The 100-member mixed chorus at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn some two decades ago would have earned its place in pop history had it produced just the one superstar—Barbara (as she spelled it then) Streisand. But harmonizing with her soprano was a growling baritone from a skinny kid in the back row whose real love was fencing. Yet Streisand was never introduced to music director Adam DiPietto's other famous pupil until seven years ago, and by then Neil Diamond had joined Barbra on the Middle of the Road leading from Brooklyn to Malibu. So when the two of them—the king and queen of their pop genres—finally sang together again, it was one for the bookkeepers. Their duet You Don't Bring Me Flowers not only rocketed straight to No. 1, but it also hoisted both Barbra's and Neil's latest LPs (each of which carries their single) into the Top Ten.
Both singers, to be sure, had previously cut solo versions of Flowers (which Neil composed with lyrics by Marilyn and Allen Bergman), but radio deejays began mischievously splicing them together for unauthorized duets. The promising results led to the real collaboration, a song-of-the-year Grammy nomination and a mutual admiration society. If Barbra's man, Jon Peters, has his way—which he often does—there will be a film version of the song to co-star, naturally, the old Erasmus Hall students. Appropriately, too, it was Neil who presented Streisand with her Oscar in 1977 for Evergreen. "Barbra has an extraordinary feel for filmmaking," he says, "and I'd love her to direct our movie. She never tries to get by just on her name." The same could be said for Diamond, while his own name has become almost as big. At 38 Neil is at the peak of a 15-year career that has quietly grown into one of the most astoundingly successful in all of show business, with an annual gross ranging between $9 and $14 million.
Since the early '60s Diamond has sold some 47 million records, stringing together hits like Sweet Caroline, Holly Holy and Kentucky Woman, while racking up 14-for-14 gold LPs. One, Hot August Night, reached about eight million, and his ambitious Jonathan Livingston Seagull sound track outclassed and out earned the movie. Neil has further parlayed what even detractors of his Vegas-style mannerisms concede is a dazzlingly powerful stage act into two 1977 TV specials. Now he's negotiated his biggest deal yet: a $4 million contract with Paramount to star in and write songs for a forthcoming remake of the first "talkie," Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer (1927). That, incredibly, is the highest up-front guarantee ever paid any actor—much less one who has never made a movie. Paramount has also acquired the film rights to Neil's autobiographical album, A Beautiful Noise.
An indication of Diamond's across-the-spectrum appeal is that he can simultaneously collaborate with both Streisand and the Band's Robbie Robertson, who produced A Beautiful Noise and gave Neil a number in his The Last Waltz rock film. Robertson has called Diamond's earlier, more rocking creations "extraordinary songs that live on."
The brooding and introspective Diamond has arrived at center stage only after a four-year sabbatical from the road and a period of personal crisis. In 1972 he reports that he was "angry at and hard on myself" and gave up touring altogether to spend time at home with his family. He wrote uninterruptedly on the Jonathan Livingston Seagull sound track, bolstered by sessions with a clinical psychologist. "It was wonderful," Diamond says of his therapy, which may be unique in that its "jumping-off place," he says, was analysis not of his dreams but of the lyrics of his own often inscrutable songs. "Even when I was writing them, I wasn't always sure what they meant," Neil admits. "I had always held everything in before." Finally, after four years on the couch, "It was graduation time," he sighs. "I could go out and do it on my own."
His chance came when he agreed to inaugurate Vegas' new Aladdin Hotel Theater in 1976. (He still won't play conventional dinner club gigs because of the distractions of patrons sawing their steaks and clinking highballs.) Diamond was persuaded to play at the Aladdin by a $500,000 offer for three concerts—nearly $100,000 an hour—the highest fee ever paid for a Vegas entertainer, including Sinatra and Denver.
The comeback was nearly ruined by a bizarre and traumatic drug raid, set up by an anonymous tipster, on the eve of the Aladdin dates. Looking for a supposed stash of cocaine, an invasion party of 50 L.A. policemen turned up only a half-ounce of grass in Neil's Holmby Hills home. That amount would not now be illegal in California, but the court ordered Diamond to join a six-month drug education program. "I was numb from the experience," he says now. "It made me aware of the vulnerability of the average law-abiding citizen. They have access to your home. I've never felt so naked before." As for the charges, now dropped, he shrugs, "That's my drug history—except for Valium on the road."
It was just as harrowing for Neil's wife, Marcia Murphey, 35, a former New York TV production associate he met while appearing on her show 12 years ago. (His first marriage to his high school sweetheart ended in 1966 after five years and two daughters, Marjorie, now 13, and Elyn, 11, who live in New York with their mother.) Neil and Marcia promptly sold the home and moved into their Malibu beach house up the road from the Peters/ Streisand summer place. Marcia, an American Civil Liberties Union volunteer, recently turned down a staff job "without regrets" (he says) to have their second child, Micah. Neil credits her with "keeping my sanity intact because she is saner than I am. None of my career would have been the same without her." Marcia in turn finds her husband "more confident and relaxed now as an artist. He's starting to mellow."
Diamond still shuttles restlessly between Europe and the two U.S. coasts. (When he is in New York, for example, he will see the first act of one Broadway musical, then check out the second act of another.) "I'm not really comfortable in any one spot," he admits. "I guess I haven't gotten over being lost, a wandering gypsy."
Born in Brooklyn's Coney Island section, Neil moved to Cheyenne, Wyo. when his dry-goods-store-owning father served in the Army during World War II. At 6, Neil returned to Brooklyn and a round robin of nine schools by 12th grade. He took up guitar when he got a secondhand one for his 16th birthday and started writing because it was "unusual in my family." His idea was also to reach out socially and try to overcome his shyness. A fencing scholarship got him into New York University, then a national power in the sport. "We had the greatest fencing team in the country," he remembers. "I was proud to be ninth man on a nine-man team. Fencing made me feel for the first time like a winner."
Yet his passion for composing was growing by then. Neil eventually dropped out of premed for a series of staff jobs in Tin Pan Alley songwriting mills, starting at $50 a week. Eventually he brazened out on his own, working in a storage loft and performing folkie tunes in Village coffeehouses. His first three records (Cherry Cherry, Solitary Man, I Got a Feeling)were all hits, and he really arrived when his I'm a Believer sold an astonishing six million for the Monkees. That, as it turned out, was the rare Neil Diamond song that became someone else's hit: The rest were all his. In 1972, after eight straight gold LPs, he struck one of the industry's landmark deals: a five-year Columbia contract for five LPs at $1 million each.
Neil writes mostly at home late at night, with melodies drifting in first, then a title, then lyrics. He breakfasts most days at a Malibu delicatessen, then commutes to his leased West Hollywood townhouse/ office. Despite the 50 people on his payroll, Marcia usually drives him in, noting: "He hates it, so I play chauffeur and hang out while he's there." A chain-smoker, Diamond controls his weight with what he calls "the rock'n'roll diet—15 one-nighters in 18 days. We don't do just a laid-back 45 minutes; we do a crushing two and a half hours."
To relax, he and Marcia like to go on movie binges (four at a clip). Diamond also reads from some 200 books he's collected about the composers he idolizes, like Stephen Foster, George Gershwin, Alan Jay Lerner and Stephen Sondheim. It would be surprising if Diamond didn't write a Broadway show someday. "Music has the ear of the world," he says loftily. "Composers have the unlimited opportunity to move people emotionally and uplift them spiritually."
Having "grown up poor," Diamond admits being "not very comfortable" with his wealth. He has subsidized his parents' early retirement ("They love it") and has contributed generously to the Phoenix House drug rehabilitation program in New York and to a camp for artistically gifted underprivileged children now being built north of L.A. He has also endowed fencing scholarships and, still close to the sport, even financed the trips of the U.S. women's team to South America for the 1976 and 1977 Junior Olympics.
With most of his dreams already realized, Neil can well afford to hanker after life's simpler pleasures, like a contemplated year off for a cross-country jaunt on his motorcycle. "When you're on a merry-go-round, you miss a lot of the scenery," Diamond muses. "You have to get off every once in a while. I still need practice in enjoying the fruits of success."