When I was young, around 10 years old, and we went on our annual family holiday, music was played in the car (obviously). A permanent fixture was volume 2 of Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night. Just a matter of childhood memories, sentiment and nostalgia? Or was the music just beautiful in itself?
Neil Leslie Diamond was born on January 24, 1942, in Brooklyn, New York. With class mate Barbra Streisand he sang in the school choir. For his 16th birthday he got his first guitar and quickly started writing his own songs.
The first real success came in 1965 when Diamond’s Sunday And Me was as hit for Jay And The Americans. His connection to The Monkees yielded even greater successes, like A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You, Love To Love and of course I’m A Believer (which held the number 1 position for 7 weeks).
In 1966 he released his first solo single, Solitary Man, quickly followed by Cherry, Cherry and Kentucky Woman. In 1968 Diamond singed a deal with Uni Records and released the albums Velvet Gloves And Spit and Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show. The latter was recorded at Memphis’ American Sound Studios, where Elvis Presley would perpetuate his comeback in 1969 with studio sessions that possessed artistic merit (also see Elvis Presley – The Memphis Record: RCA combines the comeback recordings in 1987).
After moving to Los Angeles the success would take on serious form. Where singles Sweet Caroline (1969) and Holly Holy (1969) did really well, both Cracklin’ Rosie (1970) and Song Sung Blue (1972) reached the first position in the charts. In 1971 I Am… I Said made the top 5. Diamond needed four months to complete that song. It also was a perfect subject for critics to put Diamond down. His saccharine sound and at times toe curling lyrics were met with disdain in hip music circles. I Am… I Said contains:
“I am”… I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all
Not even the chair
Of course the closing sentence is rather silly, but the vitriol pointed at Diamond by the ‘serious’ press was disproportionate. The press never really lost that attitude.
One of the reasons for the bad reviews was undoubtedly caused by his success (both artistic and commercial success is suspect by definition). The general public ate out of his hands though. In 1971 Diamond performed at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles 7 times in a row and did that again in 1972, 3 times more than a year before. Diamond used a quadraphonic system in the venue to create a complete ‘surround sound’. He also brought a standard rock combo along, supplemented with a huge number of strings.
Hot August Night
On December 9, 1972, Hot August Night was released as the first album on the new label MCA Records (a merger of the labels Uni, Kapp and Decca). The live album was recorded on August 24, 1972, during Diamond’s 10 concert run at the Greek Theater. It was a truly magical night.
Diamond: “Hot August Night captures a very special show for me. We went all out to really knock ’em dead in L.A.”. And that was recognized by all involved, not just by the audience present that night. The album was a huge success for Diamond and the recently founded record company. It sold 2 million copies in the US, which was nothing compared to the success of the album in Australia, where Diamond had an immense following. The album held the first position in the charts for a stunning 29 consecutive weeks (!).
The album cover has been the subject of many conversations over the years. What is Diamond actually portraying/doing on the cover, what does he act out? Diamond himself has stated he picked that particular image, because he liked his hair in it. The rest of the world imagines something entirely different.
In his review for Rolling Stone critic Lester Bangs wrote: “He’s pantomiming whanging his clanger, and from the look on his face I’d say he’s about to shoot off, and the only bogus part is that he’d like everybody out there to think it’s 13 inches long”.
The inside of the gatefold contained the following liner notes.
Thursday, August 24, 1972, A hot, sultry summer night, in California they call it earthquake weather, with the air hanging heavy over the open, glistening shell of the Greek Theatre, over 4,500 people comfortable on the broad seats, over the countless others, the “tree people” clamboring up the mountain and in to the surrounding trees, casting eerie shadows against the walls, anything to have a glimpse of the stage, and of the man who will fill it. Hot August night, and many of the people had been there on Tuesday, and Wednesday, and will be there again on Friday, and the nights after that, because after all, Neil Diamond has come back to the Greek.
Then, softly, the music begins, the lights dim Slowly, the heavy fire doors roll back; the music rises, the stage is a smoky, opalescent jewel in the darkness. But one light shines brighter than the others, a white pool in the brilliance, and, for an instant, sound hangs suspended, only the air breathing.
Then he’s there, the crowd exploding. Neil Diamond as casual as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, those 5,000 people demanding his soul. And for the next 107 minutes, he gives it to them, a spontaneous, exhausting display of energy and sensuality. And the people are right there with him, screaming, and cheering, and applauding, and beseeching, knowing all the words to all the songs, but hearing them as for the first time, because that’s what Neil Diamond gives them, singing as though he too was just discovering the heart and soul of the music, every number unique and exhilarating.
Too soon, almost before the moment is realised, it’s over. The encores, the ovations, the bows – Neil Diamond has gone, in joy and triumph. And as the people begin to leave, reluctant, unwilling to relinquish the intimacy and sensation, the silence again settles on the Greek, heavy and still, until the next evening, when once again, Neil Diamond will shatter the hot August night.
The backside of the album cover contained quotes for concert reviews.
ELECTRIC…His audience falls like plums at his feet.
– TONE, Daily Variety
More of a triumph, in every measurable way, than his stunning show last summer at the Greek… Most of all, Diamond gave of himself.
– ROBERT HILBURN, Los Angeles Times
He moved the audience through many moods, from joy to sorrow…
– SUE CAMERON, The Hollywood Reporter
I enjoyed the outstanding theatrical experience of my life, due to the unsurpassed and almost hypnotic talents of Neil Diamond.
– JAMES A. DOOLITTLE, General Director, Greek Theatre Association
The lean sensual performer was A TRIUMPH
– MICHAEL CARMACK, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner
The name Robert Hilburn stands out. At the time, he belonged to the select number of music critics with some standing, but he was positive about the shows. The aforementioned Lester Bangs was relatively positive as well. But nonetheless the chagrin was still well represented. Out of all the Neil Diamond albums Hot August Night was valued the highest, which is still true to this very day.
As a child I didn’t have any clue about reviews or the artistic weight being bestowed on music. Music was simply beautiful or it wasn’t. And Neil Diamond definitely fell into the first category. As stated in the introduction the volume 2 cassette of the album (corresponding with the C and D sides of the vinyl version) was a steady pick in the family car. Glorious music, providing many a blissful moment in the car, and as far as I could tell, that included all involved. The closing Soolaimon / Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show was my personal favorite.
By the time I left home and started living on my own Hot August Night was a purchase I quickly did, a second hand version of the original vinyl album. I bought it for ƒ 4,- at Concerto in Amsterdam, the record store that would soon employ me. I bought it again as soon as it was released on cd and when the 40th Anniversary Edition was made available in 2012, I bought that too. I don’t play it very often, but there are moments I almost yearn for it. And it hasn’t let me down yet, even though it has been with me for almost 50 years.
To address its artistic value: Neil Diamond and band play at the absolute top of their (considerable) abilities. Vocally Diamond is convincing: he believes what he sings (yes, even “even the chair”). The music really moves me. Kitsch or no kitsch, songs like Play Me and Morningside makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. The previously mentioned album finale does the very same. An almost orgasmic end to a concert that must have been absolutely electrifying at the time.
One thing that still stands out after all these years are the songs’ dynamics. The quiet sounds quiet, but when it goes hard it really sounds hard and heavy and the album almost rocks out more than classic 1970s live albums like Alive! or At Budokan. The band is truly phenomenal and the production is laser sharp. Listening to the album I can still get a bit envious of the people that were actually there that evening, who were able to witness a concert where people didn’t feel the need to endlessly talk through the music all night long.
But in the end it all comes down to a perfect mix of good music, inspired singing, great sound and a perfect flow. Even though the songs might be a bit corny, kitsch and (too?) simple at times, overall it’s wonderful.
Should any of my readers want to make a start with Neil Diamond, Hot August Night is the ultimate starting point. Even though it may very well be the ending point as well for many, just know that you have been exposed to a beautiful document, one that shows that Neil Diamond is a true artist, who still writes songs in the ‘old’ tradition. Highly recommended!
All songs written by Neil Diamond.
- Crunchy Granola Suite
- Done Too Soon
- Solitary Man
- Cherry, Cherry
- Sweet Caroline
- Porcupine Pie
- You’re So Sweet
- Red Red Wine
- Soggy Pretzels
- And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind
- Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon
- Play Me
- Canta Libre
- Song Sung Blue
- Cracklin’ Rosie
- Holly Holy
- I Am… I Said
- Soolaimon / Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show
- Neil Diamond – vocals and guitar
- Richard Bennett – guitar
- Emory Gordy Jr. – guitar and vibraphone
- Jefferson Kewley – percussion
- Alan Lindgren – keyboards
- Danny Nicholson – guitar
- Reinie Press – bass
- Dennis St. John – drums
- Lee Holdridge – orchestra director
- Alice Ober, Baldassare Ferlazzo, David Turner, Donald Bagley, Giacinto Nardulli, Haim Shtrum, Henry Ferber, Giacinto Nardulli, Hyman Goodman, Jay Rosen, Jerome Kessler, Jess Bourgeois, Jesse Ehrlich, John de Voogdt, Linn Subotnick, Marilyn Baker, Myron Sandler, Nathan Gershman, Paulo Alencar, Philip Candreva, Philip Goldberg, Ralph Schaeffer, Raymond Kelley, Richard Kaufman, Robert Lipsett, Ronald Folsom, Salvatore Crimi, Samuel Boghossian, Shari Zippert, Sidney Sharp, Sven Reher, Tibor Zelig, Timothy Barr, Walter Rower, Walter Wiemeyer, Wilbert Nuttycombe, William Henderson – string orchestra
After Hot August Night
Following shows in the autumn of 1972 Diamond announced he needed a break and wouldn’t perform until 1976. He made a deal with Columbia Records and released Jonathan Livingston Seagull (soundtrack to a badly received movie with the same name), Serenade and Beautiful Noise, all of them very successful.
In 1976 Diamond returned to the stage which resulted in Love At The Greek (which actually was Hot August Night part 2). In 1979 Diamond collapsed on stage. He turned out to have a tumor in his spine. It was removed and after revalidation shooting for the movie The Jazz Singer commenced, in which Diamond played a part. The movie was a flop, but the album garnered 3 top 10 singles. The following albums showed ever declining sales, but his concerts still sold out quickly. His fans remained immensely loyal to him. In 1987 Diamond released Hot August Night II.
On November 8, 2005, Diamond released the album 12 Songs, a ‘back to basics’ album produced by Rick Rubin, the first Diamond album to earn (almost) unanimous praise of the (music) press. In 2008 he repeated it with Home Before Dark. In 2009 Hot August Night/NYC: Live From Madison Square Garden was released, in 2018 followed by Hot August Night III.
In 2011 Diamond was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received a “lifetime achievement award” at the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors. In 2012 he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 2015 I saw Neil Diamond live in Amsterdam. Nostalgia optima forma. Diamond still possessed a surprisingly good voice. Two years later he announced his departure from performing, due to Parkinson’s disease.
Even though Diamond was reviled by the press, over 1,000 artists covered Neil Diamond songs. A bigger compliment from his colleagues is unobtainable. Diamond is one of the most covered artists of all time.
What’s your opinion of Neil Diamond and Hot August Night in particular? Let me know. I really do appreciate it!
The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated.
Neil Diamond – Greek Theater 1972 & Neil Diamond – Hot August Night – Gatefold inner photo images: neildiamondcentral.com
Neil Diamond 1971 image: udiscovermusic.com
Neil Diamond – Hot August Night image: bol.com
Neil Diamond – Hot August Night vol 2 – Cassette (NL) & Neil Diamond – Hot August Night – 40th Anniversary Edition 2012 images: discogs.com
Neil Diamond – Greek Theater 1972 – Program image: iaisnd.com
Neil Diamond – Hot August Night – Back cover photo image: facebook.com
Neil Diamond – Hot August Night – MCA Ad image: flickr.com