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Musical trio to present Neil Diamond tribute on Longboat

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Neil Diamond has inspired millions of people by taking his life experiences and putting them into song. But do people really know how much his life influenced some of his most famous songs?

The “Neil Diamond: Hitman” program at Temple Beth Israel will answer that question by diving into Diamond’s life stories and connecting them to everyone’s favorite songs. 

“His lyrics are unusual,” said musical biographer Susan Benjamin. “They're not necessarily always that upbeat, but they could create a sense of empathy, because these are feelings that we may have experienced, that it's almost like poetry and different than some other songwriters and lyricists.”

"Neil Diamond: Hitman" will feature Benjamin, Cantor Jay O'Brien and Maestro Robert Hanson in commemorating the beloved artist and his life. 

Jay O'Brien and Susan Benjamin
Courtesy images

Benjamin has been teaching her course "Musical Biographies" at The Education Center for 16 years. 

Originally from the Chicago area, she met O’Brien when he became the new cantor at Makom Solel Lakeside synagogue in Highland Park, Illinois. 

The two started creating musical biographies for the synagogue’s educational program, and Benjamin thought it would be a good addition to the course she taught when she winters in Longboat Key.

“I’m so thankful that I can say I know him before he gets big,” said Benjamin. “Jay is just so incredibly talented and I’m so grateful for working with him.”

O'Brien grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, in a family that listened to music as a way to spend time together. He said they loved classic rock and pop legends, including Diamond, the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but they also mixed it up with classical music. 

When he had his bar mitzvah at 13 years old, he discovered his passion for singing. O’Brien got involved with music at his synagogue and decided he wanted to be a cantor when he grew up.

“When you're someone who's interested in the way that music sounds, or the way that we make music, it kind of encourages you to think a little more deeply about the people who create that music,” said O’Brien. “Neil Diamond, who wrote really well-known songs, he was a very creative and a very unique songwriter. Learning how to perform that type of music on my own gave me an even greater appreciation of the craft, and the really brilliant ways that Neil Diamond can communicate an emotion and create a melody that's really easy to remember.”

O’Brien studied music at Washington University of St. Louis for his undergraduate degree and completed his master's at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion. Now cantor at Makom Solel Lakeside, he plays a multitude of string instruments including acoustic guitar, violin, ukulele, bass guitar, and mandolin.

Longtime friend of Benjamin, Hanson was the music director and conductor of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, the second largest professional orchestra in Illinois, for 37 years. He is now a composer and conductor for different programs. Benjamin said he conducted musicians such as Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma.

Last year, the trio put on “Hallelujah,” a Leonard Cohen-themed program. Benjamin said that the energy was ecstatic with the audience singing along with O’Brien and Hanson. She also mentioned that when they debuted the Neil Diamond program at their synagogue in Chicago, the crowd reacted in a similar way.

“There were people who were singing along to the melodies of the songs and standing up in the back and swaying,” said O’ Brien. “In the heyday of his performing career, he is someone that was able to channel the energy of a big group of people through his thinking, his communication and banter. So, I will say in some small appreciable way, I feel like we have been able to kind of recreate some of the energy and some of the fun.”



Petra Rivera

Petra Rivera is the Longboat community reporter. She holds a bachelor’s degree of journalism with an emphasis on reporting and writing from the University of Missouri. Previously, she was a food and drink writer for Vox magazine as well as a reporter for the Columbia Missourian.

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