This blog contains articles about our 4o-plus years of touring as the Neil Diamond band. Some of the material is taken from the pages of the Arch Angel Post-Bugle Intelligencer, an on-tour newsletter which I wrote for 30 of those years, and have since updated to make them hopefully relevant to 21st-century readers.

The Diamondville Chronicles

500 Miles From Home, Again 

The Indianapolis 500 is
(a) a really big band,
(b) a protest group soon to go on trial, or
(c) almost three dozen autos driving around in a circle for a few hours.

If you answered (c) then you are familiar with what they used to call "the greatest spectacle in racing." These days, my favorite spectacles are any which enable me to read, and the 500 isn't quite what it used to be, either.  

For one thing, all the cars look the same. Fortunately, the drivers don't, since these days, some of them are women. It's hard to tell with all the safety gear they have to wear, but I am pretty sure they are, indeed, women. Brava, bravi. 

Then there was that nasty split in the racing community a few years ago, and the rise of NASCAR. No offense, NASCAR fans, but I don't get it. They seem to race all the time. What's special about that? When I was growing up in Indiana, the 500 was the major event of the year. People's lives were planned around it. NASCAR is like a bus. You miss one, there'll be another one along in a few minutes.

Despite my enthusiasm for the big race, I didn't actually see one until 1949, when I witnessed it on television. "Wait a minute," you doubtless say, "They didn't televise the race in those days." Aah, but they did, that one time only. The winner was Bill Holland, and my family watched at the home of a friend who worked for RCA. WFBM-TV had three cameras in the main stretch to cover the action, but we were excited nonetheless at the sheer black-and-white spectacle of it all. 

Still, I never actually attended a race in person until the 1970, just before we moved from Indianapolis to LA.  

Somehow I had acquired an annual plum gig of playing in a big band for an hour, on the racetrack itself. The leader was a man named George Freije, who was something of a Hoosier legend himself, a drummer whose day gig was as a pharmacist. He used to introduce himself by saying, "Hi, I'm G-g-george--or a r-reasonable fat Syrian." It was a good enough gig that he got the best musicians in town to show up. Even expatriates like drummer Benny Barth, were known to come back just to play Frieje's gig. 

Decades later, during our 2005 tour, I sat in a bar near our New York hotel, comparing George Freije impressions with trumpeter (and ex-Hoosier) Lee Katzman, his son Theo, who's become something of a legend himself, Lee's wife and a couple of our band members Larry the K and Don "The Don" Markese. Everyone who knew George tried to mimic him, because even a bad impression of George Freije could be pretty amusing. But I digress.  

The race was at its peak of popularity in the 1960s. The Indianapolis nightlife calendar was based around it. It sprang to life immediately after the Kentucky Derby—when, I learned from a more sybaritic clubgoer, all the hookers came up to Indy from Louisville and the clubs remained hot until after the race, at which time I assume everyone moved on to the 4th of July celebration in Port Hope, Michigan, or somewhere like that. How would I know? But, while it lasted, the month of May provided work galore for Indianapolis's burgeoning Muzoid community, thankfully including my starting line big band gig.  

I vividly remember my annual arrival at the Indianpolis Motor Speeway The racegoers were lined up for miles around the race track, in the town of Speedway, but we Muzoids were taken down a secret back route by a multi-motorcycle escort. It was a bit like a high-speed pursuit, except in reverse: the perpetrators were chasing the police. And a few of the honored escortees were puffing weed in their cars all the way. l confess that the thought of it still makes my sense of irony tingle.

Our downbeat was at 6 am, the moment the gates opened and the crowd of 4.5 Gazillion spectators began flowing into the stands. It was a curious sight, more than a dozen musicians swinging away on the starting line, playing for an audience which initially consisted of exactly nobody, but grew larger and larger as the hour went along.  

At seven, we knocked off. George handed each of us a small wad of cash for our efforts, and after that we were free to stay and watch the race from anywhere within the immediate area, which included the entire starting area of the track.  

I enjoyed milling around and tried to look like someone who knew what he was doing and why he was there, which veteran observers will recognize immediately as a bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, I heard second-hand from a friend in Japan that I was actually observed pushing a car out to the starting line one year on NHK, so my ruse apparently worked.

As the start of the race neared, I would find a place to hover. In those days, there was a wagon stationed next to the track from which photographers were allowed to cluster to get their first-lap photos, and I figured the view should be optimal from there and planted myself, holding easily the cheapest camera of anyone present.

A month after the race in 1970, we moved to Los Angeles, requiring me to give up an assortment of various Muzoid jobs: playing in a 7-piece band for a daily TV show, leading the house band in a night club, a semi-thriving jingle business...but I eventually found work in LA and didn't look back.

Until the following May, that is, when race time rolled around. The 1971 500 was to first to be televised on the same day, albeit on a tape-delayed basis, since the one I'd seen in 1949. I felt pretty nostalgic for my Hoosier roots and sorry about having to miss out on one of my favorite gigs of the year. 

Even though Tivo had not yet been invented, I did the Tivo mental workout that day, making sure that I didn't receive any prior information about the race before the taped telecast. So, with a delicious sparkling beverage handy and some sinful snacks at the ready, I settled in to watch the beginning of the race. 

If you're familiar with the 500, you know that the lap before the race officially begins is called the pace lap, and it is led by a consumer automobile designated as the pace car—an honor awarded, after what must be munificent negotiation, to a local automobile dealer—who then could paint up dozens of replicas and sell them on the lot to race fetishists. 

An Indianapolis Dodge dealer had achieved the honor of driving the pace car in 1971, but as he completed his lap and prepared to veer off out of the way of the now-unfettered racers, somehow something went very wrong, Although the pace car looked lovely, he somehow managed to lose control of it and slam it into the photographers stand, injuring a number of people, some of them rather seriously.

As I watched, I realized that he had crashed that handsome pace car into what appeared to be the exact spot where I had crouched a year earlier to watch the start of the race. 

Suddenly it occurred to me that perhaps departing from Indianapolis had been a very good idea, after all.  If I had been there this year, I could have...well, suffice it to say that I wasn't there. A year later, the race instituted the tradition of having Jim Nabors sing "Back Home Again in Indiana," which he continued doing until 2014. Neil and I did a version of that song during a show in Indianapolis during that time, and there was some talk from some fans about Neil taking over for Jim Nabors, but that was not going to happen, let me assure you. 

Many years have passed since then, and George Freije is, sad to say, no longer with us. Nor is Lee Katzman, nor is Jim Nabors. But I will be loyally watching the 105th annual Indy 500 mile race this Sunday, May 30th, once again from the comfort of my living room.

Bluegrass Moment  

Here is a snapshot from April,1962. If your vision is keen, you can spot me hidden behind banjo player Neil Rosenberg with my bass. It’s a performance by our group, the Pigeon Hill Boys at the Ann Arbor Folk Music Festival in Michigan. 

Franklin Miller is playing mandolin and Chuck Crawford is on guitar. They were new to me, and subbing for the regulars. We were part of a Saturday night hootenanny, when all of the festival performers did sets. We were preceded by a fellow from New hatYork who called himself “Bob Dillon.” He changed the spelling later. He began his act with a harmonica clipped to his guitar. When he blew into it, the harmonica dislodged from its holder and skittered across the stage, causing much amusement for the audience, and for us. It turned out that was part of his act. Who knew that Bob Dylan, as he later became known, did such schtick? Tomfoolery was more my department, as is traditional in bluegrass bands. 

I wan’t much of a player, but I fulfilled the first requirement for playing bass in a bluegrass band: I owned a bass. I couldn’t do the slapping and spinning required of big-time bassists, but I could find my way through a three-chord song in G, D or E. 

My main memory from that day is that during a lengthy break, I walked down the street in Ann Arbor and found a jazz club where an afternoon jam session was going on. I walked in the door and checked out the scene. The players were good, but not intimidatingly so. After a while, I went over to the bandstand, and uncharacteristically asked if I could sit in. 

I was dressed in my full bluegrass mufti, including cowboy hat, checked shirt and jeans, and I enjoyed the look of horror on the musicians' faces at the thought of a hillbilly sharing their bandstand, but they were good sports and didn't kick me out. There was palpable relief when it turned out that I was somewhat credible in their genre. Many years later, Charlie Haden made it perfectly okay for jazz players to dabble in bluegrass. 

The real star of the Pigeon Hill Boys was Neil Rosenberg. He played banjo the way you expect to hear it in a big-time outfit, and he wrote the book on Bluegrass. Literally. His book Bluegrass: A History (as well as his others on Bill Monroe and other aspects of the music) are required reading in ethnomusicology departments everywhere. You can read more about this and other bluegrass moments in his book Bluegrass Generation.

Day After Dyngus 

I meant to post this yesterday as an observation of Dyngus Day, but I'm a day late. So sue me. Actually, I haven't posted anything here lately, but there's a reason for that, and it's not a sad one, I'm happy to say. But more about that on a subsequent day.

I want to take a moment to reflect on Dyngus Day, which I'm sure you all know is the day after Easter. Here's what I wrote about it in the PBI in March of 2015, after we had played a show in Buffalo:

If you bothered to pick up and peruse the mini-brochure at the Hyatt Regency’s concierge desk, you know all about Dyngus Day, and are excused from reading the rest of this story. If not, you are probably unaware that we are leaving Buffalo not long before the biggest event of the year for Buffalopians with a Polish background. 

Dyngus Day is the day after Easter, and Polish-Americans use it as an excuse to drink, go nuts, and par-tay ALL day long. But even before that, on Easter Sunday itself, the whoopee begins at Salvatore’s (see separate story). At 7:30 pm is “The ORIGINAL ‘Blessing of the Instruments’ Ceremony.” From that point on, it will be possible to polka till you puke at various locations, including the Millenium Hotel, where they will feature special guests, including the Dyna-Tones’ Larry Trojak and “Scrubby” Sewerynial, as well as the Chopin Singing Society. 

Unfortunately, on that evening, our instruments will be on their way to Pittsburgh, so any blessing of them will have to be done en route—although we’re pretty sure we can find a polka in Pittsburgh. We do have access to an accordion player or two. 

Those polski folks have their own kind of Easter, even their own Palm Sunday. Californians use palms for everything (including laxatives—with fronds like that, who needs enemas?), but the Polish tradition, it says here is to bless pussywillows. The PBI doesn’t know much about pussywillows, so we asked King Errisson for some help, and he replied, “Willows?” 

The Polish Easter greeting is “Wesolych swiat Wielkanocnych,” and we could all say that, although it would be easier if we could buy a vowel or two. The great thing about Dyngus Day is that it combines Christian and pagan rituals in a rather harmless way, using rites of cleansing, purification, courtship and fertility, so what could go wrong? (It is also associating with driving out the “money-changers,” so we may wish to participate by ceremonially kicking our accountant out of Hosty for a few minutes.) 

The Dyngus Day fun includes lots of drinking, water-splashing, Chodzenie, or Easter trick-or-treating; and a certain amount of śmigus, which involves striking people (usually girls) with willow branches. That does sound like fun, possibly, and it certainly answers a lot of questions while raising others, doesn’t it? Something tells us that our women may balk at lining up for a bit of celebratory śmigus. 

Here is a typical Dyngus song: 

Your duck has told me 

That you've baked a cake 

Your hen has told me 

She's laid you a basket and a half of eggs 

Your sow has told me that you've killed her son 

If not her son then her little daughter 

Give me something if only a bit of her fat 

Who will not be generous today 

Let him not count on heaven.

Where were we 40 years ago? 

Four decades ago, we were working hard, puttling together a piece of moviemaking titled "The Jazz Singer." There are a lot of stories about the making of the film, and many of them are true. But here's my favorite clip from the finished product, a scene where Alan Lindgren and I are playing a duet of a song called "On the Robert E. Lee." There were lots of hits on the soundtrack album, and this isn't one of them, but it remains my favorite, because it's so doggoned much fun to play. It's a song you couldn't do today, because parties are illegal. Enjoy!

RIP Mr. Simon Stokes 

Sadness today, at news of the passing of veteran troublemaker Simon Stokes. Google him if you're not familiar with the name. I'm including a video I completed recently of a track we recorded together some years ago. Working with Simon allowed me, REQUIRED me to stretch way beyond my usual limits. This song is a fine example of what Simon brought to the table.We met through our mutual friend, guitarist Richard Bennett, but I had actually heard Simon's Black Whip Thrill Band at the Artists and Models Ball in 1970 or so, shortly after we arrived in LA. We later inexplicably became golfing buddies, and the first time we went to dinner at Simon and Maria's Hollywood home, I was astonished to find a copy of my Masters of Deceit album in his record collection. We recorded a lot of rather naughty songs together, which must have broadened my base. We did a tribute to Simon a couple of years ago, and it was the only time my name ever appeared on a poster next to that of Jello Biafra—and a bunch of other wild folks, too. My condolences to his family, especially his wife Maria, ever sweet and patient.

A Couble Order of You —words and music by Simon Stokes and Tom Hensley © 1990 Your Name Here Music (BMI) and Scoundrel Music (ASCAP)

Saxophone, Don Markese

 

A Medley of Memories 

It was nice to be confronted with this memory from 1986. Alan Lindgren and I were co-musical directors for the CBS special, which was done at Television City, at Beverly and Fairfax. I arrived early one afternoon for rehearsal, just as a tour group was being shown around the building. As I came in, Carol was arriving at the same time. She saw me and came over and gave me a big, enthusiastic hug. The people touring the building observed that taking place, and I'm sure they all asked each other, "Who is that woman hugging Tom?"

 

Glenda the Good 

During our final tour, in April of 2017, we played Fort Lauderdale, Florida, never one of my favorites, but it's not my tour. And we weren't staying in Ft. La-di-da, we were up the road in Hollywood. Yes, there's a Hollywood everywhere, even in FLorida. 

\While scanning the local press for interesting day-off activities, I came across mention of a performer working at the Tropics Piano Bar & Restaurant in a place called Wilton Manors, and the name connected immediately. 

It was a singer named Glenda Grainger, who was “performing songs from the Great American Songbook.” I recalled having backed Ms. Grainger in 1965 at the Embers supper club in Indianapolis, where I led the house band. Shows at the Embers invariably featured a singer and a comic. Over the course of 14 shows a week, I generally learned the comic’s act and formed an opinion of the singer. 

The performers were usually somewhere mid-arc in their careers, headed up or headed down, but it was hard to peg Glenda. She sang pretty well, and had a record out that seemed to be getting some attention, doing talk shows and an occasional film, but wasn’t really well-known, and she was opening for the comic, an odd duck named Poncie Ponce, who came to national attention in 1959 as the wise-cracking cab driver Kazuo Kim on the Warner Bros. detective series Hawaiian Eye, which ran for four years on ABC.

Kazuo Kim was known for his trademark straw hat and ubiquitous ukulele, as a occasional informant for the detectives, or as he idly plucked the uke while leaning against his cab waiting for a fare. The show's intro showed Kazuo Kim floating in the ocean on an inner tube, wearing the hat and plucking his uke. His comedy wasn’t much, as I recall, but he grabbed the crowd with what we described as his “Sophie Tucker Hello God” medley, a closer which concluded with him playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” as a small American flag popped out of his ukelele. 

Poncie was a bit grumpy by that point in his career, and I remember that he got into an argument with my bass player, which nearly escalated into a mini-fistfight, over an issue I can’t remember. 

On the other hand, nobody had any argument with Glenda, a buxom, attractive English girl with decent pipes and a genial nature. 

The thing I remember most is that a week or so after her stint at the Embers ended, I got a lovely, handwritten note from Glenda, thanking me for accompanying her so beautifully, and ending with a request for me to help her reach some radio stations with her new record. 

Now, fifty years later, Poncie is deceased, but Glenda was still going strong at age 80, as I learned from the Florida Jewish Journal in an article which neatly filled in the many blanks in my knowledge of Glenda, of whom I knew little when she played the Embers: 

Grainger was born in England as Gitell Goldberg. As a child, she remembered many fearful nights worrying whether she and her family would be able to withstand the attacks on England from Nazi Germany. 

"Those years helped solidify the importance of family as well as the importance of being Jewish. It also gave me confidence to pursue my dreams of singing by age 18," said Grainger. 

"I changed my name to Glenda Grainger not because of any negative feelings for being Jewish, but because I wanted a marquee name to get hired in show business, as was the custom in those days." 

She had hit a record in England in the late 60’s with one of the songs from the James Bond movie Thunderball (the one in which King Errisson starred), called “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” She appeared in a classic French Film Noir called “Deux Hommes Dans Manhattan,” and numerous films in Mexico, and was featured in the movie “Hook, Line and Sinker, where she played a lifeguard who gave Jerry Lewis CPR and mouth to mouth resuscitation, a nasty job but somebody had to do it. She eventually decided to reside in the United States and Florida in the 1960s, mainly as a singer in cabaret shows. The positive reviews to Grainger's performances in Las Vegas, New York and South Florida earned her appearances on the of Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin shows. 

In South Florida, Grainger sang at prestigious hotels, such as the Fontainebleau Hilton, Marco Polo and Sheraton Bal Harbour. 

“As much as I fondly remember my years acting, it is singing that keeps me going, wanting to perform as often as I can," said Grainger. 

And I also learned about Glenda’s life away from the gig: 

Outside of show business, Grainger had a happy private life. She was married to show business promoter Lenny Miller from 1962 until he passed on in 1994. 

"Lenny and I had so much in common. We both loved show business, we both were Jewish and I loved him so much that I decided at one point to retire from singing so that I could help Lenny with his business. I have wonderful memories of my life with Lenny." 

In 2000, Grainger met Jerry Cohen, an Orthodox Jewish man, whom she married and moved to Harrisburg, PA to be with him until Cohen died in 2009. 

"Love is about caring, sharing and making sacrifices. There was little opportunity for me to sing in Harrisburg, but Jerry wanted to be there, so I went to live in Harrisburg because of love." 

"I have been lucky to have been in love twice in my life and would not want to change anything in my life even if I could," said Grainger. 

I really thought about going down to the Tropics Restaurant & Piano Bars, described as “a warm, friendly place where you can enjoy fine dining, cocktails and live entertainment. Patrons can relax in one of our three dining rooms or three full-service bars. Proudly serving South Florida’s gay and lesbian community for over 20 years, we’re known by regulars as a place where good friends convene and memories are made. Tourists remember us for quality dining, entertainment and a welcoming atmosphere unique to this establishment.” 

It would have been nice to say hello after 50 years to Glenda, but it would have been a 30-45 minute trip each way, and it seemed more prudent to use the day off to remain inert, and save my convening and memory-making to my own gig. And I could tell PBI readers all about it almost as if I’d been there.

Cher and Cher Alike 

The picture shows an imagined visit of Kurt Vonnegut and Andy Warhol to the Hollywood Bowl, for no reason. This story is about an altogether different night, one when our band was hanging around backstage before a show at  the Bowl in 2015, when in walked Cher. No last name required.et 

We didn't often have pre-show visitors, preferring to do meet-and-greets after the show; so her arrival did not go unnoticed. She walked through the common area briskly and disappeared into Neil's dressing room for a few minutes of visiting. Those of us who were there at that moment began discussing our history with, naturally, Cher.

We reallized that every band member present had played on one or another of her hits over the span of her career. My memory was an early one, since I played piano on "Half Breed" in the early 1970s. Alan Lindgren recorded tunes during her disco era, while Reinie Press and Ron Tutt had done others along the way. Cher, of course, didn't meet or greet any of us on her way in and out through the room, but that wasn't really expected or required. We were just amused that we all had our own individual pieces of Cher's history.

I had an extra-special memory of her, from a moment she probably would not have preferred to recall. I was in A&M studio A the night Phil Spector brought her into the room during a session for John Lennon's Roch and Roll album, announcing "John, this is Cher. She's going to sing along on the next song."

John's reply was "The f*** she is!" 

There's more to that story, but I've dined on it for years, and there may be a few meals left in it yet, so I'll save it for when I'm hungry.

Here's One You Might Have Missed... 

For people interested in such things, here's a video that turned up recently on the web, a song only done in our show a few times--it's titled "Wake Up The Band," here, and it's based on a song from my "Taking America to America" album, where its title was "Hosty." The original lyrics were about the food in our hotel's hospitality suite, and the vocal was done by Julia Waters. On this one, Neil is singing and introducing the band members, including a rare sighting of trombonist Nick Lane.

Regis and Tom 

Sad to read today of the passing of Regis Philbin, a real TV icon. I liked Regis in general, but specifically I liked him because one night in 1986, he and his then-broadcast partner, Kathie Lee Gifford, came to see our show at Madison Square Garden in New York. After the show, he sent word that he wanted to invite me to be on their show the next day. Specifically me he wanted to invite. That was not a request I was accustomed to receiving.

Mind you, mornings after a show night historically tended to be quite fuzzy for me. Show nights tend to run late, and that one did so. Regis and Kathy Lee's show, some may recall, was quite an early one. My wife and I had to drag ourselves out of bed before 6 am to be transported to the ABC studios, and I can't say that it was anywhere close to being easy to do so. When I look at the clips from that morning, I'm amazed that I appear to be wide awake, even though I know that I wasn't anywhere near to consciousness. Judge for yourself.

In those days, I wrote a song about every town we played in, and they wanted me to perform the song I had written about New York, and that was fun and all, but hardly the stuff of television history. But then, after I finished it, Regis had a little surprise in store. Here is the clip of Regis and I doing his number, and I dedicate it to his memory.