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Neil Diamond: From Brooklyn to Bang
The Brooklyn-born songwriter and singer gets his start
Welcome music lovers to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions’!
This time around, I am writing about the recordings Neil Diamond made at the beginning of his career for Bang Records. They remain some of Diamond’s most exciting and vital work, and abound with hooks, riffs and earworms. They are also a reminder that few have mastered the art of the two-and-a-half-minute pop song as Diamond has. I hope you enjoy the essay and will share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.
As of today (September 7), I am away on the first of a few vacations in the coming months which means that there will be some adjustments to my usual publication schedule of every 10 days. The next time ‘Listening Sessions’ will reach your inboxes will be in two weeks time (September 21). Until then, may good listening be with you all!
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“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.”
- the opening verse of ‘Solitary Man,’ written by Neil Diamond
The details are recounted succinctly. They are like short pieces of reportage coming through the rat-a-tat-tat of the news wire. In the span of six lines, two love affairs begin and are quashed through acts of betrayal—the scene of the first is painted with the broadest of strokes, whatever happened in the second is left to the imagination. The end result is that until the unlucky-in-love protagonist finds a committed and truthful partner, “I’ll be what I am / a solitary man.” The moody and brooding sentiment—the portrait of a reserved, aloof loner is punctuated by equally moody and brooding brass, calling to mind a certain kind of New York romanticism: coat pulled tightly, eye contact scrupulously avoided, a cool detachment at odds with the more prickly, if even more damaged, soul of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘I Am A Rock,’ released around the same time. That song was a hit. The other, ‘Solitary Man,’ was almost, but there was no doubt that for the 25-year-old Brooklynite who wrote and recorded it, a hit wouldn’t be too much longer coming.
Besides, before ‘Solitary Man’ appeared in the spring of 1966, Neil Diamond had put a song onto the top 40 as a songwriter. ‘Sunday and Me’ was recorded by Jay and the Americans, they of the pseudo-operatic ‘Cara Mia’ and the cinematic cantina cha-cha-cha of ‘Come a Little Bit Closer,’ and while it didn’t feature much of the stylistic ingenuity that would soon instantly identify a song as coming from the pen of Diamond, it did have, by connecting the girl whom the song’s protagonist lauds and dreams to land with a sense of striving, a yearning to transcend one’s station, to beat back the mundane to embrace the seemingly untouchable sublime.
Diamond was one such dreamer once upon a time. A desire to write and make music was lit aflame after attending the Supreme Lake Camp in North Highlands, New York, in the summer of 1957. While there, Pete Seeger performed and returning home to Brooklyn, Diamond took up the guitar and songwriting. As ‘Sunday and Me’ was climbing the charts in the autumn of 1965, Diamond was a scuffling songwriter in the Brill Building at 49th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, an epicentre of musicmaking—in 1962, 165 music businesses were headquartered there—populated by a bevy of songwriters whose collective output would define a large portion of American sixties pop music. Carole King and then-husband and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin, were just one of the writing teams there. King once set the scene of what working at the Brill was like.
“Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You’d sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific—because [publisher] Donny [Kirschner] would play one songwriter against one another. He’d say, “We need a new smash hit”—and we’d all go and write a song and the next day would each audition for Bobby Vee’s producer.”
Diamond’s remembrances of that time were more hardscrabble. For a time, he worked upstairs of Birdland on 52nd Street and was selling, by his recollection, one song a week, just enough to squeeze out 35 cents a day to eat. The solitude was important, lessening the pressure which permitted interesting songs to spring forth. Three of the many working at the Brill would ensure there would soon be an audience for them.
Bert Berns, one of the record makers at the time who was mobbed up or, at the very least, had connections to the underworld, was a prolific producer as well as a songwriter, sometimes credited under Bert Russell or Russell Byrd, at the Brill. Berns’ imprint is on such classics as the Isley Brothers’ ‘Twist and Shout,’ the Exciters’ ‘Tell Him,’ the Drifters’ ‘Under the Boardwalk’ and Them’s ‘Here Comes the Night,’ for starters. Much of his earlier work was with Atlantic and it was with label bigwigs Ahmet Ertgeun, Nesuhi Ertegun and Jerry Wexler that he started Bang (an acronym that combined the four’s first names with Gerald instead of Jerry for Wexler) in 1965. Within a year, the company was all Berns’. A cover of ‘Hang on Sloopy’ by the McCoys was a number-one hit and ‘Night Time’ by the Strangeloves—a group in which three songwriters and producers: Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein, and Richard Gottehrer, pretended to be Australians reared on a sheep farm—encapsulated what Bang was all about: music that stuck to your ribs and to your ears.
Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich began writing songs together in 1960. Their specialty at the Brill was the wider, more ambitious side of pop, crafting many of the signature songs that defined Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” as well as the teen melodramas of the Shangri-Las. They married in late 1962 but divorced three years later.
In 1965, Barry and Greenwich ran into Diamond. After hearing demos of some of his songs, they got him a contract with a music publisher. He eventually got canned (recounting the tale to Larry King in 2003, he noted that getting his walking papers from a publisher was a recurring rite of passage during that time). Barry and Greenwich then brought Diamond to Berns who signed him to Bang and they became his production team.
‘Solitary Man,’ which Diamond later acknowledged was a reflection of the years he had spent trying to make a name for himself, was dark and melancholy. It lingers, from the dispassionate yet haunting lyrics to the trombone choir employed in the instrumental interlude. His follow-up was a different matter entirely.
‘Cherry, Cherry,’ like its predecessor, uses small details to fill in a wider scene. Here’s the opening verse: “baby loves me, yes, yes, she does / oh, the girl’s out of sight, yeah / says she loves me, yes, yes, she does / gonna show me tonight, yeah.” On the surface the lyrics may seem more banal than brilliant but they are celebratory and exuberant. Diamond chronicles the thrills and chills of being in love as well as its wonderment; at one point, he sings “you ain’t got no right, no, no, you don’t / ah, to be so exciting, yeah.” Lyrics like these needed a production that popped and that’s exactly what Barry and Greenwich as well as arranger Arnie Butler provided.
It starts with Diamond’s acoustic-guitar riff—driving, propulsive, contagious. Just before it repeats, Barry and Greenwich add hand claps. They also sing backup, adding a bubble-gum touch to Diamond’s assured, in-command lead. That’s all there is to the verse. It only sounds like a lot more because of how catchy it all is. It remains so as a backbeat is added for the chorus, adding the lightest of heft to the forward motion of Diamond’s guitar playing. The bridge introduces a mambo-like detour, with piano and organ added but the main elements of ‘Cherry, Cherry’ remain dominant: Diamond’s strumming and vocal, and Barry and Greenwich’s claps and background punctuations. There is such a collision of hooks here: the rhythm of the guitar, Diamond’s tossed-off “hey” as the verse moves to the chorus, the song’s primary refrain: “she got the way to move me, cherry,” Barry and Greenwich’s da-da-daing on the bridge and another “hey” by Diamond to get ready for the fade-out chorus. ‘Cherry, Cherry’’s destiny was in its grooves. It was a big hit.
And yet what maybe most astonishes about ‘Cherry, Cherry’ with the hindsight now offered by over a half century since its release is how it, in many ways, stood unapologetically apart from the other pop music of its time. It called back to the street-wise sounds of someone like Dion, revealed a feel for Ray Charles and was entirely impervious to the British explosion of the mid sixties. Diamond himself stood out as well. Where the trend was to wear one’s hair down, he swept it up in a pompadour. He eschewed both the business-like coat and tie as well as the growing garishness in threads in favour of solids and monochrome.
His first two singles for Bang emphasized two of the sides of Diamond: one weighed down by the cares of the world and the other preoccupied with taking in its pleasures. His next single, ‘I Got the Feelin’ (Oh No No)’ was an example of the former. The one that followed, ‘You Got to Me,’ was in the spirit of the latter. Both were top 20 hits but their success was dwarfed by a Diamond song that Barry brought to a band that became the biggest sensation since the Beatles.
The laser focus on the fact that the Monkees were a manufactured pop group at the expense of the more salient facts that each member of the group was a working musician, in one form or another and the music that they made, both with studio musicians (something that most other pop groups in America did, to one extent or another) and without was, more often that not, very good to great, has thankfully largely dissipated. Diamond’s ‘I’m a Believer’ which was recorded with a studio band and included the songwriter on guitar backing Micky Dolenz’s lead, and Davy Jones and Peter Tork’s backgrounds (Michael Nesmith, the most accomplished artist in the Monkees, was not involved at all), has all his hallmarks: Jones and Tork mimic the backing of ‘Cherry, Cherry,’ there’s a confessional style to the verse and a great hook at the end of the the chorus (no less than Leonard Bernstein cited its resolution on an unexpected chord in the landmark 1967 television special, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution). Barry would have the Monkees record two more of Diamond’s songs: ‘Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),’ only to be an album track and ‘A Little Bit of Me, A Little Bit of You,’ their follow-up to ‘I’m a Believer’ and almost as big of a hit.
Diamond would record his own version of ‘I’m a Believer’ for his second LP on Bang, Just for You, released in the summer of 1967. The first, titled The Feel of Neil Diamond, was released the previous summer to cash in on the success of ‘Cherry, Cherry’ and was a mix of originals and covers. And while it is interesting to hear Diamond interpret some of the hits of the time, including ‘Monday, Monday’ and ‘Hanky Panky’ (he has fun on that one!), it’s clear that he was at his best singing his own songs. While being padded out by ‘Solitary Man’ and ‘Cherry, Cherry,’ Just for You is happily an all-Diamond affair and illustrative of his rapid ascent as an artist who was becoming intimidatingly good at melding his mastery of the art of the two-and-a-half minute pop song with subtexts that heightened their emotional power.
The insouciant loner at the heart of ‘The Boat That I Row’ (one can almost see Diamond sneer as he sings lines like “I don’t go around with the local crowd / I don’t dig what’s in so I guess I’m out”) is set against a suspended riff on the verse and a hooky chorus. ‘You’ll Forget’ balances the haunting last words of a break-up uttered to Diamond: “you’ll forget that you loved me and you’ll stop thinking of me / you’ll forget what you feel right now” with, as the backing band drops out, the cry of “but how?”
Above all, Just for You is chock full of hits, both at the time of its release and in the future with UB40’s iconic cover of Diamond’s ‘Red Red Wine’ coming in the mid eighties. ‘Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon’ is dark. The refrain is offered like a ticking time bomb while the verses pour out of Diamond as confessions of one from the wrong side of the tracks as well as an ardent declaration that a relationship between the two in the song would be a lifeline thrown out by both to each other.
‘Thank the Lord for the Night Time’ is, on the surface, far more light and jovial. It could even be considered an example of frat rock. But, lurking in plain sight is something more complex. There is the dissatisfaction with the daily grind (“nine to five ain’t taking me where I’m bound”), the burning ambition of youth (“I’ll talk about plans now, baby, I got plenty”) and the frustrations of feeling stuck (“nothing ever seems to work out the way it should”). Above all, there is a celebration of a sweet escape (“I thank the Lord for the night time / to forget the day”). Pretty heavy stuff but it is all leavened by an arrangement that puts everything that made a Neil Diamond record an exhilarating prospect into overdrive. An electric guitar punches up the main riff, there’s a thrilling sense of momentum as the verse careens into the chorus, and Barry and Greenwich add the expected hand claps and background vocals. Most could only dream of writing a song as good as ‘Thank the Lord for the Night Time.’ In the middle of 1967, Diamond was churning them out as if it was nothing. He wanted to go deeper, however. ‘Kentucky Woman,’ with its languid middle section tinged with the slightest hint of psychedelia and its abstract harmonies, was one step in that direction.
Another was to get more explicitly personal. One such song, which touched on the ache of childhood loneliness, Diamond wanted to put out as a single. Berns, whose ear only bent towards the commercial, said no. It’s here where Berns’ ugly side came to the fore. It’s said that he underlined his decision by sending one of his mobster friends to intimidate Diamond into acquiescing. It didn’t work and soon Diamond left Bang (Berns, who had a damaged heart due to contracting rheumatic fever as a child, died at the end of 1967 at age 38 of a heart attack) for Uni.
The song in dispute, ‘Shilo,’ was released on Just for You. While it points to a theatrical element that would become a big part of Diamond’s artistry, it did not neglect the basic principles of pop. There’s a lingering moment of calm at the end of each verse and a sincerity in Diamond’s delivery that would be a sustaining force over the many years ahead of him even as he became to be increasingly associated with a certain level of glitzy kitsch. It may be why whenever he would perform what is surely his signature song, ‘Sweet Caroline,’ it is almost akin to committing a crime to not lustily repeat “so good” at the end of the line, “sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good.”
Today, that impulse more easily resides alongside the inescapable fact that Diamond is one of the finest craftspeople of pop that has ever been. His first records on Bang—they have been available as a standalone collection since 2011—remain hot, bold, exciting, and yes, so good.