He’s a receiver — Neil Diamond, that is, who’s already been handed trophies like the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (earlier this year), a Kennedy Center Honor (2011), membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (also 2011) and induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1984). That latter organization decided it’d been long enough since their last salute, so on June 14 in New York they’ll be presenting him with their ultimate honor, the Johnny Mercer Award.
He’s a good match for that prize’s namesake. Mercer had “Days of Wine and Roses”; Diamond has “Red Red Wine.” The elder writer experienced “Blues in the Night” while the king of ‘70s pop sang a “Song Sung Blue.” Mercer’s “Laura” and “Desiree” had nothing on “Sweet Caroline.” One difference is in the length of their songwriting careers: Mercer’s 40-year run was cut short by death in 1976 while Diamond has written for more than five decades — and counting, promising to keep at it even though a Parkinson’s diagnosis this year forced him to call it quits as a touring artist.
In 2014 Diamond told the Telegraph that songwriting is “hard work… I hate it. I hate it. But all right, nobody told me it was gonna be easy. And so what? I’m a ditch-digger when I’m writing songs.” Perhaps the man did protest too much, but in any case, he was mining for gold, not troughs, and when it comes to greatest hits, Diamond’s are forever. In honor of the crowning achievement a tunesmith can put on the mantle, a closer look at six of his most indelible singles:
When it comes to greatest hits — as with these six seminal songs — Diamond’s are forever.
“I’m a Believer”
As one of the most Brill of the Brill Building song farmers, Diamond had his first chart-topper when the Monkees took this to No. 1 at the end of 1966 (he later released his own version). Diamond has a knack for a kind of bubblegum-gospel song and no hymn to the eternal Her could ever better capture the religious epiphany of the soul-stirring moment when a young man sees the face that changes everything forever — or at least for two minutes and 49 seconds.
The verses of “I’m a Believer” sure sounded like the confessions of a depressive — (“Disappointment haunted all my dreams”!) and Diamond went whole-hog lonesome with his first solo single, also in ’66. “ ‘Solitary Man’ was my first song where I tried to really raise the level of my songwriting,” he told Mojo. “I don’t think I’d ever written a song in a minor key before.” Naturally, the song’s ’60s existential dilemma is all a lover’s fault. “I thought it was just a nice idea to write a song about a solitary guy,” Diamond told the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Hilburn in 1992. “It wasn’t until years later, when I went into Freudian analysis, that I understood that it was always me.”
Diamond has claimed this was inspired by seeing a picture of Caroline Kennedy as a child. In the more commonly told version, he wrote it for his second wife, Marcia, but couldn’t figure out how to make her name three syllables. Maybe, as with the conflicting gospels, both accounts could be true. What’s not up for question is its remarkable afterlife, not just as a karaoke perennial but, improbably, a sports and civic anthem: the Red Sox play it in the middle of the eighth inning of every game.
“I Am, I Said”
“Without any question, it came from my sessions with the analyst,” Diamond told Mojo, while explaining to Hilburn that its genesis came during a bad screen test for “Lenny”: “I felt really down and depressed. I had my guitar in the dressing room, and I wrote the melody and the title that day. But I spent the next four months trying to finish it. It was by far the most difficult song I have ever written — and probably the best song I have ever written.” Dustin Hoffman got the part, and the world got the song.
“You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”
Hilariously, this began as a 45-second theme song commissioned for a sitcom, Norman Lear’s failed “All That Glitters.” Good thing it got nixed, because when Diamond got a good reaction playing an instrumentally padded out version on the road, he and Alan and Marilyn Bergman realized maybe they should write the missing two-and-a-half minutes necessary for a pop song. Then radio stations began mashing up his version with Barbra Streisand’s cover, before Ken Ehrlich secretly arranged a real duet for the 1980 Grammys… and the rest is Beloved Divorce Anthem history.
“To me, it is the story of my grandparents,” Diamond told Hilburn about the “Jazz Singer” soundtrack tune. “It wasn’t thought out or intellectualized, just sheer emotion… It speaks to the immigrant in all of us.” If you attend a fireworks show this July, there’s a 99% chance you will hear this song… and at least a 10% chance that someone, amid the oohs and aahs, will be reawakened to the thought that it is not just a patriotic but a pro-border-crossing song.