“If Neil Diamond ever approaches you and says, ‘Would you like to take a ride on my coattails?’ say ‘Yes! Absolutely!’ ”
Theron Denson offers this advice from experience. Denson has traveled a celebrity’s path in the shadow of the legendary pop performer Neil Diamond. The Rock Bridge High School graduate has made a living the last nine years performing a Neil Diamond tribute act and now has a regular gig in Las Vegas. Billed as “An Unreal Neil Diamond Experience,” Denson’s act is called “The Black Diamond Show.”
“An Unusual Sight”
That’s right. Theron Denson, star of a successful Vegas Neil Diamond tribute act, is black. The show is no joke, though the idea of a “Black Diamond” strikes a lot of people as humorous.
“The show does attract curiosity seekers, the ones who say: ‘Are you kidding? There’s a black Neil Diamond? You’ve got to be kidding me,” Denson says. “And I let people know I’m in on it. I get it. I understand why you are laughing because it is kind of an unusual sight, I suppose. But I do take it seriously.”
Denson has invested several years into learning about Neil Diamond, his life and his music. He reveres Diamond as a complex, brilliant artist.
“And I treat his songs with the utmost of respect,” Denson says. “I am proud to take audiences on the journey that is Neil Diamond.”
Denson’s own journey with the superstar began in the ‘70s. Denson was just a kid, but women at his predominantly white church kept telling him he sounded just like Diamond.
“Of course, we didn’t have any Neil Diamond records in the house,” Denson says. “We were listening to the Temptations, the Four Tops, Donna Summer. So when people would tell me I sounded like Neil Diamond, I was like, ‘I’m not sure what they’re talking about.’ ”
His first opportunity to study Diamond came in high school. Following his parents’ separation, Denson was sent to live with his eldest brother Stefan Denson in Columbia. Theron Denson had spent most of his childhood around Fort Leonard Wood (his father was in the Army), but he had lived in Columbia for one year in eighth grade. Most of the friends he had made were attending Rock Bridge, and that’s where Denson wanted to go, too, but his brother lived in Hickman’s district. The parents of one of Denson’s friends, Robert and Kathleen Lively, heard about Denson’s wish and agreed to let him live with them – even though their family already had seven kids.
“We met him, and he seemed like a very polite, cheerful person,” Kathleen says. “Theron blended into the family. He even managed to get into one of our family portraits.”
He’s easy to pick out because the Lively family is white.
At first glance, Denson’s time with the Livelys might seem to explain a lot about his later choice of career, but those close to him doubt it made that much difference.
“He would have had a lot of drive to check all this out even if he hadn’t been living with us,” Kathleen says. “But it was convenient that our daughter Luanne had a Neil Diamond album, and he was able to get his hands on it!”
Good Enough To Go Pro?
Several years passed between Denson’s first encounter with Luanne’s “The Jazz Singer” album and his first booking as the Black Diamond. He never intended to make a career out of his voice, but he did like to have fun with it. Working the front desk at the Marriott Hotel in Charleston, W.Va., he often would greet guests with a “Hello, again, hellooooo.” Guests loved it, Denson says, but it annoyed his co-workers. Management asked him to stop; he refused and was fired. That was in 2000.
When it hit him that he had just lost his income, his health insurance and his dental insurance — he responded like a lot of people do, with prayer.
“I looked up at the heavens and said: ‘God, it looks like it’s you, Neil Diamond and me now. Let’s see if we can make this work,’ ” he recalls.
When he started, Denson thought he would just do a few gigs until he could find another job.
“But after a couple of months, I thought: ‘Wait. I haven’t worked anywhere else, and I’ve paid my rent. And I’ve eaten. And I’ve paid my phone bill. Well. And this is fun, too.’ ”
He was doing a regular gig at a Charleston pizza parlor when he got his big break in 2003. Someone with connections to “Jimmy Kimmel Live” happened to come there for dinner. The man saw Denson perform, and the next thing Denson knew, he was singing “Sweet Caroline” on national television.
“That’s when I knew it was a bona fide career,” Denson says. “Jimmy Kimmel told me after the show, ‘I hope you are ready because tomorrow your career will change,’ and it really did.”
Star Light, Star Bright
In all these years of performing a tribute, Denson has never met the real Neil Diamond. He hopes that now that he’s in Las Vegas, Diamond will “see his way to a show.”
Despite the success he’s had, Denson still takes a humble attitude, saying he’s “no Neil Diamond.”
“I would never be so presumptuous to say I sound just like Neil Diamond,” he says. “I really wouldn’t because there’s one Neil Diamond and one Neil Diamond only.”
That said, Denson has accumulated a faithful following of fans, too. Among them are Eric and Melannie Antisdale of Kalamazoo, Mich., who met Denson when he moved to Kalamazoo in 2006, and who surprised him by flying to Vegas for his debut show this April.
Melannie says she and Eric were hooked the first time they saw Denson’s show at a restaurant.
“A lot of times at restaurants, when there’s a performer, the crowd is eating and listening, but it’s not ‘alive,’ ” she says. “His show was alive! He electrified the crowd. He’s excellent at working the crowd, and people have fun.”
Denson is still getting used to having fans.
“It’s such a kooky feeling to know you have these artist supporters,” he says. “I mean it’s a great feeling, but it’s kind of surreal.”
Roy Doerhoff, a doctor in St. Louis with a home at Lake of the Ozarks, is another big fan of Denson. The first time he heard about Denson, he was one of those who thought a Black Diamond sounded hilarious; he was surprised to discover Denson had talent.
“I was amazed that the voice of Neil Diamond was coming out of his body,” Doerhoff says.
Doerhoff had so much fun at the show, he decided that if he ever got married, the Black Diamond would perform at his reception. In 2005, an engaged Doerhoff brought his skeptical fiancée to a Black Diamond show at The Blue Note. That was all it took.
“The Black Diamond was a smash at my wedding,” Doerhoff says. “They were kicking people out at midnight. No one wanted to leave.”
The Diamond Comes Home
While that Blue Note performance was a great success, it was a hard one for Denson.
“I was very anxious because I was coming home to my friends and family, and they are going to be honest with you,” he says. “Luckily, they didn’t razz me too bad but offered lots of support. I think they knew I was nervous.”
Robert and Kathleen Lively were in the crowd that night, and they were astounded.
“To me, it’s unbelievable the reaction he gets,” Kathleen says. “People really respond with standing up and cheering and clapping and coming down to the front and dancing. It’s kind of a wild scene!”
Columbia will get the chance to see the Black Diamond again on Aug. 6, at Boone Tavern. The Thursday night show will start at 8:30 p.m.
This time around, Denson is feeling much more confident.
“It’s been my dream to come home as a successful entertainer from Las Vegas, and this is the first time that’s happening, so I’m really, really excited,” he says.
Denson’s brother Stefan, who still lives in Columbia, is looking forward to the show.
“Go expecting to enjoy the performance and to be a part of that performance,” he says. “Take that leap, and you’ll be rewarded.”
The reward is Denson’s showmanship.
“That’s the most important element of the show, really,” Theron Denson says. “When people come to the show, I don’t know that they’ll think I sound like Neil Diamond because I’m not sure I sound like Neil Diamond. But the goal is not to have them say, ‘Wow, he really sounded like Neil Diamond!’
“The goal is to have them forget that they have a sore throat, to forget that the rent is due, to forget that their girlfriend just broke up with them, to forget everything but having fun for 90 minutes. That’s really the goal. And I tell them, ‘It’s not just me up here, brothers and sisters. You are in this, too.’ ”