A songwriter whose work has been covered by everyone from Elvis to Glee, now Neil Diamond is releasing an album of songs that inspired him
• Neil Diamond is one of the most successful performers around, having sold 128 million albums. Picture: AP
NEIL Diamond, 70 next January, is talking about a life on the road. There were the 1960s, when he toured America with The Who. The 70s, when he was an arena-filling phenomenon across the US. The 80s, when British royalty came calling.
"I had done a concert for the Prince's Trust in Birmingham," he recalls. "And Prince Charles and Lady Diana flew up in a helicopter to be at the festivities. And I met Diana there – she was pregnant with Harry at that time. Then I came to play in London a number of times after that and she'd come to the show. So we kinda knew each other a little bit."
Then, in 1985, the royal couple were on an official visit to the United States. There was a presidential ball at Ronald Reagan's White House, "and I was invited out of the blue, by Diana. And I was flattered and of course I went." He chuckles his bassy chuckle. "It was an amazing night. And after dinner there was dancing and she came over to me and said, 'Is it proper for a lady to ask a gentleman to dance in the United States?' And I said, 'Absolutely! Of course!' My knees were knocking and we both danced. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life."
The moments have kept on coming. Last month Diamond was in the UK again, performing at the closing night of the Electric Proms in London. The concert forms the centrepiece of an evening of TV devoted to the songwriting and performing legend on BBC2 this Saturday evening.
Two years ago he was at Hampden, belting them out in the pouring rain. "Them" being Sweet Caroline, Song Sung Blue, I'm A Believer, America, Cracklin' Rosie, You Don't Bring Me Flowers – songs that taught the world to sing. Next year he'll be back on tour. South Africa and Australia are already booked; he "very much hopes" that a swing through Europe and the US will be on the cards too. And not just because, typically, Diamond's tours still rake it in: profits-wise, he was the most successful touring artist in the United States across the 1990s.
Touring – performing – is what Diamond does. And he does it better than most. He may have turned down the volume on the sequined shirts; the stage moves of "the Jewish Elvis" are a little less extravagant as he's passed pensionable age. But he keeps on keepin' on. Even in the 1970s, when his four children from his two marriages were young, he was still out there, packing them in, knocking them dead.
Still, "it used to break my heart to leave those kids," he says now. Indeed, he did exit stage left for four years in the mid-1970s, spending time at home with his family and pausing the soaraway success of a career kickstarted in 1966 by the huge success of The Monkees' version of the Diamond-penned I'm A Believer.
Almost five decades and 128 million album sales later – Diamond's composition was the biggest selling single in America in 1966 – the song is back. I'm A Believer is one of the songs Diamond sings on his new, 32nd studio album Dreams. It's the only self-written number. The rest are covers – Diamond's stately, reflective versions of The Everly Brothers' Let It Be Me, The Beatles' Yesterday, Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, The Eagles' Desperado, Gilbert O'Sullivan's Alone Again (Naturally). All are songs that have special resonance for Diamond.
The Everlys and The Beatles, he recalls, remind him of his time in New York in the early 1960s, when he, a Brooklyn-born youngster, was trying to make it as a songwriter on Tin Pan Alley. It was a rough business for the aspiring talent. "The tiny record labels, the one-room labels, that Tin Pan Alley was populated by, were absolutely backed by hoodlums, financially, even if they didn't step up front and show their faces.
"Oh yeah," he say, laughing ruefully, "a lot of the small independent labels were owned by the underworld or backed by them. Because they owned the nightclubs and they needed music to play on the jukeboxes – they owned all the jukebox companies on the East Coast. So I guess they kinda slid into the record business very quietly. And it was a rough business. It was not for gentlemen. And if you were an artist you could get in a lot of trouble if you did not toe the line."
The O'Sullivan and the Eagles songs, big US hits in 1972 and 1973 respectively, evoke his early years in Los Angeles, where he moved in 1969.
"Both those songs were really sensitive looks into the heart.
Beautifully written lyrics. I felt I wanted to try them and see if I could do them justice. Gilbert O'Sullivan's was a record that had a very happy rhythm. You almost didn't pay attention to the lyric – but he starts off talking about suicide. I wanted to tell the story, as that lyric is a powerful lyric. He was a young man in his early twenties when he wrote that song." Ever the song-surgeon, Diamond wanted to understand how the young Irishman, "a relative kid, could write lyrics like this. So I wanted to try it, to underscore the great story and expression of his own pain." As for Desperado, "well, Don Henley and Glen Frey's recording is about as perfect a performance as you can get. I couldn't even dare to think of matching it," says this typically humble and resolutely understated – offstage at least – legend. But the man who feels that his early composition Solitary Man remains something of personal theme song thought that "I could lend something of myself to that lyric".
And what about others lending themselves to his songs? Sweet Caroline alone has been covered countless times. If pushed, Diamond will state a preference for country star Waylon Jennings' interpretation of the number, which Diamond wrote after being inspired by a picture of the young Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F. But asked to choose between Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra's versions of the song, Diamond plumps for The Chairman Of The Board's.
"Sinatra was just the prototype of the great American pop star. He did it in his own way – big band, swing. And he was the template of the great solo male vocalist. Sinatra was maybe the biggest of the 20th century. And I just loved his version. But Elvis too – to hear Elvis's voice on one of your songs, it's a thrill. But the song's been recorded by a bunch of people, and it's kinda hard to mess up. It's a pretty straight ahead song, almost anybody can sing it."
Even the cast of Glee. Sweet Caroline was last seen on the first season of the hugely successful high school-set TV show.
"I think it's wonderful," Diamond says of version performed by mohawked rebel Puck. "He did it with just a guitar. And I think he did a terrific job on it. And it's nice to know that the younger generation can pick up on a song and keep it alive."
• Dreams is out this week on Columbia. BBC2 is screening an evening of Neil Diamond-related programmes on Saturday, beginning at 10:30pm.