"It has to be amazing," Theron Denson says, "to walk around the earth and be Neil Diamond. He's just very loved and has legions of fans. Girls must be approaching him all the time."
It's pretty unusual for someone's rock-star fantasy to involve being a 66-year-old man with graying hair and a closet full of figure-skating shirts. But Denson thinks about Neil Diamond all the time. Ever since he was a kid, people have been telling him that his voice sounds like the famous singer's. Now 43, he's been making a living for the last seven years as the Black Diamond, the world's only African-American Neil Diamond impersonator, playing places like the Monaco Bay nightclub in Kalamazoo, where tonight he's the star of Ultimate Ladies' Night.
At the bottom of a flight of steep metal stairs, in Monaco Bay's basement bathroom, Denson is getting into wardrobe: a shirt, open to the sternum, glittering with hundreds of sequins. "I have a woman make these for me," he says. "It costs $200. I'm sure Neil's shirts cost $2,000."
The bar upstairs has been transformed into a spa. Some women are flopped on massage tables; others are having their nails lacquered. As Denson makes his way across the floor, the house manager grabs the microphone. "Ladies, I need you to do a countdown," he says. "The Black Diamond in five, four, three, two, one--make some noise!"
"Hot August night and the leaves hanging down, and the grass on the ground smelling sweet," Denson sings in a sober baritone, his tremolo not quite as dark or rich as Diamond's. "It's Love, Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show." A few dozen women crowd around the three-step-high stage, hooting and jiggling.
If Denson could've chosen who to sound like he'd have picked Lou Rawls. But he's been hearing the Neil Diamond comparisons since he was 11, back when he used to sing in the church choir in his hometown of Charleston, West Virginia. "I didn't even know who Neil Diamond was," he says. "My family was all R & B. So I went out and bought The Jazz Singer. I immediately fell in love with 'Songs of Life.'"
Over the years, with his friends encouraging him to get up and sing in bars, Denson eventually started to buy into the idea that he sounded like Neil Diamond. In his mid-30s he worked as a hotel desk clerk, greeting guests with a tuneful "Hello again, hellooo." Unamused, his boss gave him a choice: your silence or your job. That's when Denson decided to turn pro.
"When I got fired from the hotel, everybody told me to get another job," he said. "I didn't want to get a job. I said, 'I'll see if I can make it a year.' I did a show at Marshall University. They charged $10 and I made fifteen hundred bucks."
Denson set up a Web site with streaming audio to promote his act (blackdiamondvocals.com) and slowly started getting phone calls--including, he says, one from Neil Diamond himself. "I looked down at my caller ID and it was New York City. They said, 'We have Mr. Diamond calling.' He said, 'You sound like me.' Then I said, 'A lot of people have told me I sound like you.' He said, 'I'm sure people will tell me I sound like the Black Diamond.'"
Denson thought he might be able to work a few of his own songs into the Black Diamond set, but the first time he tried, it didn't go over too well with the promoter. "When she was writing the check, she said, 'We hired you to sing Neil Diamond songs.' I learned from that moment, you gotta give 'em the Neil Diamond," he says. "As the old adage goes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
He got a break in 2003, when a man from Los Angeles saw him singing in a pizza parlor and called a friend who was a producer for Jimmy Kimmel Live. Denson wound up doing "Sweet Caroline" on the show. "The next day," he says, "I got calls from agents, booking requests. I played the National Association of Homebuilders in Hilton Head." When John Kerry campaigned in West Virginia, Denson sang at the rally, changing "Sweet Caroline" to "Sweet Kerry-line." Someone later told him Kerry was "as giddy as a schoolgirl, saying 'He tailored the words for me.'" According to Denson, "Sweet Caroline" usually has that effect on white people. "That's their chance to shine. It can get people to dance who don't normally dance."
By last summer Denson had played all over West Virginia, and the momentum from the Kimmel show appearance had petered out. A friend was moving to Kalamazoo. Denson looked at a map, saw that the city was halfway between Chicago and Detroit, and followed, hoping he could take his act to both cities. Now, he says, he can't go into Applebee's without meeting half a dozen fans.
Sponsor WKFR, a local mix station, has been plugging his show at Monaco Bay all week. On his second number, Denson grasps the sky, just like Diamond: "She got the way to move me, Cherry baby!" When he croons "Red Red Wine," a woman climbs onstage and unfastens his belt. Denson savors the moment. "Are you havin' a good time with the Black Diamond?" he shrieks. "Kalamazoo women know how to rock real hard!"
A young woman in the crowd looks at him skeptically. "He don't sound like Neil Diamond," she says. "But he sounds good."
Denson makes his way through a sampling of Diamond's greatest hits, from "Forever in Blue Jeans" to "I'm a Believer." He closes with "Sweet Caroline," of course. Girls sweep their arms from side to side and sing "bomp bomp bomp" on the chorus. Then, from the speakers: "That was good. If I didn't know better, I'd say you rehearsed it." It's the voice of the real Neil Diamond, from his live Stages box set. And the cheers coming through the speakers are from a crowd in Las Vegas.
"Yeah!" Denson shouts. "Yeah! Yeah!" He tilts his head back and closes his eyes, as if the thousands on the record are screaming for him.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.