The untold truth of Neil Diamond

Only a handful of musicians have sold more records than Neil Diamond. He ranks with Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Madonna in terms of commercial, unit-moving success. That's because he's been actively performing and recording since the mid-1960s. While he started off as a pop songwriter, Diamond realized he had a knack for singing his own songs. Millions agreed, making classics out of Diamond's many hit songs, like "Sweet Caroline," Solitary Man," "Cracklin' Rosie," "America," and "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon."

While he hasn't had a chart-topper in a while, Neil Diamond has continued to release albums in multiple styles of music and relentlessly tour to perform his beloved catalog for several generations of fans. He's in his late 70s now, and winding down a long, lucrative, and unlikely career, so here's a look into the colorful life of the man who's got the way to move you and groove you, the king of soft rock, the "Jewish Elvis" himself, Neil Diamond.

He could beat you in a sword fight

This should come as no surprise, but one of Neil Diamond's main extracurricular activities in high school was singing in the chorus, along with 99 other performers who did not grow up to be Neil Diamond. He was a well-rounded kid, though, balancing the arts with the athletics. He was a fencer, and apparently so good with an epee that he won a scholarship to study at New York University and be on the school's top-shelf fencing squad. While Diamond studied at NYU (he was pre-med, focusing on biology and chemistry), the fencing team did very well. The school won two national championships and three intercollegiate titles with the United States Fencing Association. "We had the greatest fencing team in the country," Diamond is quoted as saying in Neil Diamond: His Life, His Music, His Passion. However, Diamond didn't lose sight of the team. "I was proud to be the ninth man on a nine-man team."

He tried to make a dollar out of 35 cents

"Tin Pan Alley" is a legendary institution in the history of American music. It's a nickname for an area of New York where a number of record labels and music publishers had their offices in the early to mid-20th century. These folks hired songwriters to sit in offices all day and churn out songs. Although he needed just 10 credits to graduate college, Neil Diamond dropped out of school, headed to Tin Pan Alley, and got a 16-week gig at $50 each week with Sunbeam Music. When his contract ended it wasn't renewed, but based on the strength of his voice on the demos of songs he'd written, Columbia Records hired him to make a record. Unfortunately, it didn't really go anywhere, so Diamond bounced around various music publishers for seven years, barely getting by. "I had very few things that were recorded even," Diamond told Rolling Stone. "I'd spent a lot of time on lyrics, and they were looking for hooks and I didn't really understand the nature of that." He'd sell a song occasionally, forcing himself to severely ration his funds. For "a year," he says, he spent 35 cents a day on food — 23 cents for a sandwich, 10 cents for a Coke, and two cents for a piece of candy.

Eventually, Diamond got the knack for songwriting, and the attention of the music industry. By 1966, he was on his way to superstardom.

The inspiration behind "Solitary Man" will not surprise you

No matter the style — pop, rock, adult contemporary, country, or folk — Neil Diamond writes and sings songs of love and romance, of heartbreak and triumph. Of course he's inspired by his life a little bit, but his compositions are about universal themes. He's not exactly Stevie Nicks or a rapper, penning song after song explicitly and exclusively about himself and his experiences … right? Diamond probably believed that about himself, too, until he had a breakthrough in therapy.

In 1966, Diamond released "Solitary Man," his first single for Bang Records (and a song he wrote himself). His first performing success, it reached the lower rungs of the Hot 100, peaking at #55. (After Diamond's popularity grew in subsequent years, he re-released "Solitary Man" in 1970, and it hit #21 that time.) After the song's heat came and went, Diamond realized, with the help of a psychiatrist, that the song was about his lonely years of hustling and struggling. "After four years of Freudian analysis I realized I had written 'Solitary Man' about myself," Diamond said.

"Neil Diamond" would be a great stage name if it weren't real

Never mind the subjective nature of judging the man's music; we can all admit that "Neil Diamond" is a marvelous name. It's a fantastic name for a legendary singer who holds court before giant arenas full of people, bringing down the house with classic hit after classic hit while wearing very sparkly clothes. In other words, "Neil Diamond" perfectly describes Neil Diamond. It's one of the great performer names, right up there with Lady Gaga and Snoop Dogg. And yet, surprisingly, "Neil Diamond" isn't a stage name at all. Like Prince, Cher, and Madonna, this pop star chose to hit the scene with the name his momma gave him. But he almost didn't. In a 2014 Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, Diamond revealed that he considered some stage names early in his career. "Neil Diamond may sound cool now," he said but at the time, "it was just my name and pretty boring." He said he "chickened out for personal reasons" and didn't use the two finalists he'd chosen: Noah Kaminsky ("which had biblical underpinnings and great character") and Ice Charry ("which I thought was pure rock & roll"). A guy named Charry singing "Cherry, Cherry!" How very (very) … lame.

Why "Sweet Caroline" is so good, so good, so good

"Sweet Caroline" isn't Neil Diamond's biggest hit (it peaked at #4 on the Hot 100, unlike his #1 hits "Song Sung Blue" and "Cracklin' Rosie," for example), but it's probably his best-known now, thanks to its use as a singalong at sporting events. A bit of oft-repeated lore about the "Daydream Believer" soundalike (sorry) is that Diamond wrote it about Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President John F. Kennedy. Except that if Diamond wrote the tune in the late '60s, Caroline Kennedy would've been about 11 years old. What gives?

"I was writing a song in Memphis, Tennessee, for a session," Diamond told Today in 2014. "I needed a three-syllable name." He actually wrote the song about his then-wife: "her name was Marcia — and I couldn't get a 'Marcia' rhyme." So he plugged in Caroline, which he knew because of the Kennedys.

Why is "Sweet Caroline" so connected to sports, particularly the Boston Red Sox? It's actually relatively recent. The song plays at Fenway Park before the bottom of the eighth inning at every home game, and it all started with Amy Tobey, the stadium's music director from 1998 to 2004. Responsible for choosing songs to play over the P.A., Tobey had heard "Sweet Caroline" at another sporting event and played it at Fenway because it was upbeat. Soon Tobey started playing it only if the Sox were winning, and it became a good luck charm … and eventually a tradition.

He didn't bring Barbra Streisand flowers in high school, either

Neil Diamond scored a #1 hit single in 1978 with "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," a gut-wrenching song about divorce. Working with Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Diamond initially co-wrote "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" as a 45-second track for use in a TV project that ultimately changed course. So, he made it into a full-length song and released it. In November 1977, Louisville, Kentucky, disc jockey Gary Guthrie got a listen. "I had heard Diamond sing this song and noticed the response it evoked in my wife and other women," Guthrie said. "But I kept thinking there was something missing." When Barbra Streisand released her version of the song in early 1978, it struck Guthrie that it ought to be a duet. So he spliced the two versions together and played his ad hoc duet on the air, where it became a smash. The mix got some attention in radio industry publications, and so other stations started playing it, too. The fake duet got so popular that Diamond and Streisand recorded an "official" version together.

And in a weird coincidence, it turned out Streisand and Diamond had some history already. Not from the music industry or a fizzled romance: They went to Erasmus Hall High School together. "I didn't know Barbra at all," Neil told Larry King, although both of them sang in the school chorus at the same time.

Neil before the judge

Eventually, most huge music stars head to the movies. The Beatles had their A Hard Day's Night, Whitney Houston made The Bodyguard, and Michael Jackson was in The Wiz. The movies just weren't Neil Diamond's thing, as evidenced by his experience with the 1973 adaptation of Richard Bach's spiritual/New Age bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Diamond wrote and recorded the soundtrack for the film about a bird's search for the meaning of life (the '70s, man), and it did not go well. He and Bach sued the film's director/producer Hall Bartlett over what they both felt were egregious, if not unauthorized and ill-advised, changes to the plot and to Diamond's songs. "After Jonathan," Diamond told People, "I vowed never to get involved in a movie again unless I had complete control." And he kept his word, until he had a chance to star in a movie, the 1980 critical flop The Jazz Singer.

Diamonds in the sky

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was nothing short of a pop culture phenomenon. The 1982 movie about a little boy named Elliott and the lost, gentle alien he befriends became the top-grossing film of all time, moved millions in merchandise, and caused sales of Reese's Pieces to skyrocket. An official soundtrack album hit stores, too, featuring John Williams' score, along with narrative storybook-style segments provided by Michael Jackson, who also sings on a song called "Someone in the Dark."

So E.T. was on a lot of people's minds, including those of Neil Diamond and songwriters Carole Bayer Sager and Burt Bacharach. The three all saw E.T. together and were so inspired they composed a song called "Heartlight," evoking images of the little alien man's empathy-powered, glowing chest. E.T. fever propelled the song to #5 on the pop chart (Diamond's last top 40 hit to date). One problem: copyright infringement. The song is so obviously about E.T. (sample lyrics: "he's lookin' for home" and "come back again, I want you to stay next time" and "turn on your heartlight") that it angered the film's rights-holders, Universal. According to Burt Bacharach, Song by Song, Diamond and his cohorts had to pay the studio $25,000 to cash in on E.T. and avoid further legal action.

Resisting the Urge to cover his song was, frankly, Overkill

Upon its release in 1994, Pulp Fiction was heralded as a fresh and original masterpiece, somewhat ironic because of writer-director Quentin Tarantino's penchant for pastiche, throwing together homages to obscure film genres and backing the visuals with a soundtrack full of vaguely creepy, semi-obscure rock and soul classics. But amid the cuts of surf rock, Chuck Berry, and the Statler Brothers came "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," a Neil Diamond song covered by rising stars of '90s alternative rock Urge Overkill. In the film itself, it's what Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) dances around to before snorting a nearly fatal dose of heroin. The only new song on the record, it became the soundtrack's single and was a minor hit, but it almost didn't happen.

"We were denied for 'Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon.' Neil Diamond denied it," Pulp Fiction music coordinator Mary Ramos told Vulture. So, she pleaded with the singer-songwriter, who had the right of refusal, via an old-fashioned letter. "It was pretty passionate: 'I know that there are drugs depicted in this scene but it in no way glorifies the use of drugs. As a matter of fact the girl almost dies from her folly.'" Diamond relented.

"Love on the Rocks" isn't just a song

Over the course of five decades in the music business, Neil Diamond has scored a number of hit singles. And he's been married almost as many times as he topped the charts. (Hey, if you're going to make a name for yourself as one of the 20th century's most successful and resonant writers of love songs, you're going to have to love and lose those loves a few times.)

In 1963, while in his early 20s, Diamond married high-school girlfriend Jayne Posner, with whom he had two daughters, Marjorie and Elyn. After their divorce was finalized in 1969, Diamond got hitched to production assistant Marcia Murphey. They had two sons (Jesse and Micah) and remained married until 1994. Diamond moved on to date his then-manager, Rae Farley. They never walked down the aisle, leaving Diamond unencumbered when he fell in love with video producer (and now manager) Katie McNeil, whom he met when she worked on his documentary Hot August Nights/NYC. Love finds a way, even when there's a 29-year age difference between spouses.

Take a load off, Neil

Neil Diamond scored hit records in the '60s, but he's not really considered a '60s act, not like, say, Bob Dylan or the Band. And yet, there's Neil Diamond on stage in The Last Waltz, the Martin Scorsese-directed concert film of the Band's star-studded (supposedly) final performance in 1976. Paying tribute to the Band were acts like Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Van Morrison. Diamond is an odd addition, and one that wasn't necessarily welcomed.

"When I heard that Neil Diamond was going to play, I asked, 'What the hell does Neil Diamond have to do with us?" Band drummer Levon Helm said in This Wheel's On Fire (via Ultimate Classic Rock). Band singer Robbie Robertson, who'd just produced Diamond's album Beautiful Noise, explained. "Neil is like Tin Pan Alley," Helm says Robertson iterated. "That '50s, Brill Building scene" where Diamond once toiled as a pop songwriter.

Other supposedly cooler musicians remained unconvinced. According to rock lore, Young approached Diamond and sarcastically introduced himself as Neil Sedaka. Diamond told Rolling Stone about the icy reception Dylan gave him when he tried to relieve the tension. "He was tuning his guitar and I came over to him and I said, 'You know, Bob, those are really my people out there.' He kind of looked at me quizzically. I said it as a joke, but I think it spurred him a little bit and he gave a hell of a performance," Diamond said.

The Jewish Elvis has left the building

After 21 platinum albums, thousands of concerts, and a couple dozen entries into the Great American Songbook, Diamond announced in January 2018 — on the eve of his 77th birthday, and toward the end of his 50th Anniversary Tour — that he was walking away from touring. Diamond revealed that a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, a degenerative neurological condition, would force him to stop performing live. "It is with great reluctance and disappointment that I announce my retirement from concert touring," Diamond said in a statement. "I have been so honored to bring my shows to the public for the past 50 years."

But it's not necessarily the end of the road. He added that he wants to write and record songs "for a long time to come." His statement also demands a careful read: He said he retired from touring, not singing live. Six days after his retirement announcement, Diamond sang "Sweet Caroline" for firefighters working to put out a wildfire near his home in Colorado. There's also the possibility of a travel-free, Las Vegas-style residency sometime in the future. "Well, I feel I can do it. I want to do it," Diamond told USA Today. "It's just a matter of resting up, finding the time, preparing, and then just doing the show."