I. I Got the Feelin’
In his 1966 debut single for Bang Records, Neil Diamond famously declared himself a “Solitary Man.” But the New York singer-songwriter wasn’t to be solitary for very long, as he soon gained the worldwide audience that, over 50 years later, still follows each one of his musical endeavors. Diamond has just looked back on his remarkable career on a handsome new box set from Capitol Records and UMe. 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition expands upon the similarly-titled 2017 release, more than doubling its 50 tracks on 3 CDs to a whopping 117 tracks on 6 CDs in roughly chronological sequence.
This marks the most comprehensive celebration of all things Diamond since 1996’s Columbia/Legacy box set In My Lifetime, which featured 71 songs. Its journey through his recordings on Bang, Columbia, and Capitol trace his development from an upstart Brill Building rocker to a wise elder statesman. Yet in any era, in any genre, at any age, Neil Diamond always sounds like Neil Diamond: a songwriter first, with a deep growl of a voice well-equipped for either tender vulnerability or dramatic proclamation. Every one of his studio LPs is touched upon other than his covers and Christmas albums. Live albums are, understandably, missing, though “Lordy” is included from the blazing Gold. Of his over 50 charting singles on the Hot 100, all but fourteen (not counting Bang’s reissues of “Shilo” and “I’m a Believer”) are accounted for here.
The first disc of this set chronicles one of the great first acts in American popular music. Its 24 songs are culled from Diamond’s first recordings for Bert Berns’ Bang Records (previously collected almost in full on the 2011 anthology The Bang Years 1966-1968) as well as his early sides for Uni Records. (His pre-fame recordings on Duel and Columbia aren’t represented on this set.) Diamond’s Bang recordings, produced by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, are the cornerstone of a career that endures to the present day. Eleven of them are here, and they’re all presented in their original AM radio-friendly mono mixes. The 1966 release of “Solitary Man” was Diamond’s breakthrough, even as he was on the cusp of scoring hits (“I’m a Believer” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” both for The Monkees) via his original career path, strictly as a songwriter. As his first Bang single, “Solitary Man” defined Diamond’s persona via an introspective lyric which anticipated the singer/songwriter movement. The singer of “Solitary Man” is honest and conversational (“Then Sue came along/Loved me strong/Well, that’s what I thought…”) in admitting his failures, but defiantly assured (“Don’t know that I will but until I can find me/A girl that will stay and won’t play games behind me/I’ll be what I am, a solitary man”). The melody was instantly memorable and the arrangement just a touch dangerous, with the guitar-and-brass combination adding a potent edge. Bob Dylan had afforded rock lyrical freedom, and Diamond took advantage of that liberty while embracing traditional craft.
“Cherry, Cherry” followed “Solitary Man,” as joyful as its predecessor was dark, and its top ten chart placement saw that Diamond was off and running. 1967’s “Shilo,” about an imaginary friend, was his most starkly autobiographical song to that point, and hardly standard fare for his moody rocker persona. As his songs became more personal, inspired by true experiences, they consequently became more universal as others recognized their own experiences in his music. His individuality was unique among the Brill Building group of masters, and it would serve him well in the future. When Bang chided Diamond for deviating from the formula with the plaintive “Shilo,” he moved to the more sympathetic Uni label. His new style of writing blossomed at Uni on the moving reflection “Brooklyn Roads” (from his uneven debut Velvet Gloves and Spit) even as he explored his spiritual side on the gospel-infused “Holly Holy” and poignant “Glory Road.” Diamond the showman began to take form on the explosive “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” embodying the larger-than-life role of the charismatic evangelist without irony, and the world music-inspired “Soolaimon.” One can’t help but marvel at the one-two punch of “Sweet Caroline” (1969) and “Cracklin’ Rosie” (1970), sequenced back-to-back here for maximum impact. Surprisingly, the generation-transcending “Sweet Caroline” only made it to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, while the more idiosyncratic though still undeniably classic “Cracklin’ Rosie,” surely the most popular ode to a bottle of rosé ever recorded, topped the chart – Diamond’s first U.S. No. 1.
II. The Gift of Song
The second disc concludes the survey of the Uni years (1968-1972) and begins the overview of Diamond’s lengthy Columbia Records tenure (1973-2004) continuing through the fourth disc. 50th Anniversary blends the familiar hits with lesser-known album tracks to paint a compelling portrait of Diamond’s output. The artist introduced his enduring “I Am…I Said” to top five success in 1971, turning another intensely personal statement into popular art. It’s prefaced here with a brief (under one minute) demo, more like a sketch, with music and lyrics both still developing and a verse that didn’t make it into the final version. The same year’s lovely, folky “Stones” was as understated as “I Am…I Said” was theatrical, while Diamond’s penchant for robust sing-alongs resulted in 1972’s Mozart-inspired “Song Sung Blue,” his second chart-topper. He moved to Columbia with his original soundtrack to the film Jonathan Livingston Seagull (from which “Lonely Looking Sky,” “Skybird,” and the album version of “Be” have been culled). His first Columbia studio album proper, 1974’s Serenade, yielded the shimmering “Longfellow Serenade” and reflective “I’ve Been This Way Before” as singles; both are here, as well as album cut “The Gift of Song,” a piano-driven ballad.
One of Diamond’s strongest statements as an album artist, Beautiful Noise, welcomed The Band’s Robbie Robertson as producer. The pairing was an unexpected and felicitous one, inspiring Diamond to some of his strongest songwriting incorporating jazz, reggae, Dixieland, gospel, and rock-and-roll influences into a heady musical brew. The vivacious title track of the semi-concept album about his Brill Building days celebrated the power of music itself, while the rueful, bittersweet “If You Know What I Mean” was beautifully impressionistic. Nine of the album’s eleven spirited tracks are reprised here (all except two released as one single: “Don’t Think…Feel” and “Home Is a Wounded Heart”) which feels lopsided given the nature of this collection. But isn’t Beautiful Noise long overdue for a deluxe reissue? (A Diamond Edition, anyone?)
1977’s I’m Glad You’re Here with Me Tonight (here represented by “Desiree,” the memorable paean to a youthful dalliance as well as the ruminative “Once in a While” and romantic title track) marked the beginning of Diamond’s fruitful collaboration with producer Bob Gaudio. Their sophomore album together introduced the catchy pop confection “Forever in Blue Jeans” while its title track became one of Diamond’s most cherished songs. “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” co-written with Alan and Marilyn Bergman and performed solo on the LP, was subsequently re-recorded with Barbra Streisand, becoming one of the biggest hits ever for both superstars. While the 3-CD 50th Anniversary had the solo version only, the duet version is happily included here.
The pinnacle of Diamond’s work with Gaudio, the multi-platinum soundtrack to the 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer, gets five selections here. Closest to its author is “America.” No less a songwriting eminence than Irving Berlin 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.” It’s 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 earnest onscreen performance in The Jazz Singer. Still, the songwriter found plenty of truth in his story of this country’s promise to his own family. A powerful anthem of immigrants, its resonance has hardly dimmed over the years. A short demo, or work tape, of “America” introduces the final recording, in which Diamond works out the melody over a nonsense lyric. While Neil wrote “America” himself, two other enduring Jazz Singer ballads, “Love on the Rocks” and “Hello Again,” were penned with his “September Morn” co-writer Gilbert Becaud and Neil’s bandmate Alan Lindgren, respectively.
III. The Story of My Life
The 1980s saw Neil frequently sharing writing duties with others, including the team of Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager. While most of their joint efforts are absent here (including such fine songs as “Sleep with Me Tonight,” “Turn Around,” and “Crazy,” all from 1984’s Primitive, “I’ll See You on the Radio (Laura)” from 1986’s Headed for the Future, and the still-not-on-CD flipside “You Don’t Know Me”), no Diamond box would be complete without the warm “Heartlight.” Inspired by Steven Spielberg’s E.T., the top five hit was a surprise inclusion on Diamond’s 2015 tour. The David Foster co-write “I’m Alive” from the Heartlight LP is a joyful top five AC chart entry.
Naturally in any collection such as this, song selection is subjective. Primitive and Headed for the Future (two albums on which the artist came to terms with the ’80s, especially the latter) are sadly underrepresented, overlooking top-drawer songs like “Brooklyn on a Saturday Night,” “Primitive,” “You Make It Feel Like Christmas” (later re-recorded in an even better arrangement for The Christmas Album) and the Stevie Wonder co-write “Lost in Hollywood.” But it’s hard to argue with the inclusion of Future‘s dazzlingly ’80s title track or the affecting “The Story of My Life.” (“Story” was originally intended as the title song of an album rejected by Columbia Records. The full album remains unreleased to this day, though one song – “Angel Above My Head” – was featured on In My Lifetime.)
Another rarity from the ’80s still awaiting release on CD is Neil’s studio version of Les Miserables‘ “I Dreamed a Dream,” produced by David Foster. The uber-producer helmed 1988’s The Best Years of Our Lives, featuring the image of Neil wielding his acoustic guitar on its cover. While the LP wasn’t a hoped-for return to rock-and-roll, it yielded three AC charting singles including a rare cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Baby Can I Hold You.” A previously unreleased live recording takes the place here of the original. 1991’s Lovescape must be an album close to Diamond’s heart; no fewer than five tracks are chosen from the eclectic LP including the touching “If There Were No Dreams” and soaring “All I Really Need is You.” (“Hooked on the Memory of You” is listed in the credits as being the Lovescape version, but it is, in fact, the solo recording from The Best Years of Our Lives, not the Lovescape duet with Kim Carnes.)
Lovescape proved to be Neil’s only traditional album of the 1990s. He followed it with a series of concept records including two volumes of The Christmas Album, Up on the Roof: Songs from the Brill Building, As Time Goes By: The Movie Album, and Tennessee Moon. While the covers albums aren’t addressed on 50th Anniversary, Tennessee Moon (reuniting Neil with Bob Gaudio) proves itself ripe for re-evaluation. A collaborative effort with country writers and performers of past and present, its five selections here reveal a loving, affectionate tribute to the classic C&W sound through the lens of a Brooklyn boy. Waylon Jennings lent his weathered baritone to “One Good Love” while another legend, Chet Atkins, added his trusty acoustic guitar to the loping, twangy “Blue Highway,” co-written by Neil and the great Harlan Howard.
IV. Pretty Amazing Grace
2001’s Three Chord Opera, Diamond’s 25th studio album, was his first to have an “All Songs Written by Neil Diamond” credit since 1974’s Serenade. Though the upbeat “Mission of Love” hasn’t made the cut, the stately “I Haven’t Played This Song in Years,” gentle “I Believe in Happy Endings,” and heartfelt, melodic “You Are the Best Part of Me” demonstrate a creatively-recharged songwriter. Three Chord Opera set the stage for the triumphant 12 Songs and Home Before Dark, both produced in stark, stripped-down fashion by Rick Rubin. Having convinced Diamond to pick up his guitar, Rubin presided over two LPs of remarkable, tight songs spiritually harkening back to the early days. Neil scaled down the grand orchestrations for which he’d become known on tracks like the charmingly intimate, ukulele-led “We” and the sweet “Save Me a Saturday Night.” The raucous “Delirious Love” channeled the spirit of “Cherry, Cherry” and the rhythmic “Don’t Go There” captured Diamond at his most raw. Among all of these remarkable songs, Diamond penned two of his best-ever: the epic “Pretty Amazing Grace” and passionate “Hell Yeah.”
After a six-year absence from original material following Home Before Dark, Diamond delivered Melody Road to Capitol Records in 2014, his first LP after leaving Columbia. In place of the brooding sound of the Rubin records, Melody Road found him writing and singing from a place of contentment, embracing the sunshine and sentimentality of a life clearly enriched and inspired by his 2012 marriage. Sonically, Melody Road melded the rootsy acoustic approach of the Rubin albums with widescreen orchestrations. Significantly, though, Diamond’s guitar was still out front, and the “back to basics” style still prevailed under the auspices of producers Don Was and Jacknife Lee. Seven of its twelve songs are heard here including the bouncy “Something Blue,” sage “The Art of Love,” and confessional “In Better Days.”
50th Anniversary concludes with what may well be its main attraction: a disc of twelve previously unreleased Neil Diamond songs dating from, approximately, 1977-2014. “Sunflower” will be familiar to fans from Glen Campbell’s 1977 rendition. The Rhinestone Cowboy released his version three months after Diamond had recorded his original but before it was released, so Neil quietly consigned his take to the vaults. Here it is, spruced up with additional lyrics.
Continuing in a country vein, three outtakes from Tennessee Moon surface here. “Girls Go Fishin’,” a collaboration with Kostas Lazarides, is a light, freewheeling sing-along with plenty of Nashville twang. Former football player Mike Reid co-wrote “You Are,” an attractive romantic tune propelled by piano rather than guitar in Bob Gaudio’s crisp production. Layng Martine Jr. co-authored the throwback country romp “Before I Had a Dime.”
“Maybe,” written and first recorded 40 years ago but only finished recently, has a buoyant melody redolent of “Song Sung Blue,” contrasted with its downbeat lyric about an ambivalent paramour. Neil and his band also revisited the 1988 demo “Caribbean Cruise,” enhancing the breezy, steel drum-flecked tropical tune with new background vocals, guitar, and brass. Just as much fun is the loping, goofy “Ballad of Saving Silverman,” inspired by the 2001 comedy in which Neil cameoed as himself.
“C’est La Vie,” co-written with Gilbert Becaud, was first demoed in 1981. Unlike “Love on the Rocks” or “September Morn,” “C’est La Vie” is low-key and bouncy. The recording here is very much of a piece with the clean, understated production of Melody Road. A couple of outtakes actually come from that album. The catchy “Easy (To Be in Love),” penned with Doug Rhone for Melody Road, would have fit comfortably there with its seemingly autobiographical reflections about the nature of relationships. The reassuring “It Don’t Seem Likely” was also recorded for Melody Road, but its slick production and R&B background voices sound more of the ’80s than the ’10s.
“Long Nights, Hold On,” a Headed for the Future outtake, is a rumination on loneliness in the big city with echoes of “I Am…I Said” as Diamond invokes both New York and Los Angeles in its lyrics. The Future sessions also yielded “Moonlight Rider,” a toe-tapper featuring pedal steel by “Forever in Blue Jeans” co-writer Richard Bennett.
V. Hell Yeah
50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition, produced by Peter Fletcher and Matt D’Amico, is housed in an attractive hardcover book format. Its copiously illustrated 92 pages have an essay by Melinda Newman, an interview with the artist, and his track-by-track notes for the previously unissued tracks. Every track has been newly remastered by Diamond’s longtime associates Bernie and Dale Becker. Their remastering is louder than previous releases of this material such as In My Lifetime or The Essential Neil Diamond, and the volume and sound may not be to the taste of audiophiles.
As a celebration of a beloved singer-songwriter, 50th Anniversary: Collector’s Edition makes for a vivid and compelling trip through Diamond’s back pages. As ever, Neil Diamond’s music endures…touching you, touching me.