TERRY GROSS, host:

Neil Diamond has sold more than 125 million records, written and recorded 36 Top 40 songs, and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Still, he had to start somewhere and that somewhere was the legendary Brill Building, where he wrote songs for music publishers.

With the release of Diamond's earliest recordings, plus a CD of his music formed by others, rock historian Ed Ward takes a look at his early days.

(Soundbite of song, "Im a Believer")

Mr. NEIL DIAMOND (Musician): (Singing) I thought love was only true in fairy tales, meant for someone else but not for me. Love was out to get me, na-na-na-na-na, that's the way it seemed, na-na-na-na-na, disappointment haunted all my dreams. Then I saw her face, now I'm a believer. Not a trace of doubt in my mind. I'm in love, mmm, and I'm a believer. I couldn't leave her if I tried. I thought love was more...

ED WARD: Probably the strongest negative reaction I've ever gotten to anything I've written was when I panned a Neil Diamond show during my stint at Austin's daily newspaper. His fan club newsletter picked it up, and for two and a half years we got letters denouncing me, the last of which came from Vanuatu, in the South Pacific. But my disappointment in the show was based on remembering where Diamond had come from.

Diamond was born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents in 1941, and got a guitar for his 16th birthday. Almost immediately, he started writing songs and performing them with a neighbor. He went from one unsuccessful record contract to another, from the most obscure to a one-single deal with Columbia. Next came a songwriting contract with Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, which kept him fed but produced only six songs in one year.

He'd been mentored by the great songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, after Greenwich sang backup on a demo he'd cut. And after getting fired from Lieber and Stoller, he asked Barry and Greenwich if they'd take a chance on him. At that point, something happened.

(Soundbite of song, "Cherry, Cherry")

Mr. DIAMOND: (Singing) Baby loves me. Yes. Yes, she does. Ah, the girl's out of sight, yeah. Says she loves me. Yes. Yes, she does. Going to show me tonight, yeah. She got the way to move me, Cherry. She got the way to groove me. She got the way to move me. Thats Cherry baby. She got the way to groove me. All right...

WARD: Barry and Greenwich scored him a deal with Bert Berns' new label, Bang. And his second single, "Cherry Cherry," wound up in the Top 10 in 1966. Suddenly, he was writing more than he could record, so Tallyrand Music, the company Barry and Greenwich had set up with him, was placing his songs all over the place.

(Soundbite of song, "Red Red Wine")

Mr. TONY TRIBE (Singer): (Singing) Red, red wine go to my head. Make me forget that I still need her so. Red, red wine

WARD: "Red Red Wine," for instance, found its way to the Jamaican expat community in London, where a guy named Jimmy James recorded it, only to be scooped by Tony Tribe, who put a reggae beat to it. Twenty-five years later, the British band UB40 recorded it on an album of the songs they'd grown up with, released it as a single, and topped the British charts and eventually many others too, over an amazing two-year period.

There was no doubt he was hot: The Monkees' version of "I'm a Believer" was 1967's top-selling song. And so it was no surprise when The Box Tops, led by Alex Chilton, chose a song of his to record the next year.

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't No Way")

THE BOX TOPS: (Singing) Ain't no way to get you out of me. Oh, baby, there ain't no way in the whole wide world I'm about to see. By and by, you're all I ever need then you will I forget how good life is you bring it home to me. And Ill say, hey. Come on, hey. Come on, hey. Come on, hey. Come on, hey, Come on, hey, Come on, hey. Come on, hey. Come on, hey. Come on, hey. Come on, hey, Come on, hey, Come on, hey. There ain't no way. Oh, dont you know that there's ain't no way...

WARD: But still, Diamond was determined to have his own career and worked hard at it, even if he, too, sometimes recorded excellent versions of other people's songs

(Soundbite of song, "Monday, Monday")

Mr. DIAMOND: (Singing) Mm-hmm, hmm-hmm, hmm-hmm. Mm-hmm, hmm-hmm, Monday, Monday, la-la-la-la-la-la, so good to me. La-la-la-la-la-la. Monday morning, it was all I hoped it would be. Oh, Monday morning, Monday morning couldnt guarantee that Monday evening you would still be here with me. Monday, Monday

WARD: But things at Bang were untenable. Bang's view of who he and his own idea were at odds with each other. And when he and the label locked horns over what his next single should be, it resulted in a lawsuit for ownership of his recordings which went all the way to the Supreme Court, which found in his favor in 1977.

Bert Berns, the label's head, had died during the course of it all. And by early 1968, Neil Diamond had signed to another label and was on his way to superstardom.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France. The early Neil Diamond recordings he played are on the album "Neil Diamond, the Bang Years: 1966 to 1968."

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