impact, “from a songwriting point of view, you want to write a song that will touch somebody.”
He is mindful that music must reach listeners where they live, a communicative art that, for reasons he cannot explain, has the power to inspire us and make us feel better or more deeply.
“[Songs] can be mighty powerful little instruments that help us in our daily lives,” Diamond explains. “Basically I’m trying to uplift myself and put myself in touch with my own feelings.”
Song written, the solitary man begins a process of connecting. In his discography, Diamond boasts 63 albums and compilations and 104 singles. He has performed live in dozens of countries, and has 196 IMDB credits including music in films from Pulp Fiction to Born in East LA, as well as his own Jazz Singer acting turn. A New Agey predisposition led him to score the film version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, not one of his brightest moments, as it turned out. How does one select music for a show from all of that?
“I try to get in the songs that the audience wants to hear,” he says, “the songs that will make them feel good or make them think about things, and hope that it adds up to something worthwhile.”
This means he has repeated songs thousands of times by now. And yet, he enthuses workman-like professionalism.
“Every night is a different night, the audiences are different, your frame of mind is different,” he explains, “and part of the work that you do as a performer is to keep those songs alive in performance.”
He demurs at first to claim favorites, but eventually relents.
“Some obvious ones like ‘Sweet Caroline,’ or ‘I Am I Said,’” he lists. “Some not quite as obvious like ‘Morning Sun’ and ‘Suleman,’ and ‘Beautiful Noise,’ but every song that I do on stage, I feel is worthwhile doing.”
At 71, he remains a fit and vital performer. Though on his fourth marriage, he evaded the addictions of his generation and has always pulled off a good-guy image. He has been to the islands many times, and says the mystique of paradise appeals to his spiritual yearnings.
“The setting is quite beautiful,” he muses, “it lends itself to a higher form of spiritual consciousness. So I’m going to put myself on a higher spiritual level to do the shows that I’m doing in Hawaii.”
If you don’t like him, think again: He is still a fascinating landmark in our cultural landscape, and always will be. If you’re a fan, ge ready: He is revved up to touch the Hawaii audience with that old Neil Diamond magic.