By Jessica Wheeler, AliveTampaBay Columnist
With more than 75 million records sold and 37 Top 40 hits, Neil Diamond is one of music’s biggest legends—but he wasn’t always on the path to musical success. In honor of his upcoming April 23 show at Tampa’s Amalie Arena, let’s take a look back at the rise of a songwriting icon.
Born in 1941, Diamond grew up in Brooklyn and attended high school with Barbra Streisand, although the two didn’t become friends until much later. After seeing folk singer Pete Seeger perform at his summer camp, Diamond was inspired to buy a guitar and start writing songs. Upon graduating high school, he enrolled at New York University on a fencing scholarship, as a pre-med major. Diamond appeared to be living the American Dream, but songwriting was still foremost on his mind, and he often cut classes to spend more time working on his songs. He even started shopping his songs around the Tin Pan Alley publishing companies in Manhattan, hoping to sell his songs or possibly score a writing contract. During his senior year, only 10 credit hours shy of graduation, he dropped out. He’d been offered a temporary songwriting job that payed $50 a week.
In the early 1960s, it was common for artists to choose songs from professional songwriters like those hired by Tin Pan Alley. Carole King, Ellie Greenwich, and Neil Sedaka also spent time writing songs in this way. When the Beatles hit in 1964, it became more common for artists to write their own songs, slowly rendering Tin Pan Alley obsolete. Diamond learned this the hard way, selling about one song a week and barely scraping by. As the times began to change, Diamond began to think about performing his songs himself. In 1966, he had two major career breakthroughs: he was signed as a recording artist to Bang Records, and the Monkees recorded his song “I’m a Believer.”
At first, the Monkees gig looked like it would be the better deal—”I’m a Believer” was a No. 1 hit, and he was granted the right to provide the band with their follow-up single, “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” In contrast, his first charted single, “Solitary Man,” only reached No. 55. But by the time his next single was released, the Neil Diamond style was on the rise: punchy production, uptempo beats, and rousing vocals were the hallmarks of his songs at that time, and when he released “Cherry, Cherry” later in 1966 it reached the top 10.
More hits followed: “Kentucky Woman,” “You Got To Me,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “Thank the Lord for The Night Time.” He left Bang Records for a better deal with Uni Records, and changed his sound a bit, switching to ballads like “Sweet Caroline,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” and “I Am…I Said.” He went on to record movie soundtracks, hit live albums, and duets with the likes of his former classmate, Barbra Streisand. “If this darn songwriting thing hadn’t come up, I would have been a doctor now,” he noted wryly. His fans are obviously glad that he isn’t a doctor.
Jessica Wheeler is a columnist for AliveTampaBay.