Neil Diamond Biography: Legendary Pop Singer-Songwriter
Neil Diamond (born January 24, 1941) is one of the most successful pop singer-songwriters of all time. His mellow, introspective songs helped define the sound of adult contemporary pop music. Recordings of his songs by other artists, including the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” and UB40’s “Red Red Wine”, are pop landmarks.
Fast Facts: Neil Diamond
- Born: January 24, 1941 in New York, New York
- Known For: Chart-topping singer-songwriter who defined the sound of adult contemporary music
- Top Songs: “Sweet Caroline” (1969), “Cracklin’ Rosie” (1970), and “Love On the Rocks” (1980)
- Spouse(s): Jaye Posner (m. 1963-1969), Marcia Murphey (m. 1969-1994), Rae Farley (m. 2012)
- Children: Marjorie, Elyn, Jesse, and Micah
- Honors: Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2011), Grammy Awards Lifetime Achievement Award ( 2021)
Born in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, Neil Diamond grew up in a Jewish family descended from Russian and Polish immigrants. He attended Erasmus Hall High School and sang in the Freshman Chorus and Choral Club along with classmate Barbra Streisand. Later, his family moved, and Diamond graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School, where he competed on the fencing team.
Neil Diamond received his first guitar as a gift for his 16th birthday. He credits seeing folk legend Pete Seeger perform at a camp as a primary inspiration for writing his own songs. Diamond also began writing poetry at the same time.
After graduation from high school, Diamond enrolled in New York University as a pre-med major with funding from a fencing scholarship. He competed as part of the 1960 NCAA men’s champion fencing team. During his senior year in college, Diamond accepted his first songwriting job as a staff writer for Sunbeam Music Publishing on a 16-week contract. With only ten credits needed for graduation, he left college to pursue a music career.
Songwriter and Recording Artist
Neil Diamond’s first songwriting contract was not renewed when it expired. He began writing and singing his own songs on demos and shopping them around to record labels. He earned his first recording contract as one half of a folk-pop duo called Neil and Jack with his friend Jack Porter. They released two singles in 1962 that received positive reviews in the music press, but failed to sell well.
Late in 1962, Diamond signed with Columbia Records as a solo artist. The label dropped him after one failed single, so Diamond returned his focus to selling songs to other artists. Soon, he began working at the legendary Brill Building in Manhattan, headquarters of some of the top pop songwriters in history, including Carole King, Burt Bacharach, and Neil Sedaka. Diamond’s first commercially successful song was “Sunday and Me” recorded by Jay and the Americans in 1965. It reached #18 on the U.S. pop singles chart.
In 1966, Diamond wrote the song “I’m a Believer.” It was offered to the group the Monkees, stars of their own TV series, to record for their second album. Released in November 1966, the Monkees’ recording soared to #1 on the pop chart and became the bestselling record of 1967. It has since sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
The year 1966 was also crucial for Neil Diamond as a recording artist. He signed a contract with Bang Records, a label created by Atlantic Records staff producer Bert Berns. “Solitary Man,” Diamond’s first single on the new label, became his first charting hit, climbing to #55 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Cherry Cherry” became his first top 10 hit as a solo artist in late 1966.
1970s Pop Superstar
Neil Diamond closed out the 1960s with two top 10 pop hits. One of hits, “Sweet Caroline” became one of the signature songs of his career. He wrote the song with Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President John F. Kennedy, in mind. With a new contract from Uni Records, Diamond received more artistic freedom and adopted a more mellow, introspective pop sound.
“Cracklin’ Rosie,” released in 1970, became Diamond’s first #1 pop hit. He returned to the top in 1972 with “Song Sung Blue.” He was one of the most successful mainstream pop artists of the early 1970s.
In August 1972, Diamond played a series of ten sold-out concerts at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. One of the performances was recorded and released as the double live album Hot August Night in December 1972. Music critics hailed it as the definitive statement of Neil Diamond’s power as a live performer. His eye-catching outfits, energetic stage presence, and willingness to reinterpret older songs in his catalog made him one of the most consistently popular live performers of all time. The live album reached the top 5 on the albums chart and earned a double-platinum certification for sales.
In 1973, Neil Diamond triumphantly returned to Columbia Records with a new contract that included a million-dollar advance for each new album. He hit the top 10 with the single “Longfellow Serenade” on Columbia in 1974, and the duet “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” with Barbra Streisand hit #1, but by the end of the 1970s, Neil Diamond’s commercial success began to fade. His 1979 album September Morn charted lower than any of his new albums since 1971’s Stones.
In the late 1970s, Neil Diamond embarked on a project designed to make him a film star. Producer Jerry Leider saw him perform live in 1976 and asked him to play the lead in a movie remake of Al Jolson’s 1927 sound pioneering classic The Jazz Singer. Critics panned the movie, and it barely recouped production costs at the box office, but the music was the most successful of Neil Diamond’s career.
The soundtrack album for The Jazz Singer, released in late 1980, reached #3 on the pop albums chart—Diamond’s best showing since 1974’s Serenade. It included three top 10 pop hit singles. One of those songs, “America,” drew on Diamond’s Jewish immigrant ancestry. The song was performed at a wide range of patriotic events, including the 100th-anniversary rededication of the Statue of Liberty.
Neil Diamond was once again ranked among the top male solo artists in pop music. The commercial success of his recordings faded later in the decade, but his concert tours continued to draw huge crowds. In 1988, another one of his songs, “Red Red Wine,” became a pop classic when the reggae group UB40 took it to #1 on the pop chart.
In the 1990s, Diamond’s new studio albums were less successful than in the past, but he remained successful on the concert stage. “Sweet Caroline” was adopted around the world as a sports anthem. The Boston Red Sox have played the song during every home game since 1997. In 2013, the day after the Boston Marathon bombing, the New York Yankees played the song at a home game in Yankee Stadium preceded by a moment of silence to honor the victims.
In 2005, Diamond released the stripped-down, back-to-basics album 12 Songs with production by rock and rap production legend Rick Rubin. It included background vocals by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. The album was his first to reach the top 10 since 1992, and critics lauded it as some of his best work. He followed the success with 2008’s Home Before Dark, the first #1 album of his long career.
Pop Music Legacy
Neil Diamond is one of the most successful pop singer-songwriters of all time. His music has helped define the sound of adult contemporary pop music. Diamond has sold more than 100 million recordings in his lifetime. The Songwriters Hall of Fame inducted him in 1984. He became a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, and in 2021, he received the Grammy Awards Lifetime Achievement Award.
- Bream, Jon. Neil Diamond Is Forever. Voyaguer Press, 2009.