'I was a solitary child." to hear his songs and stories, you would think that Neil Diamond was born lonely. That, apparently, is not far from the truth.
Neil Diamond was born in Coney Island. His family moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming – where his soldier father was stationed – before he was four. In Cheyenne, and later, back in Brooklyn, he was in and out of nine schools before he was 16 because his father operated dry-goods stores, and was always chasing fortunes from one location to another. Diamond had few friends and says he turned to music and to an imaginary companion:
Shilo, when I was young
I used to call your name
When no one else would come
Shilo, you always came and we'd play . . .
He heard radio music when he worked in his dad's shop; at home there were his folks' Latin dance records; he idolized singing cowboy movie stars and, at Erasmus Hall and Lincoln High School, he was in the choral group. At 16, he went to a camp in upstate New York where Pete Seeger performed. "And some of the kids had actually written a song and they played it for him, and I kinda sat in the back and watched, and I became aware of the possibility of actually writing a song. And the next thing, I got a guitar when we got back to Brooklyn, started to take lessons and almost immediately began to write songs."
Neil was attracted to songwriting because "it was something no one in my family had done. It was unusual, it wasn't your everyday average kind of thing, and it was the first real interest I had shown in anything up until that point." It was also a release for his frustrations. Diamond wrote constantly – basic love songs, influenced by the pop music of the day, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, the Drifters and the simple folk music of the Weavers.
"I began to get more and more into the lyrical part of it when I got into college," he says. "I was bored by school, and writing lyrics in class was interesting. It resulted in abysmal failure in school. I mean, I just hung on by the barest thread."
He had been admitted into New York University on a fencing scholarship as a premed major. "I probably would not have ever gone to college if I hadn't been offered a scholarship," he says. "They were the only school that accepted me." But with chord progressions spinning around his head, he found himself splitting his time at NYU between fencing and songwriting. Then, he says, "I began cutting classes and taking the train up to Tin Pan Alley, tried to get the songs heard.
"I never really chose songwriting. It just absorbed me and became more and more important in my life as the years passed. I suppose if I were able to earn a living through fencing, I might have chosen that, because that also had its way to vent the emotional side of me."
He picked up the epee – in his senior year of high school – because "my father had gone to the same high school and I remember his yearbook. He had five extracurricular activities on his and I wanted five also, just to keep the tradition alive."
In gravitating toward Tin Pan Alley, Diamond was unknowingly following another tradition, that of the Jewish-American pop-music craftsmen. Today, he acknowledges the relationship: "The Gershwin tradition, of the person who really began with a primitive musical education and somehow expanded on it." He has previously said: "I don't dream of being George Gershwin. I dream of being Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Robert Frost. That's how much I think I can do musically."
He found Tin Pan Alley in the yellow pages, while looking up "music publishers" and got an offer from Sunbeam Music to write songs for $50 a week for 16 weeks. "It seemed like an eternity," says Diamond. Only ten units short of graduation, he quit NYU.
Sunbeam kicked him out of his cubicle after the 16 weeks were up. By then he'd begun singing his own songs for demo (demonstration) purposes, and he got a one-record deal from Columbia Records. He promoted the single with his first public appearances, lip-synching the song at "hops and little fairs." His first performance was in Pennsylvania. He wore a suit, had not yet worked a guitar into his act, "went out there, tripped over a wire and fell flat on my face. My first introduction to the stage."
His record did a similar fall and Columbia bounced him back out on the streets. He was in and out of publishing houses for the next seven years. Diamond's problem was simple: he couldn't write for anyone else.
Unlike his peers – Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka, Howard Greenfield, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill – Diamond never wrote a hit. "I had very few things that were recorded even. Which is probably why I had such a nomadic life as a writer. Part of it was they felt there were too many words. I'd spent a lot of time on lyrics, and they were looking for hooks and I didn't really understand the nature of that.
"The only real success I had was in being able to sell the songs in the first place to the publishers and get the advance. It was purely a matter of survival. I was able to sell one song a week or every two weeks and get my $100, which carried me another two weeks till the next song was sold."
He reached a point where he allotted himself 35¢ a day for a meal: a 23¢ Hoagy – a submarine sandwich – a Coke, and a two-cent piece of candy from Woolworth's. "I did that for a year," he says.
The frustrations, he willingly admits, affect him to this day. "Listen," he has said, "it's very difficult to accept seven years of failing without it doing something to you. And what it did was close me up more as a person."
After about the millionth firing from a staff writing job, Diamond went into business for himself, renting a storage room above Birdland on Broadway for $35 a month. "Put a piano in, put a pay phone in, put two chairs in and I stayed there for a year and wrote. And something new began to happen. I wasn't under the gun, and suddenly interesting songs began to happen, songs that had things that none of the others did." For one of his songs, he needed a demo singer and called on Ellie Greenwich. With partner Jeff Barry, Greenwich was one of the successes on Broadway, writing and/or producing for the Crystals, the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, among many others. Greenwich and Barry eventually joined Diamond in a publishing firm and agreed to produce him. Suddenly, given the impetus of writing for himself, he came up with three hits in their first session: "Solitary Man," "Cherry Cherry" and "I Got the Feeling (Oh No No)."
Jeff Barry took Diamond to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records. Diamond, now equipped with a black Everly Brothers/Gibson guitar, ran through his tunes. Wexler says he made a deal "on the spot." However, a producer who'd been working with Atlantic, Bert Berns, was just starting a record label – financed by Atlantic and called Bang Records – and when Berns phoned Wexler the next day to talk about acquisition of talent for Bang, Wexler "handed Neil to Burns."
Bert Berns is one of the great untold stories of rock & roll. He died on the last day of 1967, at age 38, of a heart attack. He began in the early Sixties as a song plugger, and became a producer for Atlantic, working with Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett and, most successfully, the Drifters. As a songwriter, he'd written Latin-influenced hits such as "Twist and Shout"; for the Drifters, his "Under the Boardwalk" and "Save the Last Dance for Me" inspired, among many younger songwriters, Neil Diamond. After the British assault of '64, he was in England, producing Them (he wrote "Here Comes the Night") and later signed Van Morrison onto Bang Records.
Diamond's instant success at Bang was based on a way with melodies, a reliance on a go-go bounciness and simple love lyrics.
Diamond stayed with Berns for only two years. Berns, he says, had two sides: one the creative, supportive, paternalistic musical genius. The flip side was the hard-headed, chart-minded businessman. Diamond ran into trouble when he asked that "Shilo" be released as a single. "It was my first attempt at an autobiographical thing. It was not what he wanted. It was not 'Cherry Cherry' or 'Kentucky Woman.' And I had asked him over a period of time if he would release it as a single. 'No, go in and do some more singles.' It finally became desperate because I just felt that it was part of my development, and I told him I wouldn't take any royalties for it, and please put it out. And he said, 'If you give me another year on your contract I'll put it out.' And at that point we had been having very bad relations and I was just totally disgusted with it and I walked out. When I told him I wouldn't record for him anymore the heat began to really get intense. Bert started threatening me because I was his biggest artist and he wanted more of the same. At that time Fred Weintraub was managing me. About two weeks after our real big blow-up, somebody threw a bomb into the Bitter End, and we knew it was related to this whole thing."
"It wasn't a bomb," says Weintraub, now a film producer. "It was just a stink bomb that destroyed the place so we couldn't use it for a couple of days. And I got beaten up very badly. But it's hard to pin things like that down. There's no proof of anything."
Diamond, meantime, borrowed a .38 from a friend and sent his wife and daughter out to Long Island for several weeks. "Things seemed to cool down," he says, "and so I just left it at that."
Mrs. Bert Berns – now Ilene Biscoe – is still at Bang Records, now located in Atlanta. "God, that's absurd," she says. "It sounds like a motion picture script." Berns, she says, "wasn't that kind of a guy." But she was obviously pained. "Why does a beautiful man like Bert Berns have to have that kind of garbage thrown on his grave? . . . How does a dead man defend himself?"
Jerry Wexler, now an independent producer, also expressed "shock" at Diamond's claim. But, he says, Berns was "zealous and jealous about what he considered his equity. He could become very excited. Violence? I don't know."
Well I'm New York City born and raised
But nowadays I'm lost between two shores
L.A.'s fine but it ain't home
New York's home but it ain't mine
no more. . .
—"I am . . . I said"2
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