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Pop songwriter Neil Diamond, a veteran of the Brill Building song factory, became one of the best-selling MOR performers of the '70s. Singing his own melodramatic quasi-gospel songs in a portentous baritone, he has sold over 92 million records worldwide, amassing over 35 Top 40 singles and 18 platinum albums.
Diamond recorded his first single soon after graduating from Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School. He attended NYU as a premedical student on a fencing scholarship until 1962, when he dropped out and began hawking songs to Broadway publishers, one of whom soon hired him as a $50-a-week staff songwriter. Diamond worked for various publishers, including Don Kirshner's Aldon Music, where he wrote the Monkees' #1 1967 hit "I'm a Believer." Fellow songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich helped him sign with Bang Records in 1965, for whom he recorded a string of Top 20 hits: "Cherry, Cherry" (#6, 1966), "I Got the Feeling" (#16, 1966), "You Got to Me" (#18, 1967), "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" (#10, 1967), "Thank the Lord for the Night Time" (#13, 1967), and "Kentucky Woman" (#22, 1967).
Bang lost interest after Diamond began looking for significance with songs like "Shilo." He moved to California in 1966, where Uni Records promised him full artistic control. His Uni (later MCA) debut, Velvet Gloves and Spit, sold poorly, but subsequent singles —"Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" (#22, 1969), "Sweet Caroline" (#4, 1969), "Cracklin' Rosie" (#1, 1970), and "Song Sung Blue" (#1, 1972) —established him as a major star. He toured the U.S., Europe, and Australia in 1972 and placed two albums in the U.S. Top 5: Moods and the live Hot August Night (which also became Australia's best-selling album at the time; 3 million sales in a country of 14 million people). He also played a 20-performance one-man show on Broadway in 1972.
The following year Diamond signed with Columbia for a record-breaking $5 million; his first album for his new label, the soundtrack to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, grossed more money than the film itself. He returned to touring in February 1976 and appeared in the Band's Last Waltz concert on Thanksgiving Day. Band guitarist Robbie Robertson produced Diamond's Beautiful Noise, a tribute to Diamond's '60s songwriting days. It was his 11th album in a row to go gold.
NBC aired a TV special of Diamond in concert on February 24, 1977; subsequent television specials proved popular with viewers. In 1980 he starred in a poorly received remake of The Jazz Singer. Nonetheless, his soundtrack LP for that film went platinum five times over, yielding Top 10 singles in "Love on the Rocks," "America," and "Hello Again." Heartlight was another Top 5 album, and the title track (#5, 1982) became a long-running staple of "lite FM" adult-contemporary radio. Primitive (#35, 1984), Headed for the Future (#20, 1986), Hot August Night (#59, 1987), and The Best Years of Our Lives (#46, 1989) all went gold. Lovescape (#44, 1991) included a duet with Kim Carnes, "Hooked on the Memory of You," Diamond's first duet since his chart-topping 1978 "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" with Barbra Streisand. Up on the Roof found Diamond singing the Brill Building pop of his early days; critics panned the album but gave glowing reviews to Diamond's subsequent tour, which as always, was attended by intensely devoted throngs. Meanwhile, Diamond continues to collect royalties for the many cover versions of his songs, including Deep Purple's "Kentucky Woman," UB40's chart-topping '80s version of "Red, Red Wine," and Urge Overkill's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," from the 1994 Pulp Fiction soundtrack.
In 1996 Diamond made a somewhat radical departure into country with Tennessee Moon (#14 pop, #3 C&W). The same year Columbia released the 70-song In My Lifetime, a career-spanning box set. The Movie Album (#31 pop, 1998) contains Diamond's renditions of 20 famous songs from classic motion pictures.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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