In the summer of 1970, we were living in Escondido, California, just north of San Diego. I was attending a Navy electronics school at Miramar Naval Air Station…the one where they filmed “Top Gun”. My wife of less than 6-months, Jeannette, and I saw there was a Neil Diamond concert in San Diego. We bought tickets about a day before the concert, and we got 5th row center. That sort of thing used to happen. If seats reserved for the artist’s friends & family weren’t going to be used, they were put on sale late. It was our first concert.
Singer and songwriter Neil Diamond’s success started in 1966. “Solitary Man” and “Cherry Cherry” were his first singles, and he wrote “I’m A Believer” and “A Little Bit You, A Little Bit Me” for the Monkees. “Believer” was the biggest hit of 1966.
By the time we saw him, Neil Diamond’s hits also included “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon”, “Kentucky Woman”, “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”, “Sweet Caroline” and “Holly Holy”. The venue was music hall size, maybe seating about 2,500 people. We completely enjoyed his performance.
Trivia: The opening act was “Smith” who did a remake of “Baby It’s You”.
Fast forward a year. We’re now on the east coast, at Virginia Beach, Virginia. Guess who’s coming for a concert? Only now, Neil Diamond is playing an arena…The Hampton Roads Coliseum. He had the #1 hit “Cracklin’ Rosie”, Top 20 hit “He Ain’t Heavy…He’s My Brother”, and his most critically acclaimed album Tap Root Manuscript. The album includes a concept on side two, “The African Trilogy”, which has the song “Soolaimon”. The trilogy includes African lyrics, sounds, and rhythms…pretty unusual for a Jewish guy from New York. Also, this was a decade-and-a-half before another Jewish guy from New York, Paul Simon, did “Graceland”.
Obviously, Neil Diamond’s popularity had grown, and now we had seats up on the side of the arena, with our friends, Don & Linda MacLeod. The show was a bigger presentation, but the most memorable part was when Neil did his then current hit “I Am, I Said”. Instead of playing it like the single, Neil Diamond, by himself on acoustic guitar, sang it intimately. That’s my favorite version.
Neil Diamond went on to become one of the biggest selling artists of all time. Other highlights include “Song Sung Blue”, and the hits from his movie “The Jazz Singer”…”Love On The Rocks”, “Hello Again” and “America”. The sales of the album easily out performed the movie.
More than sales of his recordings, his career moved into the touring stage. At the age of 76, he still draws crowds*.
So, would he be considered a Rock & Roll artist? When he started in the 1960’s he fit right in with the rock/pop of the day, but Rock & Roll turned harder as the years went by. He seemed like the singer-songwriters of the early 1970’s, but he moved in a decidedly more Pop direction. Maybe his early work was enough, or maybe it’s because he’s been such a concert force for so long, but in 2011, Neil Diamond was inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
*Update: On January 22nd, 2018, Neil Diamond announced he is retiring from touring because he was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He says he plans to remain active in writing and recording.