THERE is a downside to logging on to Friends Reunited, the website that tells you what all your old classmates have been up to. It’s not having folk you’d rather not bother you bothering you with talk of reunions and old Bunting’s woodwork classes. It is more the realisation that you are a big fat loser. Your average life doesn’t need upsetting with the news that the stupid kid who smelt a bit funny at school now drives a Lotus and lives in a plush Mayfair apartment.
So imagine having gone to Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, New York, during the fifties. Scrolling down the names and you come across Neil Diamond. “Hi everyone. I’m a multi-millionaire singer songwriter and actor responsible for some of the greatest songs of the last century. I’ve sold more than 115 million albums around the world in a career spanning more than 35 years. Don’t try and call me or I’ll get the police involved.” Of course, it doesn’t say this. Americans don’t have a Friends Reunited website and, if they did, Neil is a very nice man and wouldn’t say such things. But humour me, this is going somewhere.
Scrolling further down the list you happen upon Neil Sedaka. “Hi, I’m not as famous as the other Neil but I still made millions with hits like Stupid Cupid for Connie Francis and my own I Go Ape, Oh! Carol and Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen during the fifties and sixties.” And this was no private or stage school that specialised in the manufacture of superstars but the American equivalent to your bog-standard Notts comp.
“It was kind of a ghetto,” says Diamond, 61.
“It was a working class neighbourhood. Mostly Jewish, Italian, Irish. Neil was a little older than me and had graduated from there. He came back and played music for the kids who had graduated at the prom. He was a big hero in our school. And he was one of the reasons that made me think maybe I could make a life in music. So Neil was kind of influential.”
After Abraham Lincoln High Diamond attended the same school as another, soon-to-be singing superstar, Barbra Streisand. “That was Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. We sang in the same chorus together for a couple of years but we never did get to know each other at that time because there were a hundred voices there. We got a chance to compare notes years later. She had a big crush on the choir master who was a very elegant Italian man. The boys were all scared to death of him and the girls were all in love with him.”
It was with Streisand that he would score a No. 1 hit You Don’t Bring Me Flowers in 1978. “It’s nice to know that there were all of these kids who had the same dreams that I did and were able to realise them.”
So what was Babs’ nickname?
“I don’t know, I didn’t know her that well.”
Born Noah Kaminsky (snigger) the kids must had plenty to go on when choosing Diamond’s nickname. Or maybe they didn’t. “No, Neil Diamond is the name I was born with.” Thank you Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music. “When I signed my contract with Bang Records in 1965 I kinda toyed with changing my name. Neil Diamond seems kinda natural now but I always thought it was....it never struck me as particularly interesting. I toyed with the idea of changing my name. I had a couple of alternates and Noah Kaminsky was one of them. Eice Cherry was another.” Eice? Pronounced “ice” apparently.
“Don’t ask me where it came from as I have absolutely no idea. I would sit in a coffee shop making up names. Those were two I came up with. Fortunately at the last moment I decided to just use my own name. It worked out very well.”
Indeed it did — 115 million records sold at the last count for Neil Diamond while Noah Kaminsky and Eice Cherry have yet to make their mark. His first hit came soon after he dropped out of his medicine course at New York University, where he had earned a fencing scholarship, and began working in the famous Brill Building songwriting factory. It was there he wrote I’m A Believer, a worldwide chart-topper for The Monkees in 1967. Soon after he was enjoying hits in his own right such as Sweet Caroline, Song Sung Blue and Cracklin’ Rose, which made him one of the seventies’ best-selling singer-songwriters. Other groups that have had hits with Diamond songs include UB40 with Red Red Wine, Urge Overkill with Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon and Deep Purple with Kentucky Woman.
“I have heard lots of different versions of the songs. Some of them I love some of them I hate. It’s a crap shoot, you never know what people are going to come up with. But I do appreciate they are coming up with their own versions of these songs.”
His voice is as gravelly and deep as when he sings. It’s as trademark as his custom-made sequined shirts. “I do like smoking a cigar once in a while,” he admits, which may help keep the larynx coated. He is also consistently professional in conversation. Later this month he plays his first show in Nottingham so I ask him what he expects of the city. He could have said “no idea what the place is like and frankly, I couldn’t give a — !” But he makes an effort.
“I expect it to be wonderful. I think the audience knows my music. We’ve got a terrific show. I’ve finally put together all the elements I finally want in a show: a horn section, a string section ... it’s a pretty full ensemble. It sounds just marvellous. It’s exciting to bring it over to England and play a new city.”
So he has no clue about the city then? “That’s Robin Hood’s town.” You don’t think we all live in Sherwood Forest and chuck arrows at each other, then, like some? “People have all kinds of ideas. But I think that’s a good image.”
He lives in Los Angeles, recently bought an apartment in New York and also has a “tiny cabin” in the Rocky Mountains. He has a long-term girlfriend though marriage is not on the horizon. He has been divorced twice and he puts the failure down to mistress music. “I don’t think my career helped, partly because there’s a lot of travelling involved, a lot of being away from people and also I was so devoted to it, my career became my wife. I devoted myself completely to it. It was something I just loved. I worked at it to the exclusion of the people I was married to. The results showed that. I did well in my career and not so well in my marriages.”