Neil Diamond And ‘The Jazz Singer’: Cinema’s Loss Was Music’s Gain
Neil Diamond’s experience starring in ‘The Jazz Singer’ might have convinced him to follow his music, but it also resulted in a classic hit soundtrack album.
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.
Listen to The Jazz Singer on Apple Music and Spotify.
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.
August 19, 2017 at 8:27 pm
I have put this movie on my wish list for many years and ny daughter can’t find it where can we buy it
October 30, 2017 at 2:50 am
Hi, did you try Amazon? I’m pretty sure it’s there.
October 30, 2017 at 2:54 am
I LOVE this movie and I don’t care what the critics said.I just watched it again on Amazon and that’s how I found this article. Thank you! I enjoyed the experience of watching Neil Diamond perform his songs. I think his “i’d rather be a really good singer than a mediocre actor” is courageous and inspiring. Thank you Neil for all the pleasure you’ve given over the years. Love and Blessings,
January 28, 2018 at 8:30 pm
You are so right. Watching right now for umpteenth time. He will be on Grammys tonight
November 11, 2020 at 9:31 am
This was always my “segue “ to lead outsiders to Neil Diamond music. Yes, the music was fantastic! But the emotion in the music was almost more visual than the movie itself. I had the 8track and all of my friends were willing to let me play it as a loop. Over, and over. Nobody wanted to change the music. It was that good!