I was not hip in high school. Classical music ruled the day in my house when I was growing up, and I didn’t get into popular music until I was in the seventh grade. Even then, when my friends were extolling the virtues of Jethro Tull and Grand Funk Railroad, I preferred the gentler music of singer songwriters like Elton John, Carole King, and—nerdiest of all nerd choices—Neil Diamond, with his recent hit, Sweet Caroline.
Diamond came up through the Tin Pan Alley tradition amongst the songwriters laboring away in New York City’s Brill Building. He followed in the footsteps of such Great American Songbook tunesmiths as George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin. There was a bit of Broadway and a breath of classical music mixed into the pop hits Diamond wrote for The Monkees, Cliff Richard, and Jay and the Americans. Diamond’s songs drew on American folk music and the Black gospel tradition, all of which delighted me.
But Diamond wasn’t a favorite around the campfire for amateur musicians who only knew a few chords on their acoustic guitars. As one such musician told me, when I requested Sweet Caroline at a party, “I can’t play that one. He uses some really weird chord progressions. Neil Diamond is hard!”
So how did Sweet Caroline, a song that’s too hard for easy playing, become a beloved fan favorite and an international anthem of hope?
The way Diamond tells it, Sweet Caroline took root when he saw a photo of the young Caroline Kennedy, with her pony, Macaroni. He thought the name “Caroline” had a musical ring to it and jotted it down for future reference. Some years later, working on a love song for his wife, Marcia, he ran into a couple of problems: nothing interesting rhymed with the name “Marcia,” and the melody really needed a three-syllable name for the lyrics to work.
Sitting in a hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee, Diamond tried the name “Caroline” with his melody, and it all came together. In an interview with the New York Times he recalled, “I always thought God came into my room that evening because once I had the title, the song came easily and chords that I never even heard of were coming out of my guitar.”
He recorded the song the next day and released it in May 1969. Sweet Caroline hit the Billboard charts at #4 and was certified gold in August 1969, having sold more than one million copies. It has been a staple of rock/pop oldies playlists ever since.
Love Song or Sports Anthem?
While Sweet Caroline is clearly a romantic song about a developing relationship, it has a strong association with sports teams. Where it began? Historians “can’t begin to knowin’,” but the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League claim to have been the first to play the song during their home games, beginning in 1996. In 1997 it became a regular eighth-inning feature of home games for Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox.
“That song may have transformative powers,” said Dr. Charles Steinberg in 2002, when he was executive vice president of public affairs for the Red Sox. “It may be able to take a melancholy crowd and lift its spirits higher.”
It certainly brought the city, and the whole country, together in April 2013. Days after the shock of the Boston Marathon bombing, Diamond appeared unannounced at Fenway Park to sing the song. This might not be the best performance you’ve ever seen, but the fan reactions are beautiful.
Sales of the song jumped 600% in the week following that performance. Diamond donated his royalties to a fund that helped people who had been injured in the bombing.
Hope in Bad Times
Fans have sung Sweet Caroline at football, baseball, soccer, and hockey games on the local and professional levels for decades now. The song has even been used to celebrate victories in boxing and mixed martial arts. As recently as this past week, the band of the Coldstream Guards played it to celebrate England’s Women’s Euro 2022 game against Germany.
But, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when stadiums were closed and sports fans had little to celebrate, the song took on an even deeper resonance. Locked in their houses for fear of spreading the disease, people all around the world needed a lift. Some of them spent a few of their homebound hours making their own Sweet Caroline videos. Then they sent them to Neil Diamond to let the songwriter know how much the song meant to them.
They sent so many videos, in fact, that Diamond’s team cut them together into a worldwide fan singalong that is, if you’ll pardon me, so good, so good, so good! You’ll sing along, too.
Good Times Never Seemed So Good
Today the song is widely loved and enthusiastically sung by millions of people all around the world, more than fifty years after it was written. Diamond was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1984, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. In 2000, the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame gave him the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement award.
And, in 2018 the Library of Congress selected Sweet Caroline for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It looks like the good times will last a good long while for Diamond’s unexpected anthem.
Many people’s work came together in the illustrations for this post. We appreciate all of them! Jan S. Gephardt selected these photos and created the montages. We want to thank Wikipedia and their contributors Beyond My Ken (Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0) and the modest soul who goes by the handle Epicgenius (Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0), for the photos of Tin Pan Alley-related buildings on West 28th Street and the Brill Building, respectively.
Our deepest gratitude goes to Photos in Berlin for the early-1960s photo of Caroline Kennedy with Dad and Pony, and Discogs for the photo of the vintage album cover from 1969. We also want to thank PNGItem for the Carolina Panthers Logo, and SportsLogos for the Boston Red Sox Logo. And we deeply appreciate the Hollywood Times for sharing the photo of Neil Diamond at Fenway Park in 2013, taken by Jim Rogash, Getty Images Sports.
Finally, many thanks to YouTube, Neil Diamond, and all the fans who contributed to that marvelous video of the global “Sweet Caroline” singalong! If you haven’t watched it yet, grab a hankie and prepare to be inspired!