Neil Diamond at Complex Studios in Los Angeles. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
On Aug. 24, 1972, Neil Diamond stood on the stage of the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles and made history.
Diamond had selected the open-air Griffith Park venue as the setting for a live album, "Hot August Night." His goal? "To leave the audience remembering something," he said recently.
"I'd been on the road for five or six years at that point, and I knew I was about to [take a break]. So we pulled out all the stops and let it all hang out." He laughed. "I didn't know they'd remember it for 40 years."
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Oh, but they did: On Saturday night Diamond was scheduled to return to the Greek Theatre for the first of five sold-out shows marking the 40th anniversary of "Hot August Night," which thanks to fiery performances of signature hits like "Cracklin' Rosie," "Sweet Caroline" and "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" has become a classic of the concert-album form. Last week Universal Music issued a two-CD deluxe edition with previously unreleased material.
"'Hot August Night' defined Neil as one of the indomitable showmen of his generation," says David Wild, author of "He Is … I Say: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond." "It took him from being a product of New York's Brill Building to sort of the West Coast version of what Bruce Springsteen would later become — this live force of nature."
"We call the album our bible," adds Randy Cordero, whose San Francisco-based tribute act, Super Diamond, has played shows in which it re-creates "Hot August Night" in full, complete with between-song banter. "He just puts out so much energy. It's thrilling."
Diamond, 71, cut a decidedly different figure recently at his L.A. recording studio, an appealingly old-fashioned space tucked behind an unmarked door in West Hollywood. He was due on a plane the next day to fly to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where his summer tour launched on June 1, but agreed to sit down for a talk about the album and the commemorative run at the Greek. (Diamond also will play Anaheim's Honda Center on Aug. 21.)
"I get the fancy chair," he said, pointing to a sizable piece of green-and-black furniture with "ND" stamped across the back. Nearby a standard-issue folding number awaited a visitor along with a cup of coffee the same color as Diamond's outfit: black pants, black shirt, black shoes, black baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. "You can sit there," he said.
Speaking in a hushed baritone that's the opposite of his booming stage voice, Diamond described the 1972 gigs — "Hot August Night" captures one of 10 he did at the Greek that summer — as a pivotal point in his career. Two years earlier he and then-wife Marcia Murphey had moved from New York to "a little place in Laurel Canyon."
"It was all very new and exciting," he recalled of life as a fresh Angeleno. In 1970 Diamond played two well-received engagements at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, then "moved up in class and weight division to the Greek, which I'm very grateful for," he said. "Until then I'd been playing any place that would hire me, from bowling alleys to ski lodges to funky municipal auditoriums. There was nowhere for me to go but a theatrical setting, and Los Angeles had a beautiful one."
Diamond said this summer's Greek visit represents "an opportunity to pay back a debt I feel I owe to the audience in Southern California for being so loyal and supportive. It's a chance for them to hear the music done as well as we can ever do it."
Despite that connection to fans in the Southland, the singer admitted that a life spent traveling has prevented him from truly settling down, at least in his mind. "I've lived here for over 40 years, brought up my kids here," he said. "But I never have a sense of being at home anywhere I go, for some reason. I have no home, and yet every place is my home."
Still, he was quick to add, "I've always felt able to work in Southern California. It lends itself to that. And I've spent a lot of time here — beyond working onstage — writing and recording."
That work continues. In 2010 Diamond — who was scheduled to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Friday — released his most recent studio album, "Dreams," an eclectic covers set with understated versions of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Alone Again (Naturally)" by Gilbert O'Sullivan.
Before that came a pair of critically acclaimed studio discs Diamond made with producer Rick Rubin: "12 Songs" and "Home Before Dark," both of which present a rootsy, stripped-down sound in keeping with Johnny Cash's Rubin-helmed "American Recordings" series.
The sound is also in keeping with the version of Diamond you meet in a room over coffee. Minus the sequined shirt and the guitar strapped to his chest, he could be your uncle or a docent at LACMA.