They don’t make ‘em like Neil Diamond any more. Then again, did they ever make ‘em like Neil Diamond? When the self-described solitary man of lean, tough Bang Records rockers like “Cherry, Cherry” and “Kentucky Woman” eventually gave way to the literally glittering superstar of such dramatic fare as “I Am…I Said” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” it became all too easy to forget the man’s C.V. as a singer, songwriter and producer. Diamond discovered world music some 15 years before his friend Paul Simon with 1970’s Tap Root Manuscript, brought gospel fervor to pop with “Holly Holy” and “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” gave American sports another national anthem with “Sweet Caroline” (ba-ba-da) and was writing “sensitive” songs before it became fashionable to do so. But when has Diamond been concerned with fashions of the time? Sure, there have been ups and downs, musically and personally, for the son of Brooklyn, New York. But 23 potent reminders of the many sides of Neil Diamond, the artist, can be savored on The Very Best of Neil Diamond: The Original Studio Recordings, a new collection from Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings (88691 90360-2, 2011) that’s arriving just in time for the holidays and in conjunction with Diamond’s induction into the elite group of Kennedy Center Honorees. (He’s joined by three other musical artists with ties to the Columbia family: Sonny Rollins, Barbara Cook and Yo-Yo Ma, as well as actress Meryl Streep.)
The Very Best is, somewhat unbelievably, the first-ever single-CD career-spanning anthology of Diamond’s work to include the original studio recordings for the Bang, Uni, Capitol and Columbia labels (hence the subtitle). Although the Bang and Columbia eras were brought under one umbrella some time ago, the absence of the Uni recordings (with such songs as “Sweet Caroline, “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Song Sung Blue” and “I Am…I Said” under the Universal corporate banner) from Columbia compilations like The Essential Neil Diamond marred those efforts. Similarly, Universal couldn’t issue a definitive Diamond anthology, as “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” “Hello Again,” “Love on the Rocks” or “Beautiful Noise,” to name a few, were all unavailable. Live versions were often substituted by both labels, making for less-than-accurate representations of the man’s career. (It must be said, though, that In My Lifetime, Diamond’s fine 3-CD box set, was assembled from all labels and periods.) At last, each and every track on The Very Best of Neil Diamond is the real deal.
Is this, really and truly, The Very Best? No fewer than 37 singles by Diamond went Top 10, and all three of his number ones are here: 1970’s “Cracklin’ Rosie,” 1972’s “Song Sung Blue” and 1978’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” There are eight more that cracked the Top 10 on The Very Best of Neil Diamond, spanning the period between 1966 (“Cherry, Cherry”) and 1980 (“Hello, Again,” “Love on the Rocks” and “America,” all from the soundtrack to The Jazz Singer). The collection’s remaining tracks are judiciously divided between favorites of the fan and the composer (“Hell Yeah,” “Pretty Amazing Grace”), key album cuts (“Red, Red Wine”) and other successful singles that didn’t quite make it to the top portion of the chart (“Solitary Man,” “Shilo,” “Kentucky Woman”).
Each fan (Diamondhead?) might have a personal favorite that hasn’t made the cut, selected by producers Bernie Becker (also the set’s mastering engineer) and Sam Cole. “September Morn,” “Longfellow Serenade,” “Heartlight,” “Be,” “Desiree,” “Stones” and “Brooklyn Roads” are all lamentably absent. “Heartlight,” famously inspired by Steven Spielberg’s film E.T., is a particularly egregious omission, as the 1982 Burt Bacharach/Carole Bayer Sager co-write was Diamond’s final Top 5 pop hit. As a result of its omission, the 25-year period between 1980 and 2005 isn’t represented at all. In that time, Diamond released 12 studio albums which met with varying degrees of success, both critically and commercially. But it’s difficult to argue with a single one of the 23 songs which comprise this set. Read all about them after the jump!
It’s appropriate that the first sound heard on The Very Best of Neil Diamond is a guitar, even if it’s not Diamond’s, but rather that of Richard Bennett. The 1978 Bob Gaudio production “Forever in Blue Jeans” has become one of Diamond’s most enduring pop anthems, capturing both the singer’s “regular guy” persona and his penchant for sweeping melodies and big crescendos. It’s a solid statement with which to begin this tour through Diamond’s career, which is sequenced in non-chronological fashion but flows appealingly. Diamond, a recent Grammy nominee for his frank and nostalgic notes for this year’s The Bang Years 1966-1968, repeats his liner-note duties here, and offers interesting tidbits on each song, track-by-track. He notes that the section of the song which begins “Maybe tonight…maybe tonight by the fire, alone, you and I” was written on the spot during the song’s recording session when Bennett and Diamond realized their finished song actually wasn’t!
The pop instinct that motivated Diamond to craft a new section for “Forever in Blue Jeans” manifested itself even on his earliest, guitar-driven pop songs, from those aforementioned Bang years. Seven songs from that era are reprised here including calling card “Solitary Man” and the first of his odes to a “Red, Red Wine.” (“Cracklin’ Rosie,” inspired by the pink-hued wine “Cracklin’ Rosé,” would eclipse “Red, Red Wine” in popularity, though UB40 took the song all the way to the top of the charts in 1988 via their reggae version.)
Diamond fought hard for the creative freedom to release “Shilo,” a personal ode to a unique childhood friend, and his songwriting maturity can be traced on tracks like the autobiographical “Beautiful Noise” (enlivened by Garth Hudson’s organ) and the aching, poetic “Play Me,” even if Diamond unsuccessfully tried to introduce a new tense into the English language with his “Songs she brang to me” line! The songwriter further explored oblique but vividly impressionistic lyrics with “If You Know What I Mean,” also from the 1976 Robbie Robertson-produced Beautiful Noise (“And the radio played like a carnival tune/As we lay in our bed beyond the moon/And we gave it away/For the sake of the dream/In the penny arcade/If you know what I mean…”), perhaps Diamond’s finest long-player and the one most deserving of a Legacy Edition upgrade!
Of course, many fans are drawn to Diamond, the romantic balladeer, and that side is evident with “Love on the Rocks,” which began life as “Scotch on the Rocks” but soon turned its lyrical emphasis to love rather than libation, as well as “Hello Again,” which Diamond describes in his notes as written “in a smoky haze of good fellowship” with longtime collaborator Alan Lindgren. “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” appears not in Diamond’s original solo version, but in the phenomenally successful duet with another Brooklyn-born singer, Barbra Streisand. (“Flowers,” Paul Simon joked last year, is the reason Diamond was kept out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 2010!) Another rarely-explored side of the singer was explored in Memphis sessions circa 1968-1969. “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” produced by Chips Moman and Tommy Cogbill in Memphis, is still Diamond’s concert closer today, and a rare chance for him to take the musical identity of a character other than “Neil Diamond.”
Diamond had another, more publicized opportunity to play a character, and write for one, in director Richard Fleischer’s 1980 film The Jazz Singer. No less a songwriting eminence than Irving Berlin once reportedly said, “There’s an element of truth in any idea that lasts long enough to be called corny.” That axiom comes to mind listening to “America,” one of Diamond’s songs written for The Jazz Singer, and the kind of heart-on-its-sleeve song that is all too easy for the rock cognoscenti to slam in the same way the film critics did Diamond’s performance. Still, the songwriter found plenty of truth in his story of this country’s promise to his own family, and it struck a chord with so many others, too. Diamond sang “America” at this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and it occupies the second-to-last place on this compilation, followed only by another of the singer’s most personal, triumphant statements, 2005’s career-summing “Hell Yeah,” as produced by Rick Rubin.
Rubin is just one of the talented collaborators who has teamed with Diamond over the years; Bob Gaudio, Robbie Robertson, Tom Catalano, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry are all well-represented. The Very Best has been remastered by Bernie Becker, who performed the same task for The Bang Years. As with that release, Becker has mastered the compilation quite loudly, perhaps in deference to the iPod generation. Though the six-page booklet is brief, Diamond’s liner notes are excellent and (unlike on The Bang Years) full discographical information with chart positions is included. The design is simple, with a gold retro-style Columbia label on the disc for good measure.
The Very Best of Neil Diamond covers well-explored ground, for sure. Yet by bringing together the artist’s recordings over four label affiliations on one compact disc, it’s simple, direct and disarming. Pack up the babies, grab the old ladies, everyone should go, everyone should know: it’s Brother Neil’s show!