Mention The Jazz Singer to Neil Diamond and it’s likely to trigger some mixed reactions. His acting in Richard Fleischer’s 1980 movie earned him a Razzie from the Golden Raspberry Awards (a light-hearted ceremony that “rewards” Hollywood’s more questionable moments), but his soundtrack was an unqualified triumph. To date, it has sold more than six million copies and is hailed as a classic.
It’s no wonder that Diamond later said, “I decided while I was doing The Jazz Singer that I’d rather be a really good singer than a mediocre actor; that I’d concentrate on my music, my records, and my shows.”
In the film, a remake of the Al Jolson classic from 1927, New York-born Diamond stars opposite Laurence Olivier as Yussel Rabinovitch, a young Jewish cantor performing at the synagogue of his overbearing father. Diamond, who was about to turn 40 when the film was made, showed considerable courage in taking on the challenge of acting, especially when you consider that it came after a long spell in a wheelchair when he had been recuperating after having had a tumor removed from his spine. But despite the poor reception for the film, the album, released on November 10, 1980, was an instant hit, with chart placings for songs as emotionally potent as “Love On The Rocks,” “Hello Again” and the brazenly patriotic “America.”
Diamond had strong credentials as a songwriter before he became a solo artist. As a young college dropout, he made a living as a writer on New York’s Tin Pan Alley, during which time he learned to play guitar by listening to folk group The Weavers.
One of the first albums he bought as a youngster was by The Everly Brothers, and he particularly loved a “beautiful, very melodic song” called “Let It Be Me,” originally written in French by Gilbert Bécaud, a man whose compositions had been covered by Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. Before The Jazz Singer, Diamond sought out Bécaud and they wrote songs together, including five for the soundtrack: “Love On The Rocks,” “Summerlove,” “On The Robert E Lee,” “Hey Louise” and “Songs Of Life.”
The most successful was “Love On The Rocks,” a weepie love song that became one of Diamond’s standards, and which was later a hit for Gladys Knight. Elsewhere, “America,” about the hopes and fears of immigrants, played the patriotic card deftly with lyrics about “the flag unfurled” and a catchy chorus. It, too, became an enduring anthem for Diamond.
The album also contains a Jewish traditional hymn (“Adon Olom”), used as a 30-second interlude among the 13 snappy songs. Most tracks are under three minutes long – and all pack an emotional punch, channeled through his sugary bass voice. Among them, “You Baby” is bouncy and witty, and the jazzy “On The Robert E Lee” is quirky, while “Summerlove” is a simply a well-constructed pop song. It all combined to help the album go platinum five times over.
In addition, the guitar work on The Jazz Singer is exemplary, featuring Richard Bennett, who had worked with Mark Knopfler for the past 23 years. Back in the 70s, Bennett was a regular in Diamond’s band. His marvelous playing is also a key part of The Bellamy Brothers’ 1975 hit “Let Your Love Flow.”
Diamond liked to gather musicians of the highest caliber. His long-term bandmate Alan Lindgren – the arranger on the album who also played synthesizer and piano – had previously worked with Frank Sinatra. Another sweet song, called “Acapulco,” was written with guitarist Doug Rhone.
At the time, Diamond became one of the highest-paid debut actors ever for his performance in The Jazz Singer (scooping $3.5 million), but later told Larry King Live on CNN that it was not a happy experience. “I didn’t really understand the process. It was a little scary to me. I had never done it before. And I never did get a real taste for the movies.”
Cinema’s loss was music’s gain… and The Jazz Singer remains a landmark album.