In the final minutes of 2017, Neil Diamond stood before more than a million revelers braving the subzero chill to celebrate New Year’s Eve in New York City’s Times Square. Leading the crowd through “Sweet Caroline,” his 1969 smash and perpetual party starter, good times never seemed so good for the music icon. The year had been a triumph with packed stadiums across North American and Europe for his 50th Anniversary Tour, and 2018 seemed just as bright. Dates in Australia and New Zealand were booked for the spring, and he was tapped to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy in recognition of his half-century reign as a 130 million record-selling singer, songwriter and entertainment powerhouse.
But just three weeks after his New Year’s Eve victory lap, and two days before his 77th birthday, Diamond stunned fans by canceling the remainder of his tour and announcing his immediate retirement from live concerts. Parkinson’s disease put a stop to the vibrant and tireless performer. “I plan to remain active in writing, recording and other projects for a long time to come,” he said in a statement, before thanking his legions of loyal fans. “This ride has been ‘so good, so good, so good’ thanks to you.”
His diagnosis came as a surprise even to longtime members of his traveling band. “It was a shock because he always seemed very healthy. His voice was nice and strong on this tour,” Julia Waters, who sang backup on the 50th Anniversary trek alongside her sister Maxine, tells PEOPLE. Rehearsals for the Australia leg were due to commence when they received word of the cancellation a day before it made headlines. “He sent us a nice letter. He’s comfortable with the circumstances, but it’s heartbreaking to see that he is leaving behind a part of what he really loves to do. It was a shock to us just as it was to everyone else.”
Throughout the years of hits and accolades, including his 2011 induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, touring would be a pillar of Diamond’s life. He maintained a close bond with his band, nicknamed the Neil Diamond Road Racing Team. Many of the members, including the Waters’ sisters, have been with him for nearly four decades.
“It’s not work, that’s for sure! It’s like, ‘Let’s put our clothes on and go and have some fun and sing and dance,’” Maxine tells PEOPLE. Before each show, the man affectionately known as “Number One” insists on telling jokes to ensure everyone hits the stage with a smile. “We’ll laugh, and then we all get in a circle and one person gets in the middle and we all go ‘WhooOoOoOoooOop!’ Then we’re ready to go!” On off nights, he regularly treated the 80-strong entourage to movie outings, renting out entire theaters for the occasion. “He looked after us and always made us feel special,” Julia says.
Birthdays were always recognized with onstage shout-outs, and at the end of each tour Diamond always made a point of thanking each member of his massive crew by name. “No prompter, no paper, no nothing!” marvels Maxine. “He makes everybody under his umbrella feel like they’re his best friend. He always lets you know that he cares.”
Diamond’s tours are a family affair — literally. He was often cheered on by his children — daughters Elyn and Marjorie, and sons Jesse and Micah — and wife Katie, his manager whom he married in 2012. “He loves family, so our whole organization is like a big family,” says Julia.
Guitarist Nick Bennett is a second-generation member of the Road Team. His father, Richard, is a longtime collaborator of Diamond’s in the studio and onstage throughout the ’70s. “My parents would meet and fall in love during Neil’s first tour of Australia, so I grew up with Neil’s songs in my blood,” he says. As a child, he recalls collecting dislodged sequins from the singer’s flamboyant stage costumes after each show. “Neil is such a big part of my life. He’s literally always been a part of it.”
For more on Neil Diamond’s last tour and his brave fight against Parkinson’s disease, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE — on newsstands Friday.
After years of dreaming, he got to live his childhood dream of hitting the road with his two idols — his father and Diamond — on the 50th anniversary excursion. “Even though nobody could know this would be Neil’s final tour I feel like we all lived like it: so many dear memories made and lots of laughs,” he says. “When I look back at the 50th anniversary tour, Neil absolutely wound up on top. His voice is so strong and vibrant, it felt like the years all fall away.”