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"After four years of Freudian analysis, I realized I had written Solitary Man about myself." – Neil Diamond (1)
For Neil Diamond, life wasn’t easy growing up in Brooklyn during the 40s and 50s. His father, Kieve, and mother, Rose, were both first generation Jews from immigrant parents. With Kieve in the dry goods business, the family had to move to wherever they could earn a living. According to Neil, that meant never being in a neighborhood long enough to establish lasting friendships with other kids his age and attending nine different schools before his sixteenth birthday.
The constant relocation caused Diamond to be self-reliant but always on the outer fringes of groups at his various schools. As a result, his self-esteem suffered. While his younger brother, Harvey, excelled in school, Neil never found his niche until he attended Erasmus Hall High School. It was there he joined the choir. Another student who was a part of that choir was a young Barbra Streisand.
During the summer break from school in 1955 or 1956, Neil attended a summer camp where he observed folk singer, Pete Seeger performing for the campers. It was at this point where he realized this was something he could do.
Once again, a family move meant a new high school. It was at Abraham Lincoln High that Neil developed a love of fencing. “It’s physical combat in a classical sense and it’s beautiful to see and do,” explained Diamond, adding, “and it’s a terrific way to vent your aggressiveness. I needed that.” (2) For Neil, fencing gave him his first sense of personal fulfillment.
Diamond also discovered he had a penchant for writing poems as he would pass them onto girls with whom he had shown an interest. Remembering the Seeger concert, he wondered if he could overcome his shyness by combining his poetry with music. So, for his sixteenth birthday, his parents gave him his first guitar. He took some lessons but didn’t care for the teachers approach. “He wanted to teach me notes. I wanted to play from the heart and this no one could teach me.” (3)
Upon graduation from Lincoln High, he hadn’t determined what he wanted to do with his life. He was attracted to songwriting, loved fencing and his parents desire was for him to be a doctor. Neil applied for and won a fencing scholarship to New York University’s medical school beginning in the fall of 1958.
While on road trips for fencing competitions, Neil was perched in his seat on the back of the bus playing his guitar while other teammates were playing cards. With his desire to write songs becoming stronger, Diamond worked odd jobs to earn enough money to create demos of his songs.
It was at NYU in 1960 Neil met like-minded Jack Packer, another student with musical dreams. They formed an Everly Brothers-style duo, Neil and Jack, and performed around the New York area. After signing a publishing contract and recording contract with Duel Records, the duo recorded two singles that flopped. The duo split when Packer enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music in 1961.
Diamond stopped attending classes at NYU in 1960, but enrolled in the university’s School of Commerce where he maintained his student status until 1965. During those years, he was still trying to break into the music business as a songwriter.
In 1962, Sunbeam Music hired him as an apprentice for a sum of $50 a week. Though Sunbeam published a few of his songs, Neil found the work uninspiring. After four months, he found his next job at Roosevelt Music, where he received a writing credit on Ten Lonely Guys, a song recorded by Pat Boone, which reached number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Neil’s first appearance on the chart. (4)
Unhappy with the Brill Building experience of production line system of songwriting, Neil had this to say about the experience. “While I was there, it was restrictive, exploitive and had hardened arteries. Songwriters didn’t have any freedom or control. The publishers owned everyone they could.” (5)
In 1963, Diamond signed a one-song deal with Columbia Records, a deal where he not only wrote his material but performed it as well. With no desire to be a performer, his first release, Clown Town/At Night, failed to chart.
Also in 1963, Neil married his high school sweetheart, Jaye Posner, now a schoolteacher. Neil, barely scraping by as a songwriter and failed as a performer, was feeling the pressure.
Fortunately for Diamond, the pop music scene was changing. Instead of formula hits with a hook, new songwriters in the vein of Diamond were entering the scene. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were writing their own music and expressing it on their terms. In January of 1964, the Beatles crossed the pond, made their impact writing many of their songs and were accepted by the record-buying public. By this time, Diamond had his own office and peddled his songs on his own terms.
In early 1965, his song Just Another Guy was recorded in the U.K. by Cliff Richard and placed on the B-side of the number one single The Minute You're Gone, released on the British Columbia label. (4)
Another break came in 1965 when he met Ellie Greenwich during a recording session of one of his demos. Impressed, Greenwich introduced Diamond to her songwriter husband, Jeff Barry. The pair had written Da Doo Run Run, Then He Kissed Me and Be My Baby for Phil Spector. Eventually, the husband/wife team got Diamond signed to a three-month contract with Trio Music, owned by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. During that time, Diamond wrote Sunday And Me for Jay & The Americans, which peaked at number 18 on the Billboard chart, giving Diamond his first real songwriting hit.
By this time, Diamond’s songwriting career had shifted into second gear. After his time with Trio Music, he entered into a publishing and recording deal with Barry and Greenwich forming Tallyrand Music, which led to a recording contract with Bang Records.
Bert Berns who composed the song Twist And Shout as well as Here Comes The Night by Them, was the owner of Bang Records. On April 4, 1966, with Greenwich and Barry producing, Diamond recorded his first Bang release, Solitary Man, which peaked at 55 on the Hot 100 in July.
L to R: Neil Diamond, Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Bert Burns
Photo courtesy of fineprinthereos.com
All told, Diamond hit the Hot 100 fourteen times between the years 1966 and 1973 for Bang Records, with nine of his releases reaching the Top 40 and Cherry, Cherry peaking the highest at number 6. (6)
Neil also wrote top hit hits in 1966 for other artists as well. The Monkees hit number one with I’m A Believer and the Cyrkle reached the number two spot with Red Rubber Ball. (7)
After two years of hit recordings for Bang Records, Diamond had disagreements with his producers and the label. Neil signed a five-year deal with Uni in March of 1968 but lawsuits over the Bang material lasted until 1977. Neil Diamond eventually bought his Bang recordings.
Neil sings live to a pre-recorded backing track of his hit Solitary Man.
1) Pete Paphides (2006-04-07). I'll Be What I Am. A Solitary Man. Link
2) Laura Jackson, Neil Diamond: His Life, His Music, His Passion. Page 11.
3) ibid. Page 12.
4) William Ruhlmann, All Music Guide, Neil Diamond biography. Link
5) Laura Jackson, Page 24.
6) Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Singles, 1955-2002, Page 191.
7) Joel Whitburn, Pages 484 and 167.
Photo courtesy neildiamond.com