In a career that began in the 1960s, Neil Diamond became a major recording artist, an internationally successful touring act, and a songwriter whose compositions produced hits for himself and others. His earliest recognition, in fact, came as a songwriter associated with the Brill Building era of Tin Pan Alley in the early '60s. But he soon branched out into recording and performing, and by the early '70s was topping the charts with the self-written singles "Cracklin' Rosie" and "Song Sung Blue." This enabled him to be one of the more noticeable figures in the singer/songwriter movement of the period, as he made the transition to an album artist with gold and platinum certifications. He also developed into a dynamic concert performer, as demonstrated on his 1972 album Hot August Night. His millions of fans flocked to his shows and bought his albums in big numbers. Still, as of 2001, he claimed worldwide record sales of 115 million copies, and early in the 21st century, he ranked third, behind only Elton John and Barbra Streisand, on the list of the most successful adult contemporary artists in the history of the Billboard chart.
Neil Leslie Diamond was born January 24, 1941 in Brooklyn, New York, the first of two sons born to Akeeba Diamond (known as Kieve), who operated and owned a series of dry goods stores in the New York City borough, and Rose (Rapoport) Diamond. Except for two years in the mid-'40s that the family spent in Wyoming while Akeeba Diamond served in the military, Diamond grew up in Brooklyn, albeit in changing locations as his father moved from store to store; he later claimed to have attended nine different schools and to have suffered socially as a result. He showed an early interest in music and took up singing and playing the guitar after seeing Pete Seeger perform at a camp he was attending as a teenager. In June 1958, he graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School, and that fall he enrolled at New York University, where he had won a fencing scholarship, as a pre-med student.
But he seems to have spent much of his time writing songs and trying to place them at music publishing companies. He also formed a duo with Jack Packer, a friend of his younger brother's, and as Neil & Jack they signed a publishing contract with Allied Entertainment Corporation of America and a recording contract with its subsidiary, Duel Records. This resulted in the release of two singles, "You Are My Love"/"What Will I Do" in 1960 and "I'm Afraid"/"Til You've Tried Love" in 1961, Diamond's first commercially released recordings. (In 1996, he reissued "What Will I Do" on his box set In My Lifetime.) The discs were not successful, and Neil & Jack broke up when Packer enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music in January 1961. Diamond, meanwhile, had stopped attending NYU in 1960, but in 1961 he enrolled in the university's School of Commerce, where he maintained his student status until 1965. (Although many accounts of his life repeat the erroneous story that he dropped out of NYU in 1962 just short of earning an undergraduate degree, biographer Rich Wiseman learned the truth by consulting the university's records.)
On his own, Diamond continued trying to break into the music business as a songwriter. In 1962, he briefly had a deal at Sunbeam Music, which published some of his songs, followed by a stint at Roosevelt Music. While he was there, an assignment came in from Dot Records to submit a follow-up to Pat Boone's novelty hit "Speedy Gonzales." Ten of the firm's writers eventually collaborated on a song, appropriately called "Ten Lonely Guys," which Boone recorded, and which reached number 45 in the Billboard Hot 100 in October 1962. Diamond, one of the ten, was credited under the pseudonym Mark Lewis, but this was his first appearance in the charts. Also in 1962, his composition "Santa Santa" was recorded by the Rocky Fellers and released by Scepter Records. But his next career development involved his own performing. In early 1963, he was signed to a singles deal by Columbia Records, and on January 24, his 22nd birthday, had his first solo recording session, followed by a second session three months later. The results emerged on July 2 as Columbia single 42809, "Clown Town"/"At Night," his first solo release. Unfortunately, the record flopped, and he was dropped by the label.
Recently married to schoolteacher Jay Posner (with whom he had two daughters), Diamond kept plugging away, even opening his own tiny office above the jazz club Birdland in midtown Manhattan. 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. In February 1965, he met the successful writers and producers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who took an interest in him and got him signed to songwriter/producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's Trio Music publishing company for three months. This association was over by the Leiber and Stoller had one of their clients, Jay & the Americans, record "Sunday and Me," a song Diamond had written at Trio. Released as a single in the fall of 1965, the song peaked at number 18 in December, giving him his first real hit as a songwriter.
By then, he had made other progress in his career. On June 25, he signed a deal with Barry and Greenwich for publishing and recording, the three forming Tallyrand Music with Diamond as president. (This appears to have prompted his decision finally to drop out of NYU.) Tallyrand shopped both Diamond's songs and Diamond as a recording artist, and on January 6, 1966, it signed a contract with WEB IV, the company controlling the independent Bang Records label. Soon after, Diamond was back in a recording studio, and on April 4, Bang released his label debut single, "Solitary Man," produced, as all his subsequent Bang discs would be, by Barry and Greenwich. "Solitary Man" gave him his first chart entry as a recording artist, peaking at number 55 on the Hot 100 in July.
Diamond quickly followed "Solitary Man" with his second Bang single, "Cherry, Cherry," released in July 1966, which gave him his first substantial hit, peaking at number six in October. The single's B-side, "I'll Come Running," was covered by Cliff Richard, who scored a Top 40 hit with it in 1967. When song publisher Don Kirshner heard "Cherry, Cherry," he called Diamond into his office and asked if the songwriter had a similarly upbeat tune that could be used by the Monkees, a group put together for an upcoming TV series. Diamond played him "I'm a Believer," a song intended for his debut album. Kirshner liked it, and Diamond, Barry, and Greenwich recorded a backing track that Kirshner took to California and had the Monkees sing over. By the time "I'm a Believer" was released as the Monkees' second single in the fall of 1966, the group was a teenybopper phenomenon, and the disc had advance orders of over one million copies. It shot to number one, where it stayed seven weeks, becoming the biggest single of 1967.
Diamond's debut LP, The Feel of Neil Diamond, released in August 1966, was a rush job, featuring "Cherry, Cherry" and "Solitary Man" along with his covers of hits like "La Bamba" and "Monday, Monday." It barely charted. Also featured, however, was "I Got the Feelin' (Oh No No)," an original composition that would be his next single in October. It reached number 16 in December, but the 45 was also significant for its iDiamond-penned B-side, "The Boat That I Row." British singer Lulu quickly covered the song, and her version became a Top Ten U.K. hit in the spring of 1967. Diamond's fourth Bang single, "You Got to Me," was released in December 1966 and peaked at number 18 in March 1967. In February, his song "Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)" was featured on the Monkees' chart-topping second album, More of the Monkees. The following month, "A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You," the Diamond-penned follow-up to "I'm a Believer," entered the singles chart for the Monkees; it peaked at number two in April.
Also in March, Bang released its fifth Diamond single, "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," which became his second Top Ten hit in May. In April, Ronnie Dove entered the charts with "My Babe," written and produced for him by Diamond; it peaked at number 50 in May. Bang's sixth Diamond single, "Thank the Lord for the Night Time," appeared in June, peaking at number 13 in August. That month saw the release of Diamond's second LP, Just for You, which peaked at number 80. Diamond's sixth Bang single, "Kentucky Woman," followed in September, and it reached number 22 in November, giving him his sixth consecutive Top 40 hit.
After nearly two years of hit recording and songwriting, Diamond had a falling-out with his producers and his record label. As popular music turned more serious in the late '60s, he became less satisfied writing simple pop songs, and, instead of "Kentucky Woman," he had proposed that his sixth Bang single be "Shilo," an introspective ballad not about the Civil War battle, but about an imaginary childhood friend, that he had written and recorded. Bang, thinking the song less commercial than "Kentucky Woman," used it as an LP track on Just for You instead, and Diamond, who was also dissatisfied with his royalties, found a loophole in his contract, which, it turned out, failed to bind him exclusively to WEB IV and Tallyrand. He therefore declared himself free to sign a recording contract with another company. Soon, lawsuits were flying.
On March 12, 1968, a judge denied WEB IV's request for a temporary injunction preventing Diamond from signing to another record label while his contract dispute was making its way through the courts. It was a key decision; the lawsuits would continue for another nine years until Diamond settled them on February 18, 1977, when he purchased his Bang master recordings. But on March 18, 1968, he signed a five-year contract with Uni Records, a division of MCA. The first product of the deal was another introspective, autobiographical ballad, "Brooklyn Roads," released in April. Diamond followed with the more uptempo "Two-Bit Manchild" that month, but neither that single nor its follow-up, "Sunday Sun," which appeared in September, restored him to the Top 40, and Velvet Gloves and Spit, Diamond's debut album for Uni, failed to chart. Meanwhile, there was more upheaval in his life. Now romantically involved with TV production assistant Marcia Kay Murphey, he left his wife and moved to California. After their divorce was final in November 1969, he married Murphey one month later.
Professionally, Diamond tried to stem the tide of his career decline by recording at American Sound Studio in Memphis, beginning on January 8, 1969. Working with producers Tommy Cogbill and Chips Moman, he took more of a gospel-tinged, country-rock approach, starting with the single "Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show," quickly released as a single, which peaked at number 22 in April,