As summer turned into fall in 1966, Neil Diamond’s second Bang Records single, “Cherry, Cherry,” was headed up the charts for an eventual peak at number six on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the singer/songwriter’s first Top Ten hit, and the label was looking ahead to a follow-up. As it happened, one was ready, “The Boat That I Row.” It boasted the same uptempo Latinized rhythm as “Cherry, Cherry,” but a much more substantial lyric in which Diamond made his first real declaration of independence. “I don’t dig what’s in, so I guess I’m out,” he boldly stated, setting out a sense of separate identity that would mark him throughout his career. Producers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, along with arranger Artie Butler, provided a kinetic track anchored to Diamond’s acoustic guitar strum and filled with handclaps, catchy backup vocals (by an overdubbed Greenwich), and a jazzy Hammond organ break (played by Butler). Diamond’s vocal, as the lyric demanded, was full of conviction. It was, arguably, his best song and best recording so far.
And yet, come October, as “Cherry, Cherry” began to descend the charts, Bang did not release “The Boat That I Row” as Diamond’s next A-side, instead choosing “I Got the Feelin’ (Oh No No),” an LP track first released two months earlier on Diamond’s debut album The Feel of Neil Diamond, and a clearly inferior song Diamond himself has since admitted “was pretty basic,” relegating “The Boat That I Row” to the B-side. Why? The only possible answer seems to be that Bang considered “The Boat That I Row” too similar to “Cherry, Cherry” in sound and tempo, and opted instead for the smoldering ballad “I Got the Feelin’ (Oh No No)” as a contrast. The result was a Top 20 hit.
But “The Boat That I Row” was too good a song to go ignored. In the U.K., where Diamond had not yet made his mark as a recording artist, British singers were well aware of his abilities as a songwriter and frequently covered his songs. There, Lulu recorded a version of the “The Boat That I Row” for the English Columbia label that reached the singles charts in April 1967, peaking at number six the following month. In June, Epic Records released it in the U.S., and it spent a few weeks “bubbling under” the Hot 100, peaking at number 115. The B-side of the Epic single was “To Sir with Love,” the theme song from a just-released film in which Lulu co-starred. As the film (a drama about a black schoolteacher played by Sidney Poitier facing an unruly class) gained national attention during the summer, so did the song, and disc jockeys flipped over the single, which entered the charts in September, hit number one in October, went gold, and became the biggest hit of 1967. Of course, that meant a big payday for Diamond, as “The Boat That I Row” tagged along on the back of the hit, and some consolation for his song’s failure to reach the recognition it deserved. As a result, “The Boat That I Row” was acknowledged as having some significance within the songwriter’s catalog, and it was featured on his second album, Just for You (August 1967), as well as several subsequent Diamond compilations that reached the charts: Neil Diamond’s Greatest Hits (August 1968), Do It! (December 1970), Classics: The Early Years (May 1983), and In My Lifetime (October 1996). Diamond included a live version of it on his 2003 box set Stages: Performances 1970-2002. It has also been recorded by Alice Cohen.