At 71, singer/songwriter Neil Diamond could easily settle into retirement. In his five-decade career he has sold 125 million records and had 39 Top 40 hit songs. But Diamond is not ready to leave the limelight yet. He is currently on a 31-city North American concert tour that will include a stop in Boston June 23 at TD Garden.
Diamond has much to beam about, especially over the last two years. On April 21 he married for the third time, wedding his 41-year-old manager, Katie McNeil. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, and ended that year as a Kennedy Center honoree for lifetime achievement in the performing arts. “I feel so fortunate to make my dream a lifetime’s work,” he said in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home. “I am as excited about singing and songwriting now as I ever was. I have been rejuvenated, [and am] looking forward to another 20 years of singing and songwriting.”
Red Sox baseball fans have heard Diamond often since 2002, as his signature song, “Sweet Caroline,” is played at Fenway Park prior to the Sox batting in the eighth inning. Diamond recalls the festive atmosphere when he performed “Sweet Caroline” to open the 2010 season at Fenway.
“It was memorable and a surprise to hear of my popularity because I am not from Boston. When I write any song, you never know how popular it will become, if at all, and I never expected ‘Sweet Caroline’ to be sung at a baseball game,” he said.
Diamond has sold more records in his career than most artists. His last two CDs, “Twelve Songs” (2005) and “Home Before Dark” (2008), gave Diamond the status of being the oldest artist to reach Number One on the Billboard music charts.
Opening his tour in Ft. Lauderdale June 1, Diamond sang 29 songs in a two-hour concert, without an opening act or intermission. Dressed in a black shirt and pants, he and his 14-piece band performed beloved hits from the past five decades, including “Cherry, Cherry,” “America,” “I Am I Said,” “I’m A Believer” and “Sweet Caroline.” Fans happily sang along.
“I am grateful that after all these years, people resonate with my songs,” he said.
Diamond recreated, to a degree, his Jewish upbringing when he starred in the film “The Jazz Singer”(1980), a remake of the tale of a cantor who found fame as a pop singer.
“Even though my parents wanted me to become a doctor and not a cantor, the film is a tribute to my Jewish heritage. I worked very hard to retell this classic story of a Jewish cantor who left his expected place in society for a world in show business. I loved the retelling of the Jewish experience. So much of the story reminds me of my grandparents and their kind of life. They were immigrants to America and taught Yiddish to me as a child,” Diamond said.
He revealed that he wanted Yiddish in the movie. “I tried to convince the director to have the whole opening in Yiddish with subtitles, like they did in ‘The Godfather’ [with Italian]. Yiddish is a beautiful language, and I wanted to do my part to keep it alive,” he said.
Born in Brooklyn in 1941 to Akeeba and Rose Diamond, young Neil dreamed of a career in music, but to satisfy his father’s wishes, he enrolled as a pre-medicine student at New York University, and was awarded a fencing scholarship.
After taking a job as a songwriter for $50 weekly in 1961, Diamond became hooked on a music career. His first marriage to Jewish schoolteacher Jaye Posner in 1963 lasted for six years. They had two daughters. Diamond married Marcia Murphy in 1969, and they had two sons before divorcing in 1994.
Although Diamond is not interested in organized religion, he wants to embrace Jewishness, and raises funds for organizations he personally admires.
Diamond has performed for Chabad, singing “America” at the 2002 “L’Chaim To Life Telethon,” and has donated funds to Hebrew University at a 2003 dinner in honor of Barbra Streisand, with whom he sang the duet, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”
“I am Jewish. I believe in G-d, love the traditions I learned growing up, and tend to be very spiritual. I want to pass on to my four grandchildren all I know about their heritage,” he said.
When the concert tour ends in September, Diamond will go on a six-month honeymoon to New York, Israel and Italy, among other stops.
“I want Katie to know everything about me and my past. Aside from my natural ties to New York City and Israel, my mother has relatives in Italy, so we look forward to a wonderful journey together,” he said.
Neil Diamond performs June 23 at 8 p.m. at TD Garden in Boston. Call 617-624-1331 or visit www.tdgarden.com.