Neil Diamond, born January 24, 1941, has always had a polarizing effect as far as music fans are concerned. One thing that's fact is that he's one of the most successful songwriters of the past 50 years.
Diamond has sold more than 115 million records, scored eight number-one hits, had his songs covered by scores of other artists, and been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Kennedy Center Honors. Throughout it all, he's always veered between what's commercial and what's cool.
He was part of the original group of songwriters for hire based in New York's Brill Building, the spawning ground for some of the biggest hits destined to populate the airwaves throughout the early and mid-'60s. There, he composed scores of songs that made their way to the top of the charts. Here are just a few: "I'm a Believer," "A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You," and "Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)" by the Monkees; "Kentucky Woman" by Deep Purple; "The Boat That I Row" for Lulu; and "I'll Come Running," "Solitary Man," "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," "I Got the Feelin' (Oh No No)," and "Just Another Guy" for British pop icon Cliff Richard. Even Elvis culled songs from Diamond's catalog.
Remarkably, none of these songs was written specifically for others, and by the mid-'60s, Diamond was recording his own material and fashioning an image as an edgy, introspective performer. Sadly, though, his work was mainly recognized through others' interpretations, a fact that likely contributed to his distinct lack of hipness.
Yet once he signed to MCA, he launched a string of successful singles, among them "Sweet Caroline," "Holly Holy," "'Cracklin' Rosie," "Song Sung Blue," and "I Am... I Said." But given their pop appeal, he was typecast as strictly a singles artist who seemed out of sync with the emergence of underground radio and the psychedelic sensibilities that accompanied it.
Still, in the decades since, Diamond's wavered between appealing to the pop crowd and attempting to embrace a more knowing audience. His 1972 live album, Hot August Night, spotlighted him as a dynamic, assured, and commanding performer who weighed in midway between Elvis and early Dylan. His fall tour that year found nearly every show a sellout.
However, a year later, after switching to Columbia Records, he released Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a schmaltzy, sentimental soundtrack to the ill-conceived film of the same name. The music was decidedly of the adult-contemporary variety, and whatever strides he had made to appeal to a hipper audience with Hot August Night were negated in a matter of months.
Then, in 1976, he chose Robbie Robertson of the Band to produce his follow-up, Beautiful Noise. The following Thanksgiving, Diamond was one of a select group of performers to guest at the Band's Last Waltz concert, and his appearance alongside Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Neil Young helped boost his hipness factor yet again. Significantly, the song he performed, "Dry Your Eyes," was a cowriting venture between him and Robertson. He also joined the rest of the performers onstage at the end of the concert for a stirring rendition of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released."
In the '80s, however, Diamond again reversed course, starring in and scoring the film The Jazz Singer and singing the hit duet with Barbra Streisand, "You Don't Bring Me Followers." His appeal to the rock crowd faded even as he was embraced by their parents and grandparents.
Surprisingly, he returned to trendier realms with the start of the new millennium, working with the über-cool producer Rick Rubin on a pair of critically acclaimed albums, 12 Songs and Home Before Dark. It would seem he had finally found his way into the alternative underground, albeit as an aging pop idol now well into his 60s.
On the other hand, his 2009 release, A Cherry Cherry Christmas, and his 2010 offering, Dreams, a covers collection spotlighting 14 of his favorite songs by other artists, brought him back to the middle of the road. Go figure. At this point, it takes more than a GPS to figure out Diamond's direction.