Songwriting is a sanctuary for Neil Diamond, just as it was when he first put pen to paper as an intense, sensitive teenager at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. Scarcely had he learned his first chords on the guitar his parents gave him as a 16th birthday present than the songs began to pour out of him.
By the time he was in attending New York University, he started spending free hours shopping his songs at the Manhattan music-publishing businesses known collectively as Tin Pan Alley. By the spring of 1962 he had dropped out of college, six months shy of graduation, to seriously pursue songwriting.
The great husband-and-wife songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron”) heard artist potential in the young man and helped him land a record deal. His major radio breakthrough came in 1966 with “Cherry, Cherry,” the same year his song “I’m a Believer” became a chart-topper for the Monkees. “I’ve been working full-time and making a living at it ever since,” he notes with typical understatement.
Diamond spent the remainder of the ’60s building on his solo success with hits like “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “Kentucky Woman” and “Sweet Caroline,” and proving his mettle as a dynamic live performer. His onstage prowess was documented on the 1972 live double album Hot August Night, which sold 2 million copies and further cemented his stardom.
In 1978 he teamed with Barbra Streisand for the duet “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” which became the biggest radio hit of his career. His movie debut, 1980’s remake of the landmark Al Jolson film The Jazz Singer, met with a critical and commercial drubbing. The soundtrack, however, remains his top-selling album, having spun off the hits “Love on the Rocks,” “Hello Again” and the enduring anthem “America.”
2001’s Three Chord Opera was his first fully self-penned effort since 1974’s Serenade and marked Diamond’s public recommitment to songwriting. He was soon courted by longtime fan Rick Rubin, the star producer who had similarly sought out veteran artists like Johnny Cash and Donovan for fruitful collaborations. Rubin encouraged him to reconnect with his roots as a songwriter. The superstar who had sold 48 million albums in the U.S. and still commanded sellout arena crowds worldwide had now re-identified himself as a singer-songwriter first and foremost with 2005’s 12 Songs, 2008’s Home Before Dark, and 2010’s Dreams. And now, to top of his stellar career, Diamond will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.
On the anniversary of your birth, Neil, please know how much we treasure the lifetime of songs you’ve given us. Happy, happy birthday!
Do you think those butterflies will ever stop coming when you’re about to unveil a new song?
I don’t think so. The process of writing is done in the writer’s head with one critic, the most critical person of all: the writer himself. Then at some point you have to present these little babies, these creations, to somebody else, to another set of ears. You never know how they will respond, whether you were right or wrong in loving the song, whether that message got across to the producer or the musicians or anybody that you play it for. It’s a very interesting process, but there are always going to be butterflies.
Is it more difficult when the song is very personal?
I don’t think so. Just the unveiling of the song itself is the crux of that situation, whether it’s personal or impersonal. My songs tend to reflect myself, my life and my attitude about things to one degree or another, anyway. It’s just about the quality of the song, and whether the listener can relate to it, and whether it generates the same response from the listener as it does from you. These are the questions in your mind when you’re playing your song for the first time to somebody.
What was an average day like when you were selling songs in Tin Pan Alley?
I spent seven or eight years knocking around in the music district of New York City, which was filled with publishers and record companies—and, therefore, swarms of hungry young songwriters trying to make their way into the music world. I was going to New York University at that time, so I would take the subway into Manhattan and attend my classes. Then I’d hop back on the subway and take it up to 51st Street and make my rounds with the songs that I’d written during the previous week or two weeks. I’d wait my turn on audition days and play my songs. Sometimes they were accepted and I would get a small advance—about $50 or so—and go down into one of the tiny studios in those buildings and make a demo. It was an opportunity for me to familiarize myself with the recording world.
How successful were you in the beginning?
Over the period of years, I’d “place” songs—meaning I would sign over songs to a music publisher for a small advance. I lived meagerly on that money for years. I was occasionally signed to a publisher as a staff writer, which meant regular full-time employment with a weekly salary and all my output going to that publisher. This happened in four or five situations, and unfortunately I was eventually let go by each of these publishers—probably for not coming up with any hits. As I grew up, I got married and continued trying to place songs independently. It was barely enough to pay the rent, but I did. Then a watershed situation came up in my life: My wife became pregnant. I knew I’d have to bear down and get very serious about something that I’d been doing more for the fun of it and the camaraderie of hanging with other writers. I got to know Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, two of the top songwriters in the country at that time—I believe Phil Spector had 12 songs on the charts, and Jeff and Ellie had co-written all of them with Phil, so they were very hot. They supported me and recommended me to Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber, two of the premier writer/producers of that period, who signed me to a one-year contract with their publishing company.
How did you make the transition from being primarily a songwriter to being a performer?
When the contract was up and my baby was just born, I asked for a small raise, just to feed my kid—and they decided not to pick up my contract. I then discussed it with Jeff and Ellie. They wanted very much to produce me, because they had come to know me as a singer as well as a writer. They asked Jerry and Mike whether it would be OK to produce me outside of Trio Music. They were given permission, thank God. Jeff and Ellie took me to Atlantic Records, who were very interested and signed me to one of their new subsidiary labels, Bang Records. Bang then broke off from the association of Atlantic before my first release and became an independent label.
Did all that experience behind the scenes in the music business prepare you for the first rush of success as a singer?
It prepared me better as a songwriter. I’d had seven years of professional writing under my belt, although the songs weren’t very good. I had not yet learned to put myself into the songs—they were songs in name alone. So it did help me prepare for that. It also prepared me for the recording studio, as I’d been making demos for all those years.
Do you still feel the way about writing songs that you did as a teenager?
The challenge of writing a wonderful song is still enough to take up my mind, imagination and ambitions. It is a wonderful challenge to start with nothing and come out with something beautiful, relatable or just plain entertaining. That has been with me from the beginning, and it remains. I haven’t been distracted by anything that interests me as much as the idea of writing a great song. There’s still a thrill of listening to something you’ve written, loving it, being moved by it and wanting to share it.
—By Chris Neil, Photo © AP
Get the full interview with Neil Diamond, including stories behind songs, hits he wrote for others, and movies that allude to him: NEIL DIAMOND FEATURE INTERVIEW
Get the full issue with Neil on the cover: NEIL DIAMOND ISSUE