Neil Diamond made a name for himself as one of the most successful pop singer-songwriters in music history. His smooth and introspective songs helped define the whole genre of adult contemporary pop. He became known for hits like I Am, I Said and Cracklin’ Rose, but do you know the story behind Sweet Caroline and its connection is to baseball and specifically the Boston Red Sox?
The artist reached massive fame, that’s for sure. But what’s less certain is whether you know that he recently announced his retirement and why he chose to do so. So, let’s take a deep dive into the singer-songwriter and the story behind one of his greatest hits.
For the younger generation of Red Sox fans, Fenway Park and the song Sweet Caroline just go together – they’re basically a package deal. But this tradition, when the entire stadium belts out Neil Diamond’s 1969 hit during the game’s 8th inning, is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. It’s also a custom that came to be both loved and loathed, depending on who you ask.
The “cheesy” song didn’t arrive on the baseball scene until 1997 – the year that Wally the Green Monster and giant Coke bottles made their debut. So how did such an old song with no apparent ties to baseball become a major part of the Fenway game experience? This is where we start from the beginning…
In 2007, Diamond revealed the inspiration for Sweet Caroline. It was John F. Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, who was 11 years old when the song was released. He even sang the song to her during her 50th birthday celebration in 2007. In regards to the song revelation decades after he wrote it, he said he was happy to get it off his chest and to have expressed it to Caroline Kennedy herself.
“I thought she might be embarrassed, but she seemed to be struck by it and really, really happy.” Diamond told the Associated Press: “It was a No. 1 record and probably is the biggest, most important song of my career, and I have to thank her for the inspiration.”
Diamond said that his inspiration came in the form of a photo of Caroline Kennedy on a magazine cover that he saw when he was staying at a hotel in Memphis. It was a picture of the little girl “dressed to the nines in her riding gear,” next to her pony. “It was such an innocent, wonderful picture, I immediately felt there was a song in there.”
Thus, it created an image in Diamond’s mind. The actual song came together five years after seeing that photo. But in a rather confusing turn of events, in a 2014 interview, he said the song was about his then-wife Marcia – he just needed a three-syllable name to fit his song’s melody. Nonetheless, the song proved to be enduringly popular, even to recent baseball fans.
During a 1997 game at Fenway Park, an employee named Amy Tobey, who was in charge of that season’s music, played Sweet Caroline over the loudspeakers. According to MLB.com, it was because a woman she knew had just given birth to a baby named Caroline. Over time, Tobey got a bit superstitious about using the song too much.
So, she decided to play the song between the seventh and ninth innings only, when the Red Sox were winning the game. This way, the song served the same purpose that “Gino Time” does (a video mashup of American Bandstand dancers moving to the Bee Gees’ song, You Should Be Dancing, during games when the Celtics were nearly assured to win).
In 2002, Dr. Charles Steinberg became the Red Sox’s executive vice president of public affairs. He quickly jumped on the Sweet Caroline bandwagon and wanted to make it an integral part of the Fenway experience. He once asked Danny Kischel, who worked the control room at the time, “Are you going to play Sweet Caroline today?” He responded: “Oh no, we can’t play it. It’s not a Sweet Caroline day.”
Steinberg then said, “What’s a Sweet Caroline day?” Kischel told him: “We only play Sweet Caroline when the team is ahead and the crowd is festive and the atmosphere is already very upbeat.” For Steinberg, the song may have “transformative powers;” it can lift the crowd’s spirits, even when victory isn’t imminent.
Thanks to Steinberg, they started playing it every day in 2002. As the song’s popularity grew at Fenway Park, Neil Diamond himself became increasingly tied to the team — and to the city of Boston. Diamond cemented that the bond in 2007 when he revealed the song’s inspiration (he went with the Caroline Kennedy story).
But, as mentioned earlier, he retracted that story seven years later, during an appearance on Today, when he explained that his ex-wife was his inspiration. He recalled that he was writing a song in Memphis, Tennessee and needed a three-syllable name. He just couldn’t get a “Marsha rhyme.” A year before the appearance on the Today show, Diamond performed the song at Fenway after the Boston Marathon bombings.
He stated that would donate royalties from the hit single to One Fund Boston. Other baseball teams also played the song in solidarity with Boston after the attacks. Steinberg told The Boston Globe in 2013 that, for many, the song is “as much a part of a visit to Boston and Fenway Park as having clam chowder or a lobster roll.”
But it wouldn’t be fair to only highlight the lovers of the tradition. There are some Sweet Caroline haters, like radio host Tony Massarotti who said, “I hate the ‘tradition’,” and Globe columnist Bob Ryan who called it a “national disgrace.” And when Buffalo Tom’s lead singer Bill Janovitz was asked what song should replace it, he simply responded, “Anything.”
Just in time for the third leg of his 50th Anniversary tour, the legendary musician canceled the rest of this shows and announced that he is retiring. According to his website, “the onset of the disease has made it difficult to travel and perform on a large scale basis.” You see, the 79-year-old has been diagnosed with Parkinson ’s disease.
Katie Diamond, Neil’s wife and manager, tweeted that the fans in Australia and New Zealand whose tickets were canceled donated their ticket refunds to support causes, including Parkinson’s research and fire victim funds. Neil Diamond retweeted his wife’s message, adding: “This makes me smile. Thank you. Thank you to everyone for your outpouring of love and support. It makes a difference.”
At a recent show in Nashville, the singer’s famed baritone voice was a “little grittier,” as The Tennessean noted, “but at points, it was hard to tell the difference between the voice echoing through Bridgestone Arena and the one put to tape in the ’70s.” On stage at that concert, Diamond said that it took him eight years to get his music heard.
He recalled starting out on Tin Pan Alley in New York City. “And when I finally got it heard, a whole world opened up.” This might be a good time to look back on his life…
Diamond was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1941, to a Jewish family of Russian and Polish immigrants.
After Brooklyn, he spent four years in Cheyenne, Wyoming, when his father was stationed in the army. In high school, he was a member of the Freshman Chorus and Choral Club. And guess who else was in his class? The one and only Barbra Streisand. But, according to Diamond, they weren’t close friends at the time.
“We were two poor kids in Brooklyn. We hung out in the front of Erasmus High and smoked cigarettes.” After changing high schools (due to his family relocating), he switched things up and became a member of the fencing team. His best friend at the time, future Olympic fencer Herb Cohen, was also on his team.
When he was 16, Diamond got his first guitar. During that year, he spent a number of weeks at a camp in upstate New York where folk singer Pete Seeger performed in a small concert. He saw Seeger singing and watched all the kids singing songs for the musician that they had written themselves. This had an immediate effect on Diamond.
It was then that he became aware of the possibility of writing songs. It was after this summer camp experience that Diamond got his first guitar – as soon as he got back to Brooklyn. He started taking lessons and immediately began writing songs. According to Diamond, songwriting was his “first real interest” growing up. He also said that it helped him release his youthful “frustrations.”
Diamond also used his developing skill to write poetry. It served him well as he started writing poems for all the girls he liked in school. And, as he soon learned, it worked – he would often win their hearts with his prose. In fact, it worked so well that his male classmates not only took note, but even asked Diamond to write poems for them.
They, of course, used his poems to make a pass on the girls they were attracted to. After graduation, he spent the summer as a waiter in the Catskills resort area. It was there that he first met Jaye Posner, the young woman who would years later become his wife and mother of his first two kids.
Diamond went to New York University on a fencing scholarship and was a pre-med major. He was a member of the 1960 NCAA men’s fencing team. He was often bored in his classes, and found writing song lyrics way more interesting. It didn’t take long before Diamond started cutting classes and taking the train up to Tin Pan Alley.
There, he tried to get his freshly written songs heard by local music publishers. During his senior year, just 10 weeks short of graduation, Sunbeam Music Publishing offered him a job – a 16-week gig writing songs for $50 a week (that would be about $423 per week now). And so, he dropped out of college to accept the position.
After those 16 weeks came to an end, Diamond was never rehired. So, he began writing and singing his own songs for demos. He explained how he never really chose songwriting; it just “absorbed” him and became more and more important in his life. His first recording contract was as “Neil and Jack,” an Everly Brothers-type of duet with his high school friend Jack Packer.
They recorded a few singles, like You Are My Love at Last and I’m Afraid – both released in 1962. Cashbox and Billboard gave them excellent reviews, and later that year, Diamond signed with Columbia Records as a solo performer. But after an unsuccessful single, At Night, Columbia dropped him from their label. Diamond resorted to writing songs in and out of publishing houses for the following seven years.
He was a prolific songwriter, taking out his pad and pen wherever he could, even on bus rides. He was only able to sell about one song per week during those early years, which was barely enough to survive on. Nonetheless, he earned enough to live off a mere 35 cents a day on food ($3 in today’s dollars).
He would use an upright piano above the Birdland Club in New York City. And the privacy he had there allowed him to focus on writing without any distractions. As he later recalled of this time, something new began to happen there. “I wasn’t under the gun, and suddenly interesting songs began to happen, songs that had things none of the others did.”
Among those songs were Cherry, Cherry and Solitary Man, the latter being the first record that he recorded under his own name that made it to the charts. To this day, Solitary Man remains one of his all-time favorites, probably due to the nostalgia. For him, that song was “an outgrowth of my despair.”
His first success as a songwriter was in 1965 with Sunday and Me, followed by I’m a Believer, A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You, Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow), and Love to Love – all performed by The Monkees. He had written and recorded the songs for himself, but these cover versions were released before his own. The result was that Diamond started to gain fame as a songwriter.
His early concerts involved him opening for bands like Herman’s Hermits and The Who. With The Who, Diamond was shocked to see Pete Townshend swing his guitar like a club (a signature move of his) and then throw it against walls and even off the stage until it broke. Diamond felt restricted by his label, Bang Records.
He wanted to make more ambitious, introspective music, like Brooklyn Roads proved to be in 1968. Diamond was no longer satisfied with writing simple pop songs, and so he wrote Shilo, which was about an imaginary childhood friend. But the record company believed it wasn’t commercial enough, so it became an LP track on Just for You.
Diamond tried to sign with another record, but it resulted in a series of lawsuits that coincided with a slump in his record sales and overall professional success. By 1977, he won in court and finally purchased the rights to his Bang Records-era master tapes. In 1968, Diamond signed a deal with Uni Records (now called Universal Records).
By 1969, he was living in Los Angeles, and, along with the move, his sound mellowed. Sweet Caroline and Holly Holy came out that same year. Sweet Caroline was his first major hit after that slump. With the new rise in sales, he was able to sell out concerts. In 1971, Diamond performed at seven sold-out concerts at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles.
After a bunch of shows at NYC’s Winter Garden Theater, Diamond announced that he needed a break. He took a hiatus until 1976. So what did he do? Well, he spent four years working on the score for Hall Bartlett’s film version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull (earning him a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score and a Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture). He also recorded two albums, Serenade and Beautiful Noise.
Diamond had already divorced Posner in 1969 and remarried that same year to a production assistant named Marcia Murphey. They had two sons together, Jesse and Micah, making Diamond a father of four. The marriage lasted 25 years, ending in 1995. During his hiatus in the ‘70s, Diamond said he devoted himself to his son Jesse.
By 1976, he started touring with “The ‘Thank You Australia’ Concert,” and it was around this time that he started wearing colorful beaded shirts in concert. At first, he did it so that everyone in the audience would be able to see him without binoculars. A man named Bill Whitten designed and made the shirts for him from the ‘70s until 2007.
Also in 1976, Diamond was paid $650,000 ($2,920,439 today) from Las Vegas’s Aladdin Hotel to open its new Theater for the Performing Arts. Everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Chevy Chase showed up to see Diamond walk out on stage to a standing ovation. He opened with a story about an ex-girlfriend who dumped him before he became famous. His lead-in was “You may have dumped me a bit too soon, baby, because look who’s standing here tonight.”
In 1977, Diamond released I’m Glad You’re Here with Me Tonight. His old classmate Barbra Streisand covered the song on her album Songbird. Later on, Diamond and Streisand recorded a duet, which spurred the success of radio mashups. The two appeared together unannounced at the 1980 Grammy awards and performed the song to a surprised and ecstatic audience.
There was a planned film version of You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, which was to star Diamond and Streisand. It fell through in the end when Diamond starred in a 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer (his first movie role). The movie received poor reviews, but the soundtrack created three Top 10 singles: Love on the Rocks, Hello Again, and America.
America was meaningful for Diamond because it was the story of his grandparents. It was also the song he said he was most proud of, partly because of when it was used. National news programs played it when the hostages in the Iran hostage crisis were shown returning home. The song was also played on air during the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.
Not only that, but Diamond performed it live at the tribute to Martin Luther King and the Vietnam Vets’ Welcome Home concert. At the time, it was the number-one most recognized song about America – more so than the classic God Bless America.
Not all of Diamond’s performances were positive, though. In 1979, in San Francisco, he collapsed on stage and was taken to the hospital. He had to undergo a 12-hour operation to remove a tumor on his spine. Diamond admitted that he had been losing feeling in his right leg “for a number of years, but ignored it.”
When he collapsed that day, he had no strength in either of his legs. After the surgery, he endured a long rehabilitation process, which came just before starting the principal photography on his film The Jazz Singer in 1980. Apparently, Diamond was so convinced that he was going to die that he even wrote farewell letters to his friends.
The failure of The Jazz Singer was due in part to the fact that Diamond had never having acted before. “I didn’t think I could handle it,” he said later, referring to himself as “a fish out of water.” That performance marked Diamond as the first-ever winner of a Razzie Award for Worst Actor.
Ironically, the same role earned him a nomination for a Golden Globe Award. Diamond told the Los Angeles Times much later that his role was, for him, “the ultimate bar mitzvah.” (It must be confusing to be both nominated for best and worst actor in the same role.)
Fun fact: Diamond’s single Heartlight was inspired by the 1982 film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
The ‘80s weren’t as kind to Diamond as the previous decade, because his record sales slumped. His last single to make it to Billboard’s Pop Singles chart was in 1986. But, on the other hand, his concert tours continued to sell tickets. According to Billboard magazine, Diamond was the most profitable solo performer of 1986.
During the ‘90s, he produced six studio albums in which he covered many classics from movies. The ‘90s saw a revival in his popularity. This was the period when Sweet Caroline became a huge sing-along at baseball games and other events. Other than the Boston Red Sox, the New York Rangers also adopted the song, playing it whenever they were winning by the 3rd period.
In 1996, Diamond’s live-in girlfriend was Australian Rae Farley. The two met in Brisbane, Australia, and it was during their relationship that he wrote the songs on Home Before Dark – a time when she was struggling with chronic back pain. But, that relationship never turned into a marriage.
In 2011, however, then-70-year-old Diamond announced his engagement to 41-year-old Katie McNeil on Twitter. Diamond said his 2014 album, Melody Road, was inspired and fueled by their relationship. “There’s no better inspiration or motivation for work than being in love.” The couple married in 2012. In addition to serving as his manager, McNeil also produced the documentary Neil Diamond: Hot August Nights NYC.
In 2008, American Idol and Neil Diamond fans alike were pleased to hear that Diamond would be a guest mentor to the Idol contestants who were to sing his songs. Also in 2008, Sirius Satellite Radio started broadcasting Neil Diamond Radio, and he even appeared on the roof of the Jimmy Kimmel building to perform Sweet Caroline.
It all started when Kimmel joked that he was arrested for singing the popular hit dressed as a Diamond impersonator. In August that year, Diamond did a concert at Ohio State University, while he was suffering from laryngitis. The result disappointed both him and his fans. The next day, he offered refunds to those who attended.
2011 and 2012 marked several milestones in Diamond’s career. On March 14, 2011, the singer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In December, he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement award from the Kennedy Center. Then, on August 10, 2012, Diamond received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
On April 20, 2013, Diamond showed up by surprise at Fenway Park to sing Sweet Caroline during the 8th inning, of course. It was the first game there since the Boston Marathon bombing. In 2014, he surprised his alma mater, Erasmus High School in Brooklyn. The show was only announced on Twitter that very afternoon.
In 2017, he sang Sweet Caroline for New Year’s Eve at Times Square, which was likely his last live performance of that song. Two years later, the song was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry because it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
On March 7, 2020, despite his retirement announcement due to the onset of Parkinson’s disease, Diamond gave a rare performance in Las Vegas at the Keep Memory Alive Power of Love Gala. The MGM Grand Garden Arena chose to honor him there. That same month, he posted a video to YouTube playing Sweet Caroline with modified lyrics in light of the dark days we find ourselves in (“…washing hands, don’t touch me, I won’t touch you…”.