By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
Last week we denizens of Arizona experienced record crowds – it is estimated that 1 million people visited the Valley of the Sun to attend the WM Phoenix Open and the Super Bowl. Our “sun” has been missing most of this winter (last week it snowed in Scottsdale), but the Chamber of Commerce obviously has an in with The Big Guy, because it was sunny all weekend. Twenty-five years ago we were advised to hunker down the week of the WM Phoenix Open, as the crowds are plentiful … and drunk. When the Super Bowl is also played here the same weekend, it is best to venture out only in the event of a severed limb or cardiac arrest. So, we watched all of the festivities from the comfort of our couch. One of the most fun aspects of the Phoenix Open is watching the idiots, ummm, patrons at the 16th hole. They started the week off on Thursday with a rousing rendition of “Sweet Caroline”. It was joyous to watch and reminded me of a fun family outing when the song was newer, and we were too. More on that later, but first, a bit of history about the song and how it got its name.
Neil Diamond released “Sweet Caroline” as a single in May 1969, and it was then featured on his album, “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”. Its catchy lyrics and staccato beat made the song an instant hit, spending more than three months on the pop charts. Surprisingly it never reached the top of the charts; it peaked at No 4. For years people speculated who the “Caroline” in the song might be. Decades went by without a definitive answer. Finally, in 2007, Diamond finally told the backstory of the song and how he came up with its title. He explained that “‘Sweet Caroline’ was born in a motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, as an afterthought to some songs he was preparing for a recording session. He said he was as surprised as anyone when the music and lyrics flowed quickly and easily from his mind to paper. Diamond revealed that the most challenging part of the song was finding the right name for the title. At the time, he was married to Marcia Murphey, and had promised her a song. The problem was he needed a three-syllable name to fit the melody. He picked up his “idea” book, a journal where he routinely jotted down thoughts for lyrics, and found the name “Caroline”. It was perfect.
But why did he put the name “Caroline” in his idea book to begin with? In the 2007 interview, Diamond said he was touched by a photograph he saw in a magazine of a young Caroline Kennedy, dressed in equestrian gear on her pony. At the time he thought it was a sweet, innocent photo, and knew at some point he would want to write a song about it. He never told anyone that Kennedy was his inspiration until her 50th birthday celebration, where he performed via satellite and surprised her by revealing she was his inspiration. She was thrilled. By that time, of course, it had become tradition to hear it at numerous sporting events, perhaps most famously at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. The song is played during the 8th inning of every game and gets the fans roused up, regardless of how the Sox are faring. It was first played in 1997 and then intermittently after that until 2002, when Charles Steinberg, the Red Sox executive vice president of public affairs, noticed that every time the song played, he saw the crowd transformed. Steinberg decided to make “Sweet Caroline” a tradition, and it stuck.
The most moving rendition of the song was in 2013, right after the Boston Marathon bombing. Diamond hopped on flight as soon as he heard the Red Sox would be playing and went to Fenway Park, not giving anyone a heads up. Luckily the gate agent recognized him and let him in without a ticket. He stood in the infield and sang the song, with the crowd joining in as one. Diamond later said it was a moment he will never forget. That performance also created a great demand for the song, and Diamond donated all of the profits from those sales to the charity set up to help the victims of the bombing.
I saw Neil Diamond perform in 1979, just after “Forever in Blue Jeans” came out. Everyone stood, everyone sang, and in an era before cell phones, people flicked on lighters in the dark and swayed to the music when he sang “Sweet Caroline”. But my best memory of the song dates back to the winter of 1969. Each year we would spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s skiing at Tahoe. That year was extra special because brother Bob had just arrived home from Japan, where he had been stationed for the past year. The Vietnam war was still raging, and we were so happy he was home. One night we went to a local Mexican restaurant for dinner, and I suppose after a lot of libation and very little encouragement, we sang “Sweet Caroline” at the top of our lungs. I’m not sure we even knew all of the lyrics, but that didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. Looking back, the other guests were probably not as entertained as we were, and it was a good thing brother Jack knew the owners or we probably would have been kicked out. That night and that song have provided me a good memory for fifty-plus years.
Given its long-standing popularity, the song clearly holds sentimental value for a lot of people. Most of us can probably remember singing it at some point, maybe alone in a car, or in a crowd, or at a fun family gathering. All I know is that every time I hear it, it brings back memories of things being “so good, so good, so good”.