As Neil Diamond prepares to visit Nashville in concert, East Nashvillian magazine sits down with the Black Diamond. Theron Denson aka the Black Diamond — the black Neil Diamond tribute artist — was booked to play East Nashville’s annual summer block party, Third of July. He had one very big problem.
“I was embarrassed because I didn’t even have a band yet,” Denson says. “All these big names were playing, and I walk in with nothing but my sequined shirts and my CD of backing music. I went out, started singing, and the crowd surged from the beer stand to the stage. It blew my mind. I did my first set and walked off to do a wardrobe change. Chuck Mead was standing by the dressing room trailer. He said, ‘Are you seriously doing a wardrobe change? Right on, man!’
“I went out to do my second set and the audience went nuts because I was in different clothes. When I finished, Chuck said, ‘I have no idea how we’re going to follow that. You just killed it.’ At that moment, I officially became part of the Nashville music scene. I knew I was going to stay here.”
Denson’s bombastic charisma is plainly evident whether he’s selling carbon copies of “Sweet Caroline” and “Forever in Blue Jeans” to a hot, thirsty crowd or just talking one-to-one in the sun room of an East Nashville bungalow. As he spins tales of his adventures, he gestures with his hands and often jumps up to reenact the scenes he’s describing. It’s a passion for grandiosity that is requirement No. 1 for anyone hoping to follow in the footsteps of the “Jewish Elvis,” but the “Black Neil Diamond” also adds a 100 carat-sized helping of positivity, charm, and affability. Love is never on the rocks for the Black Diamond.
The son of a career Army sergeant, Denson spent much of his childhood moving from base to base, eventually settling in Charleston, W.Va., after his father retired from active service in 1976. Throughout Denson’s nomadic childhood, one element of his life remained constant. “I was always singing, and I always loved music,” he says. “I would sneak into my older brother and sister’s rooms to swipe their Temptations and Supremes records to listen to on my Fisher-Price record player. I grew up in the Church of Christ and all the music was a cappella — no piano, no organ, just your voice. That’s where I honed my singing ability.
“Even in first grade, people commented on how deep my voice was and how far it would carry,” he continues. “I was around 11 when the white ladies at church would hear me singing ‘How Great Thou Art,’ and turn around and say, ‘My goodness, young man, you sound just like Neil Diamond!’ I was like, ‘Who is Neil Diamond?’ I thought maybe he went to my church.”
As Denson entered his teen years, the comparisons to the full-throated master of melodramatic pop increased. “I started to take umbrage when people told me I sounded like Neil Diamond,” he says. “I was a young black guy, and he was an old Jewish guy. He wasn’t really old, of course, but when you’re a teenager, 40 seems ancient. I would sing songs by anybody but Neil Diamond. I loved Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Lou Rawls, and especially Donna Summer, but people would still say, ‘You know who you sound like?’ and I would say, ‘Yeah, Kenny Rogers.’ ”
By the age of 15, constant comparisons wore down his resistance. Purchasing the soundtrack for the Neil Diamond film, The Jazz Singer, he embarked on an exploration of Diamond country. “That album had so many gems on it — ‘Love on the Rocks,’ ‘America,’ ‘Hello Again’ — but to me they were all equally fantastic,” Denson says. “We had a talent show during my junior year, and I chose ‘Songs of Life,’ which remains my favorite to this day. That’s when I got my first real applause. The audience gave me a standing ovation, and I was hooked.”
Although Denson found his musical mentor, dreams of show biz success were temporarily set aside. After high school, he attended college in Oklahoma and California with plans for entering the ministry. While he was at Pepperdine University in Malibu, he became best friends with Malik Pointer, the son of Ruth Pointer of the acclaimed Pointer Sisters. Denson spent over a decade in the Los Angeles area, often socializing in show business circles while never actually considering a career as an entertainer, even while others noticed his uncanny vocal resemblance.
“In 1997, I was staying with Ruth Pointer,” Denson says. “She would call people on the phone, put us on the speakerphone and say, ‘Guess who’s at my house?’ I would start singing, ‘Hello, again, hello.’ … They would say, ‘Neil Diamond! Is that you, Neil?’ and Ruth would crack up. She loved doing that to people.”
In 2000, after 15 years of what he calls “the gypsy life,” Denson returned home to West Virginia. His Neil Diamond impersonation gradually evolved from a party trick to a part-time profession. He also began to share Neil on his day job as a hotel desk clerk.
“I would sing to everyone that I checked in,” he says. “They would be traveling and looked weary, and I thought they needed a Neil Diamond song. They would go off to their room with a smile. Then human resources told me I had to stop singing or they would fire me. The guests loved it, but my coworkers didn’t. So I walked out of the Marriott, looked up at heaven and said, ‘Well, God, it looks like it’s you, me, and Neil Diamond.’”
Armed with nothing but a telephone book, a cassette tape of karaoke tracks, and an ample supply of chutzpah, Denson began calling law firms and other professionals. He had two questions: “Do you hire entertainment for office parties?” and “Do you like Neil Diamond?”
“They would ask me if I had a press kit,” Denson says. “I would say yes even though all I had was one newspaper story that I copied over and over. That was my press kit. I would wait a few days and then walk into their office wearing a fancy shirt and start singing.”
Fortunately, Denson’s guerilla marketing led to gigs instead of arrests. He began building a reputation in the Charleston area and eventually stumbled upon the perfect name for his act. “For about two years I was calling myself the Surreal Neil or Unreal Neil,” he recalls. “I was singing at a TV station in Charleston, and the host talked to audience members. This guy said, ‘I thought he sounded just like Neil Diamond and he’s from West Virginia, the land of coal. So I guess he’s the Black Diamond.’ That’s when the lightbulb went off in my head.”
As the Black Diamond, he secured a weekly Thursday night gig at a local pizza parlor. While the salary was only $100 a week and all the pizza he could eat, it paid off. In 2003, a visitor from Los Angles caught Denson’s act and later told one of the producers of the late night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live, “You’ll never believe what I saw in West Virginia last week. …” When news of the Black Diamond reached the talk show host, Denson soon found himself on a Greyhound bus headed for Hollywood.
“They wanted to fly me first class, but I don’t fly,” Denson says. “When I got to Los Angeles, the bus station was in the seediest part of town, but there was a luxury car with a driver holding a sign, ‘WELCOME BLACK DIAMOND.’ All the people on the bus are like, ‘Who are you?’ I had no answer because I was as shocked as they were. I just ducked in the car and we headed for the studio.
“I had no idea what they even wanted me to do other than sing, but they reassured me the floor director would work with me until I got it right,” he recalls. “They gave me a script. I read it over, and the director told me to do it one time for the studio audience and act like it was for live TV. I did it, thinking it was a rehearsal, but Jimmy Kimmel walked out, shook my hand and whispered to me, ‘Let’s have fun.’ It was the show.”
For the next hour, the Black Diamond was the centerpiece of the show as Kimmel included him in each interview and chatted with him between guests. The Black Diamond also closed the show with a rousing rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
After his brush with Hollywood fame, Denson returned to West Virginia. In 2006, he moved to Kalamazoo, Mich., and eventually found work in the Detroit and Chicago areas. After three years of working that market, he decided it was time for the Black Diamond to conquer Las Vegas.
“I was still working from a CD of backing tracks,” Denson says. “I soon found out I had to have a band in Vegas. I didn’t know how to start a band, so I put an ad on Craigslist — ‘If you’re a musician and you like Neil Diamond, I’m starting a band.’ I thought I would get three or four people at the most, but it seemed like every musician in Vegas called me.”
While Denson had high hopes, Luck proved not to be a lady when it came to the City of Lights. After a year of scattered bookings, he returned to West Virginia, ready to hang up his sequined shirt for good. But fate had another chorus for the Black Diamond, in the form of an unexpected phone call from King Errisson, “The King of the Congas.” The longtime member of Neil Diamond’s touring band had heard of the Black Diamond and tracked him down out of curiosity.
“I told him I thought it had run its course,” Denson says, “and he said, ‘Before you give up, I think you should go to Nashville because you’ll shock and awe them there.’ I said, OK, but I really thought Nashville was nothing but 10-gallon cowboy hats. It took me about a month to move. When I stepped off the bus in Nashville, I had a Mary Tyler Moore moment, looking around the city. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, brother, here we go again. I hope King is right.’ ”
Denson rented a room in the Cleveland Park area, and was soon spreading word of the Black Diamond, one person at time. “Every night I would walk from Cleveland Park to the Red Door Saloon in 5 Points,” he says. “I would get there about 9 o’clock at night and sit at the bar and say, ‘Guess what I do?’ to random people, ‘I’m the black Neil Diamond.’ I did that night after night, thinking that eventually the right person would hear about it. At 1 a.m., I’d walk back home. I gave myself six months for something to happen. Then one day I sauntered into Porter Road Butcher Shop. I started talking with the owners, and I told them I sang Neil Diamond songs. They looked at each other and said, ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ ”
That chance meeting led to his first Nashville gig, in the backyard of Porter Road Butcher’s next door neighbor, The Groove, on Record Store Day 2012. His crowd-stopping performance at the Thirth of July block party followed, and the Black Diamond soon became a fixture of the Nashville music scene, especially after he recruited local favorites Heath Haynes & The Hi Dollars as his backing band for a two-year stint, simply by walking up to them at The 5 Spot and delivering the irresistible line, “I’m the black Neil Diamond!”
Over the last five years, Denson has worked with some of Nashville’s best musicians and booked shows across the country. After years hustling his own bookings, he recently signed with a management company and enjoyed an extended booking in Florida. For his next show in Music City, at the Exit/In on April 14, he’s teasing a grand spectacle with special guests to usher in the “next chapter” in the Black Diamond experience.
“People sometimes ask me if I feel like I’m cheating because I sing Neil Diamond’s songs,” Denson says. “Not at all, because I’m the first person to admit that I’m riding on his coattails. He’s taken me on a great ride. I’ve gotten to go places and do things I never thought I’d be able to do and make a lot of people happy. Music should be fun. Sometimes people overthink it, when really the question is, do you enjoy the song? Then enjoy the song. I never thought that Nashville would turn out as well as it did. People say, ‘Really? You can do Neil Diamond in Nashville?’ and I tell them, ‘You can do anything in Nashville.’ ”