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Neil Diamond: A 'Solitary Man' Enters The Hall Of Fame

Neil Diamond. (Getty Images)

This interview was originally broadcast on December 13, 2005.

Neil Diamond started his career writing songs for a music publishing company, in the hopes that someone would record them. While there, he wrote several hits, including The Monkees' "I'm a Believer" and Jay and the Americans' "Sunday and Me."

But it was Diamond himself who made most of his own songs famous — songs like "Solitary Man," "Cherry, Cherry," "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" and "Sweet Caroline."

As his contemporaries fell off the charts, Diamond moved from teen music to adult contemporary music and continued making hits. In 2005, he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross that his songwriting changed organically as he grew older.

"Over the years, you grow up, you mature and you see things in a different way, and it's reflected in the writing," he said. "So at this point, my writing is different. I think it's better. I think it's deeper. But, strangely enough, it covers a lot of the old ground. Maybe it says it in a more sophisticated way ... but I [have written] about basically the same subjects over the years."

Diamond has sold more than 115 million records worldwide, trailing only Barbra Streisand and Elton John on Billboard's Adult Contemporary charts. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1984 and received the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

On Monday, Diamond will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Alice Cooper, Tom Waits, Dr. John and Darlene Love, in a ceremony that will include presentations by Neil Young, Paul Simon, Bette Midler, Rob Zombie and John Legend.

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Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Our next and another of Monday's inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is Neil Diamond. He started out as a songwriter writing for other artists, including an early number one hit for The Monkees, "I'm a Believer." But shortly after that, it was Diamond himself who made most of his songs famous -songs like "Solitary Man," "Cherry, Cherry," "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," and "Sweet Caroline."

Terry Gross spoke with Neil Diamond in 2005. Before we join their conversation, here's a reminder of how infectious his music was. Here's "Solitary Man."

(Soundbite of song, "Solitary Man")

Mr. NEIL DIAMOND (Singer-songwriter): (Singing) Belinda was mine 'til the time that I found her. Holding Jim and loving him. Then Sue came along, loved me strong, that's what I thought. But me and Sue, that died too.

Don't know that I will but until I can find me a girl who'll stay and won't play games behind me. And I'll be what I am. A solitary man. A solitary man...

GROSS: That's Neil Diamond. Now, did you write this song for yourself or for somebody else?

Mr. DIAMOND: No, I wrote this for myself. I had a contract with Jeff and Ellie and I started to focus in on just what I wanted to do. And so "Solitary Man" was written for me and for the first sessions that I was to do with Jeff and Ellie.

GROSS: So how did "Solitary Man" change your idea of what you wanted from your musical life?

Mr. DIAMOND: Once I had a chart record of my own, I was no longer a kid knocking around on the streets. I was now a, well, we didn't call them artists at that time. We called them vocalists. But I was a vocalist, and it was a whole different thing. I was writing for myself, so I had to really dig in and write as well as I possibly could. And I have to say, before that time I don't know if I was doing that. I was just writing and writing and writing, maybe just to get an advance from a publisher, but there was not a lot of me in those songs, and "Solitary Man" was the first of a long line of me songs, my experience songs.

GROSS: Now, The Monkees did a couple of your songs, "I'm a Believer" and "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You." Did you write those with them in mind or for yourself? I'm trying to think of what chronology was. Like you started recording in, what, like '67?

Mr. DIAMOND: Sixty-six.

GROSS: Sixty-six. Okay.

Mr. DIAMOND: Yeah.

GROSS: And what year are The Monkees? Like is that after that?

Mr. DIAMOND: I think '67, something like that. I recorded a couple of songs, including "Solitary Man" and "Cherry, Cherry," which was a big hit. And because of that hit the people who were producing The Monkees called and said we like "Cherry, Cherry." Do you have any other songs? I said, well, I don't have anything like "Cherry, Cherry" but I have an album coming out soon and I'll send it over and take your pick.

GROSS: You know, it's funny. The common wisdom goes when telling the story of like songwriters from the Brill Building and The Beatles is that The Beatles changed everything. After The Beatles bands started writing their own songs. It drove out the professional songwriters. But of course, The Monkees are a band that's, you know, a kind of fabricated band copying The Beatles, and you have this tremendous success writing for them and in that sense, like The Beatles' success inadvertently really helped you as a songwriter..

Mr. DIAMOND: Oh, yeah. No question about it. But it was not only in the sense of The Monkees doing a couple of songs. It was in the sense that the doors began to open for songwriters who were able to sing, and I just happen to be one of them who had been knocking around the streets for years and now suddenly was getting a new and fresh listening to my work. So The Beatles made an enormous change, as did Bob Dylan. They brought the songwriter up to the front of the line and said, you know, you guys do it, and it had a devastating effect on the music publishing business in Tin Pan Alley. But it opened up many doors for people like me.

GROSS: My guest is Neil Diamond. Here's his version of "I'm A Believer."

(Soundbite of song, "I'm A Believer")

Mr. DIAMOND: (Singing) I thought love was only true in fairy tale. Meant for someone else but not for me. Love was out to get to me. That's the way it seems. 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. And I'm a believer. I couldn't leave her if I tried. I thought love...

GROSS: I want to ask you about another of your songs, and this is also an earlier song. It's "Girl You'll Be A Woman Soon." And the Urge Overkill version of this was used by Quentin Tarantino in "Pulp Fiction." Can you tell us the story behind the song?

Mr. DIAMOND: Oh, behind the song was pretty basic. I was playing mostly to teenagers, teenage girls when I first started, and "Girl You'll Be A Woman Soon" was something I wrote for them and I recorded it myself.

GROSS: How did you find out that Quentin Tarantino was going to use a version of this song for "Pulp Fiction"?

Mr. DIAMOND: Well, first they have to request the right to use it. But I got a request and a part of a script to be used in this movie called "Pulp Fiction." And I've always held to a very tenuous line as to what I wanted my songs to be used as, and I wouldnt let them be used in cigarette commercials or alcohol commercials. And the script that I read was way out there. It was, you know, beyond what I would turn down, normally, and I did turn it down. I heard almost immediately from my publisher who said, you know, you shouldn't turn this down. This guy is a tremendous director and you should just do it and let them do it, which I did. And, of course, I've never regretted it because it was an entirely different way of seeing that song. But that's basically how it happened.

GROSS: So what did you think of the movie?

Mr. DIAMOND: Oh, I loved the movie. I was amazed by the movie. I've seen it.

GROSS: How come you loved the movie but didn't love the script? What was different actually seeing it?

Mr. DIAMOND: Well, I didn't get the whole script. I only got a few pages of the script, in which the song would be used and I don't know if you remember the scene, but she was Uma Thurman was - very heavily into a coke binge and she went unconscious and had to be taken for some quote/unquote "special treatment." And, you know, it just seemed to too strong for my own taste and I turned it down on that basis.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. But it was very effective in the film.

Mr. DIAMOND: It was very effective and it was a lesson that I learned, you know, see who else is working on it. See how serious they are. Don't take it at face value and don't take your prejudices into this kind of discussion.

GROSS: I want to ask you about another song that you wrote and recorded, a big hit for you "Sweet Caroline," which is now played at Red Sox games at Fenway Park, and maybe you know the story of why that is. But let's start with the song itself. Is there a story behind the writing of the song?

Mr. DIAMOND: Yeah. I think so. I was heading down to Memphis for my first recording session down there. There were some producers I wanted to work with and I only had two songs written. And in those days a session was three hours and you usually had three songs that you recorded. So the night before the session at some motel in Memphis I knocked out the song, "Sweet Caroline." It was one of the fastest songs I've ever written and we recorded it the next day and it became one of my biggest songs, if not the biggest song.

GROSS: Its also sung a lot in bars.

Mr. DIAMOND: Well, the fact is that its fun and easy to sing with, and I think that that's the bottom line as far as that song is concerned. It's easy to sing. It's fun. People like to sing it and that's why it's popular in bars, because everybody can see it no matter how many drinks youve had.

GROSS: Well, Neil Diamond, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. DIAMOND: My pleasure, Terry.

(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Caroline")

Mr. DIAMOND: (Singing) Where it began, I can't begin to know and but then I know it's growing strong. Oh, wasn't the spring and spring became the summer. Who'd believe you'd come along?

Hands, touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching you. Oh, sweet Caroline good times never seem so good. I've been inclined to believe it never would but now I look at night...

BIANCULLI: Neil Diamond, speaking to Terry Gross in 2005. Neil Diamond, Darlene Love and Dr. John will all be inducted Monday into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new Iranian film "Certified Copy."

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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