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Neil Diamond continues to shine

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  • Neil Diamond to receive Recording Academy's Person of the Year honor
  • Diamond continues to sell out arenas, recently had No. 1 album
  • Money from merchandise sales on tour going to Hurricane Ike victims
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By Denise Quan
CNN
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- The day I interviewed Neil Diamond, he was sitting in a little room to the side of a studio, and a makeup artist was smacking him in the face with a powder puff. He was wearing a white wife-beater T-shirt and looked like he wanted to flee.

Neil Diamond is riding high with a huge world tour, a successful album and a humanitarian award.

Neil Diamond is riding high with a huge world tour, a successful album and a humanitarian award.

It was November, and Diamond had just come off the first two legs of his biggest world tour yet -- with 64 shows in 50 cities and nine countries already under his belt. In a moment, he would step in front of a camera to begin a round of 70 or so interviews -- beamed via satellite to local television stations -- to talk up the remaining 20 dates, where he'd thrill diehard fans with such nuggets as "Cherry Cherry," "Song Sung Blue" and "Sweet Caroline."

Ours was the only in-person interview he -- or someone in his camp -- had agreed to do. The singer-songwriter (who turned 68 on January 24) stepped into the studio, a man ready for his close-up. He had slipped a black button-down shirt over his T-shirt, and suddenly he looked like Neil Diamond -- the same Neil Diamond who next week will be feted by The Recording Academy as its "2009 MusiCares Person of the Year," joining an elite club that includes Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Sting, Bono and Quincy Jones.

He's working on a follow-up to last year's CD, the Rick Rubin-produced "Home Before Dark" -- which earned Diamond his first-ever No. 1 debut on the Billboard Top 200 album chart. That album came after 2005's "12 Songs," also produced by Rubin, which re-invigorated his recording career. As for live performance, he's rarely had problems filling arenas -- but he remembers when he did. Video Watch Diamond talk about giving back »

CNN: The man in black. This has become quite the trademark.

Neil Diamond: Yeah. I still wear black, but I got sparkly somewhere along the way -- especially if you are playing in an 18,000-seat arena, you like to be seen by somebody in the back.

CNN: I've been to a Neil Diamond concert, and everybody stands up, and they sing every word to every song. Don't you ever want to tell them, "I'm singing -- listen!"

Diamond: No, I don't -- but I did in the very beginning when I first realized on my first few records that people were singing along. I thought, "You shouldn't be singing. That's my job. Let me sing and you listen." But then I realized that it's a compliment. They knew the music, they loved it and they wanted to sing. So I said, "All right, let's sing together." [chuckles]

CNN: Whenever you hit the road, you're one of the year's top ticket draws and play to more than a million fans per tour. [Diamond had the fifth highest-grossing tour of 2008, taking in $60 million in ticket sales.]

Diamond: It's truly not until the last leg that you finally get the show down. You are relaxed with it, you are not worried about the intricacies of the show, and the last shows are always the best and the most fun.

CNN: After 40 years in the business, do you still get nervous?

Diamond: I don't know if it's nerves. I get excited. I want things to go right. I want the audience to love the show.

CNN: For this tour, you've donated all the proceeds from merchandise sales [T-shirts, programs and other souvenir items] to the victims of Hurricane Ike in Texas. We're talking about a figure that's somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars.

Diamond: Hurricane Ike hit southern Texas so fiercely [in September 2008, while Diamond was on tour], and has been forgotten about by the rest of the country -- but these people are still in desperate straits, and are in dire need of our help.

And I saw what was going on. The mayor of Houston took me around, and he told me about it and introduced me to some people. The next day, I drove down to some of the hardest-hit areas, and I just felt that I had to do something, and I felt that maybe my audience would help me out with it.

So we just say the merchandise and whatever you buy goes down to those people to rebuild their homes. They are still living in tents and cars down there. So to all the people down in Oak Island, Galveston, Galveston Bay and Houston, help is on the way -- and that's the message that I want to bring and spread around. The Eagles just made a substantial donation to this fund.

CNN: Has that inspired new songwriting for you?

Diamond: I don't know if it has inspired new songwriting -- I don't do a lot of writing when I am out touring -- but it has inspired a reality in me of what's going on. You tend to live in a bubble when you are traveling and touring.

I missed the election completely. I actually worked and performed election night. The wonderful people of Green Bay, Wisconsin, came and filled the place, and I said to them, "I appreciate you coming down, because there is something really good on television."

I missed the election completely. I got off the stage and tuned into the concession speech. But I heard it was very dramatic, and I'm happy with the outcome. You tend to miss things when you're on the road.

CNN: Right before the Grammys, you're being honored by The Recording Academy as its "2009 MusiCares Person of the Year."

Diamond: Well, it's a wonderful honor any time the Grammys extend an honor to you. [Diamond has received 12 nominations over his career, but has only won one award.] But the real satisfaction I get from that benefit -- that big dinner -- is that the money will be going to musicians who are facing very difficult times. It's not the most secure job in the world, and there are musicians who are facing medical emergencies and financial difficulties who will benefit from the money that is being generated. It's a cause that's very close to my heart. I have been very fortunate, and I have been successful.

CNN: When you tour, you sell out 20,000-seat arenas -- but do you ever worry about a day when you might walk out on stage and there are only two or three people in the audience?

Diamond: Well, that did happen to me very early in my career. So yeah, that has occurred to me. I'm always a little amazed that people show up, and I don't know where they came from -- but I'm thrilled that they are there.

CNN: Do you ever wonder what you would have done had this all not worked out?

Diamond: I do, and I don't like any of the choices that I would have made, or any of the places that I would have been.

CNN: I hear you earned a fencing scholarship to NYU.

Diamond: Yeah, I did. But you can't make a living as a fencer these days.

CNN: So this is definitely much better.

Diamond: Yes, this is a lot better. I love singing. I have been singing since I was a little boy, so to make a life in music as a writer and as a singer -- I think I have the best job in the world.

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CNN: At the end of the tour, you're only taking two days off, and then you begin working on your next album. Don't you believe in vacations?

Diamond: I'm not the kind of guy that's good at laying on the beach for too long. If I'm laying on the beach, it's with a guitar and a legal pad, and I'm thinking about music.

All About Neil Diamond

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