Diamonds in the Rough

Karl Commers was first up. The earnest mail carrier went through a door behind the stage and came out a few minutes later in a comprehensively sparkly shirt, the spitting image of … James Taylor. He gets that a lot, he said, but has no immediate plans to impersonate James Taylor. Firing up the fog machine and an expression of modest greatness, he hopped up onto the stage and let loose the voice of a sixty-four-year-old megastar in less-than-perfect acoustical circumstances. About sixty people were trying to reconcile James Taylor’s face with Neil Diamond’s voice. “Kentucky Woman” turned the trick.

Commers, a local Neil Diamond impersonator, took the stage at the Withrow Ballroom, over in Hugo, just north of Stillwater, as one half of a double Diamond extravaganza. The other Diamond was Theron Denson, from West Virginia, who is known in the business as “Black Diamond.”

“He starts right on time. He’s got the mannerisms down. He’s good,” Denson observed. A natural raconteur, the Black Diamond interspersed his back-story with gracious comments about his co-Diamond, as Commers lit up the stage with the big-star arm sweep and foot stomp that white people recognize as dancing.

Since he was eleven years old and singing in his church choir, ladies who knew were telling Denson he sounded just like Neil Diamond. “Eventually I started wondering who this Neil Diamond guy was. I thought he must be someone in our church,” said Denson. “I felt pretty bad when I found out he was a forty-five-year-old white guy. My mom tried to make me feel better. She said, ‘Honey, don’t worry, you don’t sound like him.’ A few years ago she admitted, ‘You really did sound like him.’ God has a sense of humor, you know.” A churchgoing boy, Denson accepted the gift and went out and bought The Jazz Singer. It was no Donna Summer (his favorite artist), but he came to appreciate the way the lyrics touched people.

In 2000, Denson was fired from his job at the Marriott for singing to the guests—the guests loved it, the management did not. “As I walked out to my car, I thought, This is between God, Neil Diamond, and me.” Since then, he’s made the Black Diamond Show his full-time gig, making calls, pounding the pavement, and memorizing the lyrics to at least ninety songs during the day, and cracklin’ rosie at night. “I didn’t work much on mannerisms because I’m probably never going to fool anyone with looks. It’s all about the voice. In fact, in my shows, I sing other songs—Beatles, Elton John. People don’t think I’m impersonating John Lennon. They come up and say, ‘Oh, that’s what the Beatles would sound like if Neil Diamond sang it.’”

The Black Diamond Show debuted at a birthday party and is now a national act with eight to ten performances per month. His resume includes a fundraiser for John Kerry, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Show, an opening slot for the Village People and, oddly, an Elvis impersonation contest with three hundred Elvises. And one Neil. Denson was recently contacted by Oprah’s O magazine and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

When he played Hugo, Denson was hoping to at last meet the real Neil—both were scheduled to play St. Louis at the same time the following month. “He”—the real Neil Diamond—“has a really gracious attitude toward impersonators,” according to Denson. “He thinks it’s kind of weird that people want to imitate him, but it’s flattering, and he acknowledges that it helps keep his music alive.”

Both Denson and Commers admit that meeting their muse would be huge, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Vegas is. “Ultimately I’d like to bring my show to Las Vegas or Branson, Missouri, or Atlantic City,” said Denson. Commers totally agreed. According to Denson, Vegas’ current resident Neil Diamond impersonator draws nightly crowds at fifty to sixty dollars per ticket.

As Commers wound up his first set, Denson slipped backstage to get into character—that is, into a purple shirt that seemed to be made of tinsel. With hardly a missed beat, the white Diamond exited stage left, and the Black Diamond fought his way past a fog machine to lay down “Holly Holy.” Being a relative newcomer to the world of cubic zirconia, Commers kept one eye on the Black Diamond as he told me about his mail route (Brooklyn Park), his initial success doing Diamond (at karaoke bars), and his first Neil Diamond tribute show (a little over a year ago, at Arizona’s in Shakopee). “It was three hours long with forty songs. It nearly killed me,” Commers recalled.

He hopes to be able to quit mail carrying within two years and, like anyone contemplating a career change, he’s gone back to school—“I’ve been to the College of Neil Diamond. Study, study, study.” Not only does Commers listen to Diamond’s music, he studies videos of the Solitary Man and other impersonators. Noting how Denson jumped off the stage and worked the crowd, pointing, reaching out and touching, Commers added, “I get out into the audience more in my second set.” He figures he studies the facets of Diamond at least an hour per day, sometimes while he’s walking his route.

Vocals are his ticket, but sartorial styling also helps. Diamondwear is not readily available off the rack. Commers bought two Calvin Klein shirts and painstakingly glued sparkles on them, one bling at a time. “It took two hours per shirt.” He figures if he’s going to do Diamond, he’s going to do it right—“I’m putting everything into this.”

Commers and Denson found each other on a website dedicated to Neil Diamond, They arranged this Diamond doubleheader after a year of long-distance correspondence, but met in person only a few hours before the show. Denson took the Greyhound from Charleston, West Virginia, to St. Paul, a twenty-four-hour trip on a good day. But it was not a good day—the bus broke down twice en route.

The consummate professional, the Black Diamond left the dust of the road backstage. He was in his element. (“I came all the way from West Virginia to party with you tonight!”) The audience was warmed up; some were dancing. Denson started in low and gravelly, but by the refrain, at least fifty-nine off-key voices joined in at top volume—Sweeeeet Car-o-line, bah bah bah. Good times never seemed so good (so good so good so good).