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Neil Diamond: The 'Fresh Air' interview


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going back into our archive to listen to our 2005 interview with Neil Diamond. His life is the subject of the current Broadway musical "A Beautiful Noise," which features his songs. In 2018, Diamond revealed he'd been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Neil Diamond started out writing songs for a music publishing company in the hopes that someone would record them. He wrote The Monkees' No. 1 hit "I'm A Believer," but it was Diamond himself who made most of his own songs famous - songs like "Sweet Caroline," "Solitary Man," "Cherry, Cherry" and "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon."

As a lot of his contemporaries fell off the charts, he moved from teen pop to adult pop, including his duet with Barbra Streisand and his hits from his remake of "The Jazz Singer." Before we get to the interview, let's hear the piece about him that our former rock historian, the late Ed Ward, recorded in 2011 after a compilation of his songs was released.


NEIL DIAMOND: (Singing) I thought love was only true in fairy tales, meant for someone else but not for me. Love was out to get me. That's the way it seemed. Disappointment haunted all my dreams. Then I saw her face. Now I'm a believer, not a trace of doubt in my mind. I'm in love. I'm a believer. I couldn't leave her if I tried.


ED WARD: Probably the strongest negative reaction I've ever gotten to anything I've written was when I panned a Neil Diamond show during my stint at Austin's daily newspaper. His fan club newsletter picked it up, and for 2 1/2 years, we got letters denouncing me, the last of which came from Vanuatu in the South Pacific. But my disappointment in the show was based on remembering where Diamond had come from. Diamond was born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents in 1941 and got a guitar for his 16th birthday. Almost immediately, he started writing songs and performing them with a neighbor. He went from one unsuccessful record contract to another, from the most obscure to a one-single deal with Columbia.

Next came a songwriting contract with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, which kept him fed but produced only six songs in one year. He'd been mentored by the great songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich after Greenwich sang backup on a demo he'd cut. And after getting fired from Leiber and Stoller, he asked Barry and Greenwich if they'd take a chance on him. At that point, something happened.


DIAMOND: (Singing) Baby loves me. Yes, yes she does. The girl's out of sight, yeah. Says she loves me, yes, yes she does - going to show me tonight. Yeah. Hey. She got the way to move me, Cherry. She got the way to groove me. She got the way to move me. Cherry, baby. She got the way to groove me. All right.

WARD: Barry and Greenwich scored him a deal with Bert Berns' new label, Bang, and his second single, "Cherry, Cherry" wound up in the top 10 in 1966. Suddenly, he was writing more than he could record. So Talleyrand Music, the company Barry and Greenwich had set up with him, was placing his songs all over the place.


TONY TRIBE: (Singing) Red, red wine goes to my head, makes me forget that I still need her so. Red, red wine…

WARD: "Red Red Wine," for instance, found its way to the Jamaican expat community in London where a guy named Jimmy James recorded it, only to be scooped by Tony Tribe, who put a reggae beat to it. Twenty-five years later, the British band UB40 recorded it on an album of the songs they'd grown up with, released it as a single and topped the British charts, and eventually many others, too, over an amazing two-year period. There was no doubt he was hot. The Monkees' version of "I'm A Believer" was 1967's top-selling song. And so it was no surprise when The Box Tops, led by Alex Chilton, chose a song of his to record the next year.


THE BOX TOPS: (Singing) Ain't no way to get you out of me. Oh, baby, there ain't no way in the whole wide world. I'm about to see. By and by, you're all I ever need. You know when I forget how good life is, you bring it home to me. And I say hey. Come on. Hey. Come on. Hey. Come on. Hey. Come on. Hey. Come on. Hey. Come on. Hey. Come on. Hey. Come on. Hey. Come on. Hey. Come on. Hey. Come on. Hey. Ain't no way. Oh, don’t you know that there ain’t no way…

WARD: Still, Diamond was determined to have his own career and worked hard at it, even if he, too, sometimes recorded excellent versions of other people's songs.


DIAMOND: (Singing) Monday, Monday, so good to me. Monday morning - it was all I hoped it would be. Oh, Monday morning, Monday morning couldn't guarantee that Monday evening, you would still be here with me. Monday, Monday...

WARD: The things at Bang were untenable. Bang's view of who he was and his own idea were at odds with each other. And when he and the label locked horns over what his next single should be, it resulted in a lawsuit for ownership of his recordings, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, which found in his favor in 1977. Bert Berns, the label's head, had died during the course of it all, and by early 1968, Neil Diamond had signed to another label and was on his way to superstardom.

GROSS: That was the late Ed Ward recorded in 2011. For many years, he was FRESH AIR's rock historian. Now let's hear my 2005 interview with Neil Diamond.


GROSS: I think it's fair to say your first big break - correct me if I'm wrong - was when you had recorded a demo and the songwriters Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry heard the demo and they really liked you, and they - some of their songs are "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Chapel Of Love"...

DIAMOND: "Be My Baby."

GROSS: "Be My Baby," yeah. So how did they hear you?

DIAMOND: I was making a demo. Usually, when you sold a song to a publisher, they would allow you to go in and make your own demo, which was invaluable experience to me. But I went and made the demo and hired Ellie as a backup singer, which she did despite the fact that she was having huge hits. She liked to sing in the studios with the other girls. And so I hired her for this session. And she liked something about what I was doing, my writing or my singing. And she brought me to her husband, Jeff. And he liked something about what I was doing. I don't know if he liked the writing or the singing, but one liked one and the other one liked the other. So we started a working relationship. We were both working for the same music publisher. And I kind of got let go by that music publisher. And I asked Jeff and Ellie if they were interested in producing me.

GROSS: In the first session that you did with them, you recorded "Solitary Man." Did you like the idea of horns on this?

DIAMOND: I liked the idea of anything on those records.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DIAMOND: I was just thrilled to be there.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "Solitary Man," which, I have to say, I think it's really a terrific recording.

DIAMOND: Thank you.

GROSS: Yeah. So OK, let's hear it. This is your first hit, yes?

DIAMOND: Yes, if you can call it a hit.

GROSS: That you recorded yourself, yeah? OK.


GROSS: OK. So this is Neil Diamond, "Solitary Man."


DIAMOND: (Singing) Melinda was mine 'til the time that I found her holding Jim, loving him. Then Sue came along, loved me strong. That's what I thought, me and Sue. But that died, too. Don't know that I will, but until I can find me the girl who'll stay and won't play games behind me, I'll be what I am - a solitary man, solitary man. I've had it to here...

GROSS: That's Neil Diamond. Now, did you write this song for yourself or for somebody else?

DIAMOND: No, I wrote this for myself. I had a contract with Jeff and Ellie. And I started to focus in on just what I wanted to do. And so "Solitary Man" was written for me and for the first sessions that I was to do with Jeff and Ellie.

GROSS: So how did "Solitary Man" change your idea of what you wanted from your musical life?

DIAMOND: Once I had a chart record of my own, I was no longer a kid knocking around on the streets. I was now - well, we didn't call them artists at that time. We called them vocalists. But I was a vocalist, and it was a whole different thing. I was writing for myself, so I had to really dig in and write as well as I possibly could. And I have to say, before that time, I don't know if I was doing that. I was just writing, and writing, and writing, maybe just to get an advance from a publisher. But there was not a lot of me in those songs. And "Solitary Man" was the first of a long line of me songs, my experience songs.

GROSS: When you were working in the rock 'n' roll Tin Pan Alley, were you actually - and you were writing for music publishers. Were you actually going to an office building every day to write?

DIAMOND: When I was signed to a staff publishing company, a music company, I would go in as often as I possibly could. The subway train from Brighton Beach, where I lived, that took us to New York University went also a few more stops further to Tin Pan Alley. So there was a lot of cutting of classes, going up and trying to peddle the newest song, probably that I had written in one of the classes at school. So it was an attraction. It was a seduction that was just a couple of stops beyond NYU. And I unfortunately spent a lot of time skipping that, the NYU Eighth Street stop, and going up to the 49th Street stop, which is where Tin Pan Alley was. And that was great fun, too.

It was that era when rock 'n' roll had just come in. And anybody, anybody, could get a listening to their music because the publishers didn't understand what rock 'n' roll was. And they were willing to listen to anybody and sign anybody that they thought might have the vaguest chance of having some success. So it was an open game for a number of years. But then things got serious. I got married. I was having a baby on the way. And I had to get serious. Enough with this fun.

GROSS: When you were working as a songwriter for publishers, writing for other people, were you writing for specific people? Were you writing with specific singers in mind?

DIAMOND: Well, that's usually how it went back then, although I was never a good enough writer to kind of write for some other singer, to understand what they did best - the keys, the kind of song. Usually, you were told that so-and-so is coming up for a session in three weeks, and they need a song of this type. And it was usually as close as possible to the song that they had previously, which was a hit if it was a hit. And you had to write a - kind of like a copy of that in a way, because that's the way it worked in those days. You have a hit record, and your next record sounds or should sound as much like the hit record as you can make it. But I wasn't very good at it. That's probably why I spent eight years down there in Tin Pan Alley and had very little success, nothing more, really, than selling a song and taking a small advance for it to get me through the week.

GROSS: We're listening to my 2005 interview with Neil Diamond. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2005 interview with Neil Diamond. The current Broadway musical, "A Beautiful Noise," is about his life and features his songs.

Now, The Monkees did a couple of your songs - "I'm A Believer" and "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You." Did you write those with them in mind or for yourself? I'm trying to think of what the chronology was. Like, you started recording in - what? - like, '67.


GROSS: '66. OK. And...


GROSS: What year are The Monkees? Like, is that after that?

DIAMOND: I think '67 - something like that. I recorded a couple of songs, including "Solitary Man" and "Cherry, Cherry," which was a big hit. And because of that hit, the people who were producing The Monkees called and said, we like "Cherry, Cherry." Do you have any other songs? I said, well, I don't have anything like "Cherry, Cherry," but I have an album coming out soon, and I'll send it over, and take your pick.

GROSS: You know, it's funny. The common wisdom goes when telling the story of, like, songwriters from the Brill Building and The Beatles is that The Beatles changed everything. After The Beatles, bands started writing their own songs. It drove out the professional songwriters. But, of course, The Monkees are a band that's, you know, a kind of fabricated band copying The Beatles. And you have this tremendous success writing for them. And in that sense, like, The Beatles' success inadvertently really helped you as a songwriter.

DIAMOND: Oh, yeah, no question about it. But it was not only in the sense of The Monkees doing a couple of songs. It was in the sense that the doors began to open for songwriters who were able to sing, and I just happened to be one of them who'd been knocking around the streets for years and now, suddenly, was getting a new and fresh listening to my work. So The Beatles made an enormous change, as did Bob Dylan. They brought the songwriter up to the front of the line and said, you know, you guys do it. And it had a devastating effect on the music publishing business in Tin Pan Alley, but it opened up many doors for people like me.

GROSS: My guest is Neil Diamond. Here's his version of "I'm A Believer."


DIAMOND: (Singing) I thought love was only true in fairy tales - meant for someone else but not for me. Love was out to get me. That's the way it seemed. Disappointment haunted all my dreams. Then I saw her face. Now I'm a believer - not a trace of doubt in my mind. I'm in love. And I'm a believer. I couldn't leave her if I tried. I thought love was more or less a given thing.

GROSS: One of the things that has kept you so musically successful over the decades is your tours. Would you describe a little bit how you put together your idea of what a show should be?

DIAMOND: It's a good question. I've never worked with a director. I like to put the shows together myself with the help of a lot of other people, including the band - my band who have been with me for many years. And we start right at the beginning. I have a huge blackboard in the studio, and we start with the songs that I want to include and that we haven't included in previous shows. I try to find a good opening song, a good closing song, which is usually - traditionally for me has been "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" because it kind of sums up what I'm about and what I'd like the world to be about. And you fill in, and you try to make something interesting. And each song has to have something that's new and fresh and original about it even if it was written 30 years ago.

GROSS: What about figuring out what to wear for your shows?

DIAMOND: I never thought about it. I have a clothing designer. His name is Bill Whitten. He's been doing my stage clothes for 35 years now. And so I let Bill take the lead in that. I have comments, obviously, things I like and don't like. But Bill handles that, and I think he decided in the mid-'70s that he wanted to go with glass beading and sparkly kind of things basically, I think, because no one else was using it and it would become mine. So, OK, I tried it, and I think it worked very well, although it's become a point of contention. I mean, just the fact that you bring it up is what has been happening over the years. I'll get a review for a show, and they'll think the show is wonderful, but they'll put down the shirt, which is terrific. I'd rather have them put down the shirt than something important. But I've been wearing those kind of shirts, and now it's - maybe it's tapering off now. But the shirts have been part of my persona on stage for as long as I can remember.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Neil Diamond in 2005. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Neil Diamond in 2005. The current Broadway musical "A Beautiful Noise" is about his life and features his songs. I want to ask you about another song that you wrote and recorded - a big hit for you, "Sweet Caroline," which is now played at Red Sox games at Fenway Park, and maybe you know the story of why that is. But let's start with the song itself. Is there a story behind the writing of the song?

DIAMOND: Yeah. I think so. I was heading down to Memphis for my first recording session down there. There were some producers I wanted to work with. And I only had two songs written, and in those days, a session was three hours, and you usually had three songs that you recorded. So the night before the session, at some motel in Memphis, I knocked out this song "Sweet Caroline." It was one of the fastest songs I've ever written, and we recorded it the next day. And it became one of my biggest songs, if not the biggest song. But songs usually don't come like that. There's usually a lot of work and teeth gnashing and agony and torment over any of these songs. But that one just popped out, and there it was. And here it is now. Still, people can sing it.

GROSS: It's also sung a lot in bars.

DIAMOND: Well, the fact is that it's fun and easy to sing with. And I think that that's the bottom line as far as that song is concerned. It's easy to sing. It's fun. People like to sing it. And that's why it's popular in bars - 'cause anybody can sing it no matter how many drinks you've had.

GROSS: Well, Neil Diamond, thank you very much for talking with us.

DIAMOND: My pleasure, Terry.


DIAMOND: (Singing) Where it began, I can't begin to know when, but then I know it's growing strong. Was in the spring, and spring became the summer. Who'd have believed you'd come along? Hands, touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching you. Sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good. I've been inclined to believe they never would. But now I look at the night, and it don't seem so lonely.

GROSS: My interview with Neil Diamond was recorded in 2005. In 2018, he revealed he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. The Neil Diamond musical, "A Beautiful Noise," is currently on Broadway. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll feature our interview with Janelle Monae. She grew up wanting to perform on Broadway but became famous for her afrofuturist funk, soul and hip-hop. She also co-starred in the films "Glass Onion," "Hidden Figures" and "Moonlight." Monae, who identifies as nonbinary, has a new album called "The Age Of Pleasure." I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: To keep up with what's on our show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.


DIAMOND: (Singing) Far - we've been traveling far without a home but not without a star. Free - only want to be free. We huddle close and hang onto a dream. On the boats and on the planes, they're coming to America, never looking back again. They're coming to America. Home - don't it seem so far away? We're traveling light today in the eye of the storm, in the eye of the storm. Home, to a new and a shiny place - make our bed, and we'll say our grace. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.