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Spotlight Artist - Neil Diamond

 

Neil DiamondIn honor of Neil Diamond being selected to the Rock ' N Roll Hall of Fame for the 2011 induction, I have selected this great song writer and singer as the Spotlight Artist of the month.

Neil Diamond was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Jewish family descended from Russian and Polish immigrants. His father, Akeeba Diamond, was a dry-goods merchant. Diamond grew up in several homes in Brooklyn, attending Abraham Lincoln High School. At Lincoln the school from which he received his high school diploma, he was a member of the fencing team. He later attended NYU on a fencing scholarship, specializing in épée, and was a member of the 1960 NCAA men's championship team; into his adult life he maintained his swordsmanship skills and continued to warm up with fencing exercises before his concerts.


Diamond’s first recording contract was billed as "Neil and Jack", an Everly Brothers-type duo comprising Diamond and high school friend Jack Packer (Jack Parker). They recorded two unsuccessful singles, "You Are My Love At Last" b/w "What Will I Do" and "I'm Afraid" b/w "Till You've Tried Love", both released in 1962. Later in 1962, Diamond signed with the Columbia Records label as a solo performer. Columbia Records released the single "At Night" b/w "Clown Town" in July, 1963. Despite a tour of radio stations, the single failed to make the music charts. Billboard gave an excellent review to "Clown Town" in their July 13, 1963, issue, predicting it would be a hit. However, sales were disappointing, and Columbia dropped Diamond. Soon after, Diamond was back to writing songs on an upright piano above the Birdland Club in New York City.

Diamond spent his early career as a songwriter in the Brill Building. His first success as a songwriter came in November, 1965, with "Sunday and Me", a Top 20 hit forJay and the Americans on the Billboard Charts. Greater success as a writer followed with "I'm a Believer", "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You", "Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)", and "Love to Love," all by the Monkees. There is a popular misconception that Diamond wrote and composed these songs specifically for the made-for-TV quartet. In reality, Diamond had written and recorded these songs for himself, but the cover versions were released before his own. The unintended, but happy, consequence was that Diamond began to gain fame not only as a singer and performer, but also as a songwriter. "I'm a Believer" was the Popular Music Song of the Year in 1966. Other notable artists who recorded early Neil Diamond songs were Elvis Presley, who interpreted “Sweet Caroline” as well as “And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind”; Mark Lindsay, former lead singer for Paul Revere & the Raiders, who covered "And the Grass Won't Pay No Mind"; the English hard-rock band Deep Purple, which interpreted “Kentucky Woman”; Lulu, who covered “The Boat That I Row”, and Cliff Richard, who released versions of “I’ll Come Running”, “Solitary Man”, "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon", “I Got The Feelin’ (Oh No No)”, and “Just Another Guy.”

In 1966 Diamond signed a deal with Bert Berns's Bang Records, then a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. His first release on that label, "Solitary Man", became his first hit. Prior to the release of "Solitary Man," Neil had considered using a stage name; he came up with two possibilities, "Noah Kaminsky" and "Eice Charry." But when asked by Bang Records which name he should use, Noah, Eice, or Neil, he thought of his grandmother, who died prior to the release of "Solitary Man". Thus he told Bang, "...go with Neil Diamond and I'll figure it out later". Diamond later followed with "Cherry, Cherry", "Kentucky Woman", "Thank the Lord for the Night Time", "Do It", and others. Diamond's Bang recordings were produced by legendaryBrill Building songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, both of whom can be heard singing background on many of the tracks.

His first concerts saw him as a "special guest" of, or opening for, everyone from Herman's Hermits to, on one occasion, The Who, which he confirmed on an installment of VH1's documentary series program Behind The Music.

Diamond began to feel restricted by Bang Records, wanting to record more ambitious, introspective music. Finding a loophole in his contract, Diamond tried to sign with a new label, but the result was a series of lawsuits that coincided with a dip in his professional success. Diamond eventually triumphed in court, and secured ownership of his Bang-era master recordings in 1977.

After Diamond had signed a deal with the MCA Records label of Universal Pictures' parent company, MCA Inc., whose label was then called the Uni Records label in the late 1960s, he moved to Los Angeles in 1970. His sound mellowed, with such songs as "Sweet Caroline", "Holly Holy", "'Cracklin' Rosie", and the country-tinged "Song Sung Blue", the last two reaching No. 1 on the Hot 100. "Sweet Caroline" was Diamond's first major hit after his slump. Diamond admitted in 2007 that he had written "Sweet Caroline" for Caroline Kennedy after seeing her on the cover of Life Magazine in an equestrian riding outfit. It took him just one hour, in a Memphis hotel, to write and compose it. The 1971 release "I Am...I Said" was a Top 5 hit in both the U.S. and UK, and was his most intensely personal effort to date, taking upwards of four months to complete.

In 1972, Diamond played 10 sold-out concerts at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. During the performance on Thursday, August 24, which was recorded and released as the live double album Hot August Night. A few weeks later, in the fall of 1972, Diamond performed a series of concerts on 20 consecutive nights at the Winter Garden Theater in New York. Every one of these reportedly sold out, and the small (approximately 1,600-seat) Broadway theater provided an intimate concert setting not common at the time.

The album has become a classic. It was remastered in 2000 with three additional selections: “Walk on Water”, “Kentucky Woman” and “Stones”. In Australia, the album spent a remarkable 29 weeks at No. 1; in 2006, it was voted #16 in a poll of favourite albums of all time in Australia. Also, Diamond's final concert of his 1976 Australian Tour (The "Thank You Australia" Concert) was broadcast to 36 television outlets nationwide on March 6 and remains the country's most-watched music event. It also set a record for the largest attendance at the Sydney Sports Ground. The 1977 concert Love At The Greek, a return to the Greek Theatre, includes a version of "Song Sung Blue" with duets with Helen Reddy and Henry Winkler, a.k.a. Arthur "The Fonz" Fonzarelli of Happy Days.

In 1973, Diamond hopped labels again, returning to the Columbia Records for a lucrative million-dollar-advance-per-album contract. His first project, released as a solo album, was the soundtrack to Hall Bartlett's film version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The film received hostile reviews and did poorly at the box office. The album grossed more than the film did. Richard Bach, author of the best-selling source story, disowned the film. Both Bach and Diamond sued the film’s producer. Diamond felt the film butchered his score. Despite the shortcomings of the film, the soundtrack was a success, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart. Diamond would also garner a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score and a Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture. From there, Diamond would often include a Jonathan Livingston Seagull suite in his live performances, as he did in his 1977 "Love at The Greek" concert. In 1974, Diamond released the album Serenade, from which "Longfellow Serenade" and "I've Been This Way Before" were issued as singles. The latter had been intended for the Jonathan Livingston Seagull score, but was completed too late for inclusion.

In 1976, he released Beautiful Noise, produced by Robbie Robertson of The Band. On Thanksgiving night, 1976, Neil made an appearance at The Band's farewell concert, The Last Waltz, performing "Dry Your Eyes", which he had written with Robertson, and which had appeared on what was then his most recent album, Beautiful Noise. In addition, he joined the rest of the performers onstage at the end in a rendition of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released". In 1977, Diamond released the album I'm Glad You're Here With Me Tonight, which included "You Don't Bring Me Flowers". He had composed its music and collaborated on its lyrics with Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman. The song was covered on Barbra Streisand's Songbird, and a duet, spurred by the success of virtual radio mash-ups, was recorded. The song hit No. 1 in 1978 and became his third song to top the Hot 100 to date. His last 1970s album was September Morn, which included a new version of I'm a Believer. It and Red Red Wine are the two best-known Diamond original songs to have had other artists make more famous than his own versions.

In February 1979, the uptempo "Forever in Blue Jeans," co-written with his guitarist, Richard Bennett, was released as a single from You Don't Bring Me Flowers, Diamond's album from the previous year.

According to Cotton Incorporated, "Neil Diamond might have been right when he named his 1979 #1 hit 'Forever in Blue Jeans:' 81% of women are planning their next jeans purchase to be some shade of blue." The song has been used to promote the sale of blue jeans, most notably via Will Ferrell, impersonating Neil Diamond singing, for The Gap. Ironically, Diamond himself had performed in radio ads for H.I.S. brand jeans in the 1960s, more than a decade before he and Bennett jointly wrote and composed, and he originated, the selection.

A planned film version of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" to star Diamond and Streisand fell through when Diamond instead starred in a 1980 remake of the Al Jolson classic, The Jazz Singer, opposite Laurence Olivier and Lucie Arnaz. Though the movie was not a hit, the soundtrack spawned three Top 10 singles, "Love on the Rocks", "Hello Again" and "America". For his role in the film, Diamond became the first-ever winner of a Worst Actor Razzie Award, even though he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for the same role.

Another Top 10 selection, "Heartlight", was inspired by the blockbuster 1982 movie E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Though the film's title character is never mentioned in the lyrics, Universal Pictures, which had released E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and was the parent company of the Uni Records label, by then referred to as the MCA Records label, for which Diamond had recorded for years, briefly threatened legal action against both Diamond and Columbia Records.

Diamond’s record sales slumped somewhat in the 1980s and 1990s, his last single to make the Billboard’s Pop Singles chart coming in 1986. However, his concert tours continued to be big draws. Billboard Magazine ranked Diamond as the most profitable solo performer of 1986. In January 1987, Diamond sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl. His "America" became the theme song for the Michael Dukakis 1988 presidential campaign. That same year, UB40’s reggae interpretation of Diamond’s ballad Red Red Wine would top the Billboard’s Pop Singles chart and, like the Monkees' version of “I’m a Believer”, become better known than Diamond’s original version.

Today Neil Diamond continues to perform and record. A salute to a true performing professional.

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