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Issue 05/05/11 - Vol. 42, Issue 17

The Frog Who Dreamed of Being a King - Neil Diamond
by Kent Ballard

There are many who say that the American Dream is over, that our ongoing recession and the vice-like grip of megacorporations no longer allows poor commoners like us to rise above our circumstances to better ourselves, let alone become beloved world icons. They couldn't be more wrong. The Dream lives on—and this is the story of a man who did it.

Neil Leslie Diamond was born in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Akeeba Diamond, was a merchant and the family was descended from Russian and Polish immigrants. Neil lived in various houses in Brooklyn while growing up, eventually graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School. Brooklyn life was to leave a lasting impression on the young Jewish boy, with many bittersweet memories.

Although a bright student, young Neil would often find himself simply staring out the windows during classes. He had an undefined yearning, a feeling that he belonged somewhere else. This led to several parent-teacher conferences where his instructors told his mother and father that he simply wasn't applying himself. His parents had no choice but to agree, as they had seen the growing boy drift into his own world periodically too.

He did find one activity that he took seriously—fencing. His grades improved in high school and he entered New York University on a fencing scholarship. In fact, he became a member of 1960 men's NCAA Championship Team. It was a sport he'd never let go. He kept his skills as a swordsman all through his adult life, and was even known to “warm up” before a concert with a round or two of fencing to loosen himself up, a far cry from other artists who'd down a bottle of booze or take a handful of pills. Diamond, as you will see, is a different kind of man from most superstars.

At NYU, he studied pre-med. But in his senior year he took an offer to write songs for the princely sum of $50 per week, not bad wages for a young man at the time. While writing, he began a singing duet team with an old high school buddy. Both of their records were flops, and Diamond got a contract as a solo performer with Columbia. Although his song “At Night” got excellent reviews from Billboard Magazine, the sales just weren't there and Columbia dropped him.

Diamond's early career as a songwriter was at the famed “Brill Building” in New York, just uptown from the famous Tin Pan Alley. It had been songwriter territory since the Big Band era. Hits for Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller had been written there. Over the decades songwriters working at the Brill Building were a galaxy of stars, Diamond, Carol King, Paul Simon, and many others. Diamond's first hit as a songwriter came after he penned a tune for “Jay and the Americans,” which led to a few of his songs being recorded by the band “constructed” by NBC for a half-hour teen rock show.

“The Monkees” recorded Diamond's “I'm A Believer” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” which skyrocketed up through the charts, ballooning the TV band into stars and giving Neil Diamond some heavyweight credibility as a rock n' roll songwriter.

Shrewd veterans in the music industry knew that the Monkees were but a fad, but great songwriters were scarce. People in important places began to take note of Neil Diamond. He had written these songs for himself, but the Monkees released their covers of them before he could find anyone to record them with himself as the performing artist. Oddly, it was just as profitable in the long run. Those “in the business” knew where to read a record label and discover who had done the writing, and they took note.

As Diamond was still struggling to make himself known as a performer too, his credentials as songwriter kept his name in the charts. Among the other recording artists who did covers of early Neil Diamond songs were Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, Lulu, Mark Lindsay (formerly of “Paul Revere and the Raiders”), and even the English hard rock band Deep Purple. While at Bang Records, Neil temporarily thought of coming up with a stage name. The only problem was, he couldn't figure out which one he wanted. As time neared to release his “Solitary Man” debut for them he simply told Bang to just, “go with Neil Diamond and I'll figure it out later.” As “later” came and went, his millions of fans were glad he never reached that decision. (To be honest, this writer once thought “Neil Diamond” was a stage name, and was delighted to discover that he was wrong!)

On his first nationwide tours, Diamond found himself as the opening act for a variety of then-greater stars, Herman's Hermits and The Who among them. The cheers and thunderous applause assured him—and others—that he could do his own tour whenever he wanted. But Diamond was rapidly maturing as a songwriter and this brought him into  conflict with his label at Bang Records. Neil wanted to do more than just rock dance music. He was maturing as a writer, becoming more introspective, more serious. Bang was restrictive and  didn't want him to change his formula. They demanded more dance rock like his “Cherry Cherry,” “You Got To Me,” “Thank The Lord For The Nighttime,” and “Kentucky Woman.” But Diamond found a loophole in his contract and signed on with another label to produce his more ambitious songs. Bang promptly sued him and Neil countersued, the long and weary courtroom fights bringing on an extended period of low output from Diamond. But, in the end, Neil won the court battles and emerged victorious, even securing the rights to his Bang-era songs and master recordings. Few stars have been so fortunate since, the recording company attorneys sealing up loopholes like cracks in the hulls of ships.

Diamond signed on with another label and recorded the song that Bang was hesitant to support. “Shilo” was the tune that frightened them off. It's one of those rare songs that never made it high on the charts, but remains a great-selling record even decades after being recorded.

He then signed on with Uni Records (later MCA) and opened with the album “Velvet Gloves and Spit.” Possibly due to the odd name, it didn't sell well. But the songs contained therein finally and firmly confirmed Neil Diamond as a major star-- “Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show,” “Cracklin' Rosie,” “Song Sung Blue,” and one song he wrote after seeing the photograph of a little Caroline Kennedy dressed in riding clothes on the cover of LIFE magazine, “Sweet Caroline.” 

Diamond often took days, sometimes weeks, writing and re-writing songs to be just how he wanted them. But “Sweet Caroline” was penned in one hour in a Memphis hotel room. And the song has gone on through the decades as a favorite sing-along for many sports teams, whole stadiums of people belting it out, everyone knowing the lyrics. It reportedly started at Boston College football and basketball games, then became the official song for the Red Sox Nation, fans of the Boston Red Sox (although Diamond has been a lifelong fan of the Dodgers) and further research by this writer found several other teams who have adopted it as their theme or play it at certain times during their games.

I was never able to discover the reason for this, and it remains a mystery to me. It's a good tune, everyone knows the words, and apparently that's good enough for the fans. Who am I to question the wisdom of the masses? Like John Lennon said so simply once, “A good song is a good song.”

Diamond toured the United States, Europe, and Australia in 1972. and put two albums in the Billboard top five, “Moods” and the magnificent live album “Hot August Night.” That album became #1 in Australia and sold three million copies—in a total national population of just fourteen million people.

To round out the year, Neil played a 20 performance one-man show on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theater. Every single performance was sold out.

The year after that, Neil re-signed with Columbia for a then-record setting five million dollars. His first album with them was one of the most peculiar in pop music. Diamond wrote the soundtrack to “Johnathon Livingston Seagull,” based on the book of the same name by Richard Bach. Bach's book was a dreamy “New Age” bestseller but once Hollywood got their hands on it both Bach and Diamond disowned the movie, even suing the film's producer. Bach saw they'd trainwrecked his lovely story and Diamond saying they'd mangled his soundtrack for the movie. The movie was met with bad, often even hostile reviews and did incredibly poorly at the box office. Neil Diamond's soundtrack album actually brought in greater profits than the movie itself, and remains among his best work. To this day, “Johnathon Livingston Seagull” is an astonishingly brilliant stand-alone album, a mixture of Diamond's deeply moving songs and soaring, majestic symphony music. The movie is forgotten now, the book out of print. But Diamond's album remains beloved by millions. Despite the awful film, Diamond's soundtrack went to #2 on Billboard's album chart and brought him both a Golden Globe award for Best Original Score and a Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture.

There is a word in the Russian language, known well to Diamond's ancestors, that does not translate directly into English. Toska, a noun, represents a yearning, a longing, darker than nostalgia. It nearly verges on depression. Diamond may not have known the Russian term, but he knew the feeling well. Many of his future autobiographical songs would be full of toska.

Diamond was feeling that longing so strong it verged on depression. His autobiographical songs, “I Am...I Said” and “Brooklyn Roads” tell of a man knowing he's made it, but looking back at the little boy he left behind. He opens the first song by saying that he loved LA, his new home, but that he missed New York. And yet New York wasn't home anymore. “Trapped between two shores” is how he explained it. It was also in “I Am...I Said” that he wrote, “Did you ever read about a frog who dreamed of being a king, And then became one?
Well, except for the names and a few other changes, you could talk about me, The story's the same one.”

He still had painful memories of walking the streets of New York City, playing in bars with a guitar he'd bought on payments. At one point his wages were such that he could afford a cold-water flat, make the payments on his guitar, and after carefully doing the math he realized he would have one dollar and some pennies left over every day to feed himself. In a Rolling Stone interview, he explained he could buy a giant submarine sandwich for a buck and the rest went to penny candy. “I lived that way for a year,” he told the interviewer.

Even though he'd made it, even though he'd never have to worry about money again, it seemed to come as something of a shock to the man from a working class background. And true to his roots, he never stopped working. More writing and recording followed quickly.
He wrote “You Don't Bring Me Flowers,” Diamond writing the tune and collaborating with Allan and Marilyn Bergman on the lyrics. Barbara Streisand covered the song too, and soon radio stations all over the country were doing home-brewed “mash-ups” of the two singing together. Finally, they did record the song as a duet. That song went to #1 in 1979, Neil's third number one single.

Diamond's record sales slumped a bit in the 80's and 90's, although wherever he appeared live the house sold out in record time. Billboard Magazine reported he was the most profitable solo performer in 1986. Whether he had been fencing just moments before coming onstage or not, Diamond appeared onstage as a dynamo of sheer energy. This writer saw him perform live twice (so far) and I enjoyed his concerts more than even the Rolling Stones—and that's saying a lot. But while he can be brooding and introspective on some songs, and wildly cheerful or simply relaxed on others, his music ranges from rock to pop to folk and country. He's a hard man to pin down. What kind of man is he really?

Here's a good place to start—he once caught a savage case of laryngitis just before a concert he was to give at Ohio State University. Once again, the place was sold out. Intent on keeping his commitments, he went onstage—and gave a memorably poor performance. Afterwards, he took out local ads apologizing to his fans for the terrible performance. He told them what had happened, and added that he'd never let his fans down before and wouldn't let them down now. Then, out of his own pocket, he offered to refund the price of the tickets for everyone present. The University made money. The promoters made money. The band was paid. The roadies and crews were paid. Diamond alone took responsibility and gave the folks their money back, promising to do better next time.  

That says more about Neil Diamond than a 50-page psychological report.

And he's not without a good sense of humor. On “Saturday Night Live” Will Ferrell did a recurring and often unflattering impersonation of Neil Diamond. During Ferrell's last appearance as an SNL regular, Diamond joined him onstage for his last impression. During a late-night episode of “The Jimmy Kimmel Show” Kimmel tried to sing “Sweet Caroline” and, as part of a skit, was arrested onstage for doing such a lousy job of it. The camera then cut to Neil Diamond on the roof of Kimmel's building, singing the song himself. Diamond's Twitter name is “yfrog.” When the TV show “American Idol” was scheduled on April 28 and 29, 2008, for the remaining contestants to sing Neil Diamond songs, he showed up in person to mentor and coach them, helping them wring all they could out of his songs. He still hasn't forgotten his roots.

Neil Diamond's latest album, “Home Before Dark,” was released on May 6, 2008. Nine days later it was #1 on Billboard's Hot 200 chart. It became the #1 album in the UK charts three days after that. Those who follow him on Twitter know he's working on a new album now, and he's going to play an electric guitar, a first for him. Who knows what music that baritone voice will bring us next? And when he wants to, that man can rock.

While generally a private man, his discography says enough for him. On May 2, 2008 Sirius Satellite Radio simply gave him his own channel, “Neil Diamond Radio.” His albums include 18 that went gold, 11 that became platinum, seven which went 2x platinum, two which went 3x platinum, one which sold four million copies (4x platinum), and still another which reached an incredible 5x platinum, a sales of five million copies. No one has any figures for individual ticket sales to his live concerts, or the millions who have seen him on various television specials. (One televised concert in Australia remains the most-watched program in that nation's history.)
He's been inducted to the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (after an inexplicably long wait!), and sung command performances for Presidents.

All to often we only realize the greatness of a singer, actor, or other artist after they've departed this world. Neil Diamond is still out there, still working, still making a beautiful noise. If you ever have the opportunity to attend one of his concerts, by all means do so. You'll be seeing a living legend, a “solitary man” completely self-made, the little boy who looked out the window during school that mastered a strict work ethic and never let it go. His talent is beyond compare, but he remains one of us, a hard-working man, one lucky enough to love his job and be excellent at it.

Diamond is Forever!

For those who love Neil Diamond and his music, a real treat is in store in just nine days.  On Saturday, May 14th, at 7:30pm, David Sherry presents his “Diamond is Forever” Tribute Show with the great music of the legendary Neil Diamond.

David Sherry is best known for his impression of the pop icon, Neil Diamond, with his inspired tribute show, DIAMOND IS FOREVER!   David began his professional entertainment career at the age of 16 playing in a folk group and performing in musical theater while studying and living on the Mediterranean Island of Malta where he appeared at the Dragonara Palace Casino and other entertainment venues. There he appeared in numerous productions in both musical and dramatic roles.
At age 17 he appeared in a European production of the rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar," in the supporting lead role of Judas Iscariot.  David's voice and talent did not go unnoticed by the local press and his time in Europe brought many firsts ranging from appearing on both television and radio to singing and performing on the stage of the oldest standing operational theater in Europe, The Manoel Theatre in Valletta, Malta.

Here David performed his first Diamond song "Sweet Caroline." David toured and performed in Europe for over seven years, visiting and residing in such exotic locations as Malta, Italy, Sicily, Portugal, England and Tunisia in Northern Africa before returning to the United States.
Seeing Diamond in concert inspired David to follow his dreams of working in entertainment. "I knew a lot of guys in the 50's who dreamed of bein' the King--being Elvis--but I was a 60's kid and I wanted to be like Neil Diamond! He was the cool guy to me--to my era. Seems I was one of the original Neil Diamond look-alikes before they ever existed. But I was really just being me, young and alive in the 70's.

Neil taught me to dream and I dreamed of being an actor, a singer, an entertainer and, sometimes in my wildest dreams, I dreamed of being Neil Diamond! That dream in many ways has became a reality with DIAMOND IS FOREVER!, my tribute to the Sound, Style and Feel of the phenomenal pop icon, Neil Diamond."

The Escondido Police Officer’s Association presents David Sherry’s “Diamond is Forever” Tribute Concert, Saturday, May 14th at 7:30 pm, Escondido Charter High School.  Call 760.747.7119 to order tickets.