I Am, Neil Sang

The “Solitary Man” prepares to thrill fans this month at Blaisdell Arena. Photo courtesy of Ron Gibson Entertainment

By trading a medical career for music years ago, Neil Diamond loudly proclaimed to the world who he was then and remains today – a songwriting genius

It’s difficult to imagine Neil Leslie Diamond ever struggling as a songwriter, but it’s true. Before he sold 128 million albums and became the heartlight of daughters, moms and grandmothers everywhere, the Jewish Elvis was a 1960s college dropout fighting to have someone anyone lend an ear to his compositions at New York’s famed Tin Pan Alley.

The story goes that one day after numerous occasions of catching the train from Brooklyn into the Manhattan district to pedal his songs, Diamond was finally offered a staff-writing job by a music publisher, who guaranteed the-then New York University pre-med student $50 a week for his ditties. Diamond accepted the gig, signed a four-month-long contract to work in the Brill Building and, without giving his life-altering decision a second thought, said shalom to a budding medical career. “I quit during my senior year at New York University,” Diamond tells me. “Music was what I wanted, and I felt that I had to take that step to get into the professional world of music.”

His early attempts at songwriting, however, were anything but fruitful. “The publisher didn’t do very well with my beginning songs,” explains Diamond in his own unassuming, matter-of-fact way. “But I am very grateful for the experience.”

Perhaps motivated by such other upand-coming songwriters as Burt Bacharach and Carole King at the time, Diamond persisted at his new craft, pouring every ounce of energy into the songwriting process. Eventually, a more mature version of his songs began to surface and resonate with listeners, starting with I’m A Believer, an instant hit in 1966 after it was scooped up and recorded by The Monkees (and later redone in 2001 by Smash Mouth and Eddie Murphy for the movie Shrek). Ultimately, the song’s success convinced Diamond that he should step out of the shadows and get into the limelight as a singer-songwriter in part because aside from possessing the necessary good looks of a pop star, he already had a distinctive baritone intonation to his voice that was certain to strike a chord with listeners.

What followed is the stuff of legend: a lengthy five-decade career filled with chartbusting solo classics such as I Am I Said, Sweet Caroline, Cracklin’ Rosie, Song Sung Blue, Solitary Man, Love On The Rocks, Heartlight and America, not to mention 1978’s stirring duet with Barbara Streisand You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. With 37 Top 10 singles to his credit, Diamond may well be the modern-day music version of King Midas. Even other artists such as UB40 have benefitted from his golden touch, thanks to the group’s 1983 remake of Diamond’s Red, Red Wine.

Last year, his already highly decorated career earned more kudos with his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his receiving both the 2011 Billboard Icon Award and Kennedy Center Honor the latter a lifetime achievement award for his “songwriting genius,” according to Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein.

“2011 was definitely a banner year for me,” says Diamond, who celebrated his 71st birthday in January. “But I can’t let any of that go to my head. I still have to go out there, stand in front of the audience and make them believe I’m worth it.”

Diamond gets to do just that this month when he kicks off the American leg of his 2012 legacy tour right here in the Islands with two shows scheduled for Feb. 16 and 18, 8 p.m., at Blaisdell Arena. Tickets are available at ticketmaster.com or by calling 1-800745-3000.

The shows will mark the first time Diamond will perform in Hawaii since November 1976. “I’m looking forward to it,” he says of the upcoming shows. “The Hawaiian audience has always been great to me.”

Musical Notes caught up with Diamond and got the icon to share a few more gems about his still sparkling career.

MN: Your songs have unbelievable staying power. Sweet Caroline, for example, was released back in 1969, and yet it’s still enjoyed by today’s generation. In fact, it’s played before the bottom of the eighth inning at every Boston Red Sox home game. How did that happen, especially for a Brooklyn Dodger fan like yourself?

ND: It started the year before the Red Sox won the World Series (in 2004), and the fans attributed the title to the song and have been singing it ever since. It’s always been a good luck song for me. I’m not surprised that people have latched onto it. I’ve always felt that my songs were the real stars. People of all generations are familiar with them and still like them.

MN: So what’s the real reason behind your move from medicine to music?

ND: I saw my grades in organic chemistry at NYU and decided it was time to go in a different direction.

MN: But didn’t you want to find a cure for your grandmother, who was battling cancer?

ND: Her being sick with cancer was always one of the motivating factors. I was always good at the sciences, and going into medicine was my dream. But then music came along and I fell in love with it. I never turned back.

MN: No, you haven’t. In fact, you’ve been at this for a long time. Ever get tired of all the traveling and performances?

ND: I can do without the traveling. The performing always has an edge to it. There’s a certain excitement you get before you go out on stage. It’s kept me going for this long and it’s been great.