Neil Diamond's "Kentucky Woman"
Mix Magazine, October, 1996
by Blair Jackson
By 1966, the sound of rock 'n' roll on the radio was beginning to change. George Martin's increasingly ambitious and adventurous productions for The Beatles would forever alter the sonic landscape of pop music. In the top New York recording studios, engineers and producers warily looked over their shoulders at the new sounds coming across the Atlantic, but continued churning out hits in much the same way they had for the previous decade. Sergeant Pepper was still a year away; that's when all hell really broke loose in the recording industry.
Neil Diamond was only 25 in 1966 - a contemporary of The Beatles and the Stones - but he was already very much a part of the New York music establishment. A native of Brooklyn, he began writing songs in his teens, and made his first recordings shortly after graduating from Erasmus High School. Although he briefly attended NYU, where he as pre-med (attending on a fencing scholarship of all things!), he left school in 1962 to devote his energy to selling his songs to Broadway publishers, and it wasn't long before he landed a job making $50 a week as a staff songwriter.
In 1965, his friends Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, a married couple who were already wee-established pop songwriters (they wrote a number of Phil Spector-produced hits, including "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Be My Baby," "Then He Kissed Me," and "Chapel of Love") helped Diamond get his own recording contract with Bert Berns' Bang Records label. Berns was a formidable songwriter, too, having co-written such classics as "Twist and Shout," "Here Comes the Night," "Hang On Sloopy," "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" and many other hits.
Beginning in the spring of '66, Diamond began cutting some of his own songs for Bang, working in three different New York studios: Dick Charles Recording (later called Masters Studio), where Diamond recorded his first smash, "Cherry Cherry"; A&R Studios, which was already established as one of the top music and jingle studios in the city; and Century Sound, another top music house, which was co-owned by Bang's principal engineer, Brooks Arthur (profiled in Mix, March '95). Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich produced the early Diamond sessions, with plenty of input from Berns, and Brooks Arthur engineered.
When I asked Arthur what Barry and Greenwich brought to these seminal Diamond sessions, he said, "What they brought to the studio was happiness, joy and a beat. They had a street feel - an by that I don't mean in today's term, which is a lot darker than it was in the late '50s and early '60s. They were happy. They were the 'Goin' to the Chapel' kids. Of course the other things Jeff brought were tambourines, shakers and maracas; and Ellie brought those innovative background parts.
"What Neil brought to the sessions was a great attitude, those wonderful songs, and as Bert Berns used to say, 'the feel of Neil.' It's hard to put your finger on what that was, but you knew it when it was happening."
I suggest to Arthur that perhaps some of the "feel of Neil" is a little swagger in the singer's style, but Arthur disagrees. "Confidence, maybe, but never a swagger. Then and now, Neil is much too thoughtful a man to have a swagger. But he had a sway, and the rhythm guitar that he had in his hands matched the movements of his body. It was something to behold from my perch in the control room. He'd be moving to his left and his right and his guitar would be moving with him in perfect rhythm. I would see that kinetic thing happening. It had a little Latin feel to it almost - a little mambo or cha-cha vibe to it, and yet, it was always still a very rock 'n' roll feel."
Arthur says that typically, Diamond would get together with Barry, Greenwich and Berns for several days prior to a session "and they'd also usually brainstorm with the arranger of choice, which in those days was usually Artie Butler. Neil always liked to be totally prepared when he went into the studio and he usually had a lot of ideas about how things should go.
This month's Classic Track, "Kentucky Woman" was cut in the summer of 1967 at A&R Studios. Although it wasn't one of Diamond's biggest hits (it made it to Number 22), Arthur believes "it was still a landmark record for him. He had a streak of hits, and then he wanted to release a different kind of record, a song called 'Shilo,' which he had cut. Bert Berns was being mentorial to him and felt that 'Shilo' wasn't going to be a big hit, so he urged Neil to go back to the well, and write another song. And the song Neil came up with was 'Kentucky Woman,'" which remains a favorite from the early Diamond era for many of his legion of rabid fans.
At the time the song was cut, the control room at A&R was equipped with "an old custom board with Daven rotary pots," Arthur recalls, "they looked like broadcasting pots." The studio had a pair of Ampex 4-track recorders, "and I loved all the tube gear we had back then. I used a lot of Pultecs [EQs], I had Teletronix and Universal tube limiters. We had these big EMT reverbs we kept in the stairwells. From time to time, too, A&R would convert a room to a natural chamber."
Arthur used a wide selection of available mics, including a Neumann U47 on Diamond's lead vocal, EV 666s, Neumann U87s, Altec "salt shakers" and the then-new Sennheiser 421s. One interesting technique he used in the studio with Diamond was to mic the acoustic guitar conventionally in front, but also put a mic behind the singer "so I could pick up some air and some body; some ambience and the wooden feel of the guitar - I'd merge those two together," Arthur says.
Diamond had a stable of top New York session musicians who worked with him on almost all of his early records, including drummer Herbie Lavelle; guitarists Hugh McCracken, Al Gorgoni and Eric Gale; bassist Bob Bushnell and Russ Savakus; keyboardist/arranger Artie Butler; and percussionists George Devons, Jack Jennings and Specs Powell. (Arthur wasn't sure which combination of players were on that specific session.) "The band fit Neil's music hand-in-glove, "Arthur says.
The band usually cut its tracks live as a unit, with Diamond laying down a vocal that was usually a guide, but that also might be a keeper. Arthur says that a typical session might involve six or seven run-throughs of a tune, and then the punch-ins began, whether it was correcting a vocal or instrument part. Background vocals, solos and horns (when they were used) were recorded separately.
Arthur notes that a lot of the magic in those early Neil Diamond's recordings is a result of painstaking work during mixing sessions. Listen to "Cherry Cherry" or "Kentucky Woman" or "I Got the Feelin'" and it's hard not to be impressed with the amount of punch in those recordings. And in terms of the air in the arrangements and the ambience on the tracks, it's clear that from a recording perspective, the early Diamond sound was, as Arthur puts it, "on the line from Phil Spector." Some of that is the percussion taste of Jeff Barry, some of it is the creative but judicious use of reverb and delays.
"We had to make our decisions early in the process because we didn't have a million tracks to work with," Arthur says. "If I've got the rhythm section on one track, I have to decide in advance if I want some echo on the bass drum or whatever, because once the track is down it's locked, and if I want more echo, it goes on everything on that track. But I think that's one reason those records have that punch - they didn't have to go through a lot of additional processing and line amps and yada-yada-yada. They were full frequency. They had a lot of height and depth. The good thing was when you committed to a rhythm section sound on 4-track - bass and drums on one track, two guitars on the other, percussion on the next - you lived and died with that mix. You loved it and you worked as hard to get to that level of excellence as you might do now with 48 tracks."
Arthur used to mix his work on "these tiny little speakers I'd set up - I took the guts out of a little plastic portable AM radio; I just left the speaker there and stuffed the rest of it with foam rubber. I'd mix on these little speakers to see how our record would sound. Not only that, I'd take 45s of other records and A-B it to my mixes to see how much voice there is, how much bass there is, how competitive am I with what's out there?
"But I also knew where the drum should be banging away and how I wanted the guitars behind him left and right, and where the tambourine should sit. I was sound designing at the same time I was mixing. But I also had, from time to time, right over my left shoulder and my right shoulder, Ellie Greenwich or Jeff Barry and Neil himself and maybe Bert Berns, and between the four of us we'd all make little notes for [mixing] cues, because there was no computerization obviously. So we made mental notes of who was going to cue what when, and it my hands were tied up doing one move, someone else would dig in on one fader and ride a voice up or whatever needed to be done. It was hard work but also a lot of fun."
Whatever it was the gang at A&R and Century were doing, it worked. The Neil Diamond hit machine was well-oiled and continued to pick up speed over the next few years. While musical fads came and went, Diamond kept churning out one hit after another - "Sweet Caroline," "Holly Holy," "Cracklin' Rosie," "I Am...I Said," "Song Sung Blue," and that just scratches the surface up through 1972. The early career of Neil Diamond shows what can be done with strong hooks, an appealing front man and a simple approach to recording.
"Neil was always a total professional," Arthur says. "He was very disciplined at a time when a lot of artists weren't very disciplined. He came to work completely prepared. He worked hard and he was always very courteous to the musicians, the people in the studios, everybody."
Thirty years later Neil Diamond is still regarded as one of the nicer guys in the music business, and though he doesn't land songs on the charts much anymore, he remains perhaps the most popular touring pop singer in America. Not bad for a gangly, introspective kid from Erasmus High.