On A Hot August Night In 1972, Neil Diamond Was King
In an era of incredible live albums, Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night from 1972 was the "Cherry Cherry" and "Sweet Caroline" singer's bid to be an A-list showman. The double album wasn’t just a hit, it cemented Diamond as a performer with the charisma of Elvis and the dramatic ability to take the audience on a ride for more than an hour and a half. Neil Diamond is in rare form on Hot August Night, recorded on August 24, 1972, during a run of ten sold-out nights at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. This perfectly constructed live album shows the range and versatility of an artist in their prime.
Before "Hot August Night" Neil Diamond was more famous as a songwriter
In spite of his prowess as a performer, evident on Hot August Night, Diamond found his first success in the music industry off the stage, writing pop songs that were hits for other artists. In 1960, he worked at the Sunbeam Music Publishing company but he didn’t find success until 1965 with the release of "Sunday and Me,” recorded by Jay and the Americans.
At the same time Diamond was writing songs that would make his career. While writing at the Brill Building he penned "Cherry, Cherry,” "Solitary Man,” and one of the biggest hits of his career, “I’m A Believer.” Diamond intended to release “I’m A Believer” as a solo song but as luck would have it The Monkees released their version before, which went to #1 on the Billboard chart. Diamond would release a version in 1971 that peaked at #51.
Diamond gained a reputation as a songwriter throughout the ‘60s, and this is while he was releasing music through Bang Records and the MCA. He put out a slew of hit singles -- including "Cherry, Cherry" (#6, 1966), "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" (#1o, 1967), "Sweet Caroline" (#4, 1969), "Holly Holy" (#6, 1969), and "Cracklin' Rosie" (#1, 1970) -- and turned into a fantastic live performer. In 1971, he played seven sold out dates at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, he returned a year later and added three more shows.
Diamond played songs that meant something to him
With the recording of Hot August Night in 1972 Neil Diamond proved that he was a live act on par with anyone performing at the time. By ’72 Diamond was such a beloved live act that the ten shows sold out almost immediately, inspiring Diamond to bring along a quadrophonic sound system so the audience could hear the show in full surround sound.
Along with the sound system Diamond brought along a huge string section as well as his normal set-up of horns, keys, and a standard rock combo. The set is full of complete bangers from the entirety of his career. The track list of the album is genuinely fascinating, with songs that turned into monster hits -- "Sweet Caroline,” and “Cherry, Cherry” -- relegated to the top of the set, while the emphasis is placed on tracks like "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show,” which Diamond absolutely destroys in the finale.
Even though the album isn’t what we think of as a live album in the modern era -- it's not a systematic a run-through of greatest hits -- it’s the flow of the album that’s astounding. Diamond shows that he’s not only a great songwriter, but that he’s a master arranger. When asked why he didn’t include the songs he wrote for The Monkees, he explained:
The only criteria that I used as to what songs, what music would be performed in concert was that it still moved me. It still had the power to affect me, to make me enjoy it; to make me get up to want to perform it and without even thinking about it or intellectualizing on it.
He became a theatrical showman with "Hot August Night"
There’s a showmanship on display on Hot August Night that’s unexpected from Diamond, but with this album he sheds the stigma of being a songwriter who also sings and shows that he’s a masterful performer who also writes amazing songs. Hot August Night is Neil Diamond turned up to 11. He shows his old-time show business soul and exposes that it’s not all that different from the rock n roll spectacle of bands like KISS, Cheap Trick, and numerous others who'd also release monster live albums in the '70s.
If anyone was still thinking of Neil Diamond as just a songwriter at this point that preconceived notion was changed with the performance on this album. Diamond takes the audience on a roller coaster ride across his career for a full hour and a half, not letting up until the final moments of the show. The last side of this double album is a stretch of songs that brings the entire audience together like a huge backing chorus for the man himself.
It was paramount to Diamond that people be able to watch the show for free
The thing about the Greek Theater is that it’s a beautiful outdoor theater that’s surrounded by stunning hills. If you can sneak up into the trees around the theater and watch the show for free then you should do it. The people at the Greek don’t love that people can get a free show so they do whatever they can to stop people from doing this, but Diamond said that he wouldn’t play the shows if the Greek went after what he called “tree people.” He explained:
from my experience the first year that I was there I knew there would be a lot of people wanted to get in weren’t able to get in… people who would [be] willing to climb that mountain and sit on the hills and watch it which to me is the ideal way to watch that kind of a concert. First of all, you get in for FREE and you’re able to sit under a bush somewhere and break open a bottle of some nice white wine and and enjoy the whole thing But they had so many people who were into that thing, they had the parking lots filled with people who just sitting on top of their cars and listening … and also the hills surrounding the Greek were filled and I understand one night they had something like 5,000 people in the trees which was more than was in the audience. [So in 1972] we knew that there would be some people there and the Fire Department from the year before was loath to have that many people in the, in the hills because it’s a fire area but I had asked the Greek Theatre if they would put on extra fire people and permit the people to go up there and stand there and we worked something out. They were very cooperative about the whole thing.
Let's talk about that cover
It’s impossible to talk about “Hot August Night” without discussing that cover. If you’d never heard Neil Diamond up until this point you wouldn’t be totally wrong to think that he’s some oversexed shock rocker and not the glorious pop singer that he really is - just look at that denim shirt, those beads, and that beautiful head of hair. The art reveals that Neil Diamond is no man, he’s a god.
Or as Lester Bangs so skillfully put it in his March 15, 1973 review in Rolling Stone:
It’s truly a pic to post in your den or rec room for years to come, no matter what some o’ them psychedelic shmucks with their Hawkwind nightshade garlands might think; you don’t even need a black light, and it’s great to spill beer on or throw your girlfriend up against in the party’s latter leagues.
Just what is Neil doing in the picture? Bangs wrote that he was "pantomiming whanging his clanger," which might be the case. When Jimmy Kimmel asked Diamond about the image years later, suggesting that "it appears that you're miming something, I don't know what exactly," Diamond didn't address the gesture at all, saying instead that he chose the picture because he liked how his hair looked in the shot.
DIAMOND: I thought, if you've got it, flaunt it. And I had...
KIMMEL: Clearly you've got it right there, and you're flaunting it.
DIAMOND: That's right. That's exactly right.
They can’t get enough of this album down under
Hot August Night was definitely a hit in the United States, where it sold two million records and went to number five on the Top 200. But the album really took off in Australia where it’s become one of the biggest selling albums of all time. When it was released in 1972 the album spent 29 weeks at the number one spot, becoming the best selling record of 1973 and the third best selling album of ’74. Less than a decade later the album re-entered the Australian top 10, then it went to number 21 in 1992.
The album was Diamond's bid to be not just a singer-songwriter but a stage-commanding performer, and it worked. He was the old-time showman he wanted to be, and further proved it in the fall with 20 consecutive sold-out shows at New York's Winter Garden theater, becoming the first rock star to play Broadway.
Diamond recorded a sequel in 1987 and in 2012 he came back again with Hot August Night III, but it’s the original album that’s truly worth seeking out.