“Fifth Monkee” may lack the cachet of “fifth Beatle”, or even “sixth Stone”, but by the middle of 1967, that's what the papers were calling Neil Diamond. The songwriter had produced two of The Monkees’ first three singles and was fast becoming a one-man hit machine. Bill Wexler, Diamond’s keyboard player, recalled him clowning around with an acoustic guitar, singing a new composition in late 1966, in the deep drawl he used on his own recordings. Diamond’s original idea was to have “I'm a Believer” recorded by a country artist. He even had a singer in mind, Eddy Arnold, the country superstar who'd bounced all over the charts in 1965 with “Make the World Go Away”.
But Don Kirshner changed all that. The New York music publisher was scouting for talent: tunesmiths who could write for his latest project, The Monkees. Billed as “America's answer to The Beatles”, and with a knockabout television series inspired by the film Help!, the manufactured group was the successful creation of two producers from Screen Gems-Columbia, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. It was Kirshner’s job to hustle up some hits. After the first single, “Last Train to Clarksville”, topped the charts, Kirshner ran his finger through his phone book and it settled on Diamond. “I told him ... there was a song I had just completed that I liked very much,” recalled Diamond, “I went over and played it for him.” Kirschner negotiated for the song, insisting that the songwriter relinquish the publishing rights to Screen Gems. With thoughts of Eddy Arnold dwindling in his mind, Diamond agreed.
The backing track, on to which The Monkees’ vocals would be overdubbed, was produced by Jeff Barry. He used Diamond’s regular musicians and the writer provided a guide vocal. There was trouble when Mike Nesmith of The Monkees first heard it. “He said ‘that ain't no hit’, and it got real embarrassing,” recalled Barry. “He said ‘I’m a songwriter, too, and that's no hit’.” Eventually, Nesmith was ejected from the recording studio and Mickey Dolenz cut the lead vocal. The release confirmed The Monkees’ position as the TV/pop phenomenon of 1967. Diamond recorded his own string-laden version in 1971 and, in 1974, Robert Wyatt, the former drummer with Soft Machine, reminded us of what a great song it is, taking “I'm a Believer” back into the Top 20.
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