Neil Diamond - from Brooklyn to music legend

Neil Diamond, 2011 Kennedy Center honoree, at the awards show. CBS

The Kennedy Center Honors is the quintessential American award for a lifetime of artistic excellence.

And one of this year's honorees, legendary singer/songwriter Neil Diamond, sat down recently with CBS News correspondent Mo Rocca.

For 45 years, Diamond has been singing hit songs, such as "Cracklin' Rosie" and "Forever in Blue Jeans" -- even if he hasn't always been a hit with critics.

"I've never been a critics' darling," he admits. "My songs have been very direct and simple -- as simple as I could possibly make them."

Pictures: 34th Kennedy Center Honors

Songs so broadly appealing, they're not easy to categorize.

"I don't know," he says, "whether you'd call it rock-and-roll or pop or country or folk music or American music or just Neil Diamond music."

Diamond was raised in a house filled with music, in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn.

When he was 16, his parents gave him a guitar.

"They really gave it to me -- on the advent of the Dodgers, the Brooklyn Dodgers, leaving Brooklyn. And I went into -- a deep teenage funk because my -- my baseball team had left town."

"So you were bereft?"

"I was bereft. And they decided to cheer me up. And they said, 'We're gonna give you ten free lessons. And we're gonna let you play this guitar. And we'll pay it off.' ... And -- I got hooked."

"So if the Dodgers had not left Brooklyn, I might not know who Neil Diamond is?"

"Oh -- he might've been a well-known baseball player, though!" Diamond said with a laugh.

Or he might have become a singer not named Neil Diamond.

"I thought it was pretty ordinary," Diamond recalled. "And I was kinda bored with it, and I thought I needed a name that has character. So I made up a name, and the name was Noah Kaminsky! I kinda thought, 'That -- that's a name that's interesting. It's kinda biblical,' and so I wrote that down and I said, 'No, I need a name that's more rock-and-roll.' So I came up with Eice, e-i-c-e, Charry. I don't know where Charry came from. .. I backed down on both of them, because my grandmother ... wouldn't understand why there was another name on my record."

Diamond went to New York University on a fencing scholarship, but quit to write songs.

"I left school to -- pursue my life's dream. I'd been writing songs since I was 17. And -- I went to NYU in hopes that I would become a doctor. I was focused in on that."

Was the dream to be a songwriter or a singer/songwriter?

"No. I didn't even think about being a singer. I - I -- I wanted to be a songwriter. And I thought, if I could earn a living being a songwriter, I would be in heaven."

For eight years, he plugged away.

"Eight years knocking on doors sounds grueling and - desperate," Diamond observes. "But it was the most fun that I could possibly imagine."

And then, what was the breakthrough?

"Well, the breakthrough was meeting Ellie Greenwich, who was a top producer and writer at the time and -- who kind of -- pointed me in the right direction. She and her husband recorded my first group of hits."

Hit such as "Solitary Man" and "Cherry Cherry."

Then, the Monkees recorded Diamond's "I'm a Believer," which became the biggest-selling song of 1967.

"Suddenly, I became a hot item. I was having hits as an artist, as well as writing hit songs for other people."

Diamond, who's described his own voice as "gravel and potholes," turned out hit after hit. From the personal anthem, "I am, I Said" (which included the words, "Did you ever read about a frog who dreamed of being a king, and then became one?) to the stadium anthem "Sweet Caroline."

And that classic isn't just a favorite with Boston Red Sox fans.

"I will always be grateful to that song," Diamond says. "Because I think there is a touch of God in that song. It's more than words and music. So I -- I attribute its popularity to that. And -- I love singing it."

The song's title was inspired by a Life magazine cover with a young Caroline Kennedy.

"I wrote it down. I said, 'This is the sweetest picture of Caroline Kennedy I've -- I've ever seen.' And, five years later, it came to me - I came to the title, the melody, the chorus melody, and 'Sweet Caroline' came out."

In 1980, Diamond took a shot at acting, starring in the musical "The Jazz Singer." The film was a critical and commercial disappointment.

Did the reviews of his acting hurt?

"They hurt. But it's not as though -- I was betting my life on it. This was something that I wanted to try."

But from a bad movie came some of Diamond's most-loved songs: "Love on the Rocks," "Hello, Again" and "America."

Though "The Jazz Singer" was his only film role, he'd flirted with Hollywood before."

He was considered for the lead role in "Taxi Driver."

"But," he concedes, "so were a lot of other people."

Would Diamond have sung if he'd gotten the part?

"I don't think that called for a singer. I think it called for a dramatic actor. And -- for some reason, the -- the producers saw me as very -- quiet and deep and..."

Solitary man?!

"Solitary and sullen and l -- unpredictable and mysterious, which that character was. But (Robert) de Niro, I think, was the right choice!" Diamond chuckled.

Does he ever look in the bathroom mirror and say, "You talkin' to me?" (a famous line from the movie)

"You talkin' to me?" Diamond responded, adding with a laugh, "You -- you talkin' to me?"

Told he's too likable, Diamond said, "Only Robert de Niro could come up with that (line). And -- they made the right choice!"

And Diamond chose to stick with singing. And for that, legions of fans are grateful. He's sold more than 125 million albums and, at 71, Neil Diamond continues to be among the highest-grossing live acts.

The Kennedy Center Honors are the crowning glory in a year that also included his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"These Kennedy honors are a huge, huge -- thing for me," Diamond says. "But it will not spoil me. It will not -- make me -- my head get too swelled. I know that I still have to work. I'm doing a tour -- coming this summer. And it's going to make me work twice as hard to make a show that's worthy of this honor."

You can see the complete Kennedy Center Honors Tuesday night on CBS.

  • Mo Rocca

Comments