In September, 2000, Theron Denson was fired from his job at the Marriott hotel in Charleston, W. Va. The offense: singing at the front desk.
“I looked up to heaven, and I said, ‘Well, God, it looks like it’s you, Neil Diamond and me now,’ ” he recalls. Thus Black Diamond was born. And for 13 years since, Denson has paid his bills performing as the world’s one and only black Neil Diamond impersonator.
So, why Neil Diamond?
“Why not?” Denson says. “He’s an incredible entertainer. … I connect with him in that I think he has his finger on the pulse of the human psyche.“
As Neil Diamond superfans go, Denson was a late bloomer.
“I thought he went to my church for the longest time,” Denson recalls. That’s because every time Denson would sing “Amazing Grace” at the predominantly white West Virginia church he attended, congregants would tell him his vocal timbre bore an uncanny similarity to Diamond’s. Curiosity led to a purchase of The Jazz Singer, then superfandom and, eventually, a closet full of sequined shirts to go with regular bookings at clubs, private parties and corporate events.
“When I’m onstage, I try to channel him,” Denson says of Diamond. “It’s really funny to me when I’m performing and I’m watching the reaction of the audience — their mouths are kind of on the floor,” he says. “I would never be so presumptuous as to say I sound like Neil Diamond.”
But he really, really does sound like Neil Diamond. So much so that in 2008 he landed a booking on The Jimmy Kimmel Show, and, later, an appearance on America’s Got Talent.
“Everything is going to change tomorrow,” Denson remembers Kimmel telling him over a round of bowling after the taping. Sure enough, calls from other national media and booking agents came flooding in the next day. At Kimmel’s suggestion, Denson relocated his act to Las Vegas.
But by 2011, it wasn’t really working out in Sin City, and at the urging of longtime Neil Diamond percussionist King Errisson — an advocate, friend and fan who thought Black Diamond would be “a big hit in Nashville” — Denson relocated. Here, he was able to jettison pre-recorded backing tracks and replace them with the real deal, including trad-rock-crackerjack Heath Haynes and his High Dollars (who sometimes back Wanda Jackson) and local R&B ensemble Kansas Bible Company’s nut-tight horn section.
“The goal of my show, more than to even sound like Neil Diamond onstage,” he says, “is to cause people to forget all of these things that separate us in the real world and blend. And if I can do that by the end of the show, whether you thought I sounded like Neil or not, I feel like the mission was accomplished.”
The Model Citizen: Karen Elson
The Advocate: Paul Kuhn
The Cook: Tallu Schuyler Quinn
The Busker: Mike Slusser
The Cleaner: Sharon Reynolds
The Mobilizer: Remziya Suleyman
The Maker: Zoe Schlacter
The Animators: Magnetic Dreams
The Buyer: Kelly Anne Ross
The Arthouse Ambassador: Sarah Finklea
The Picker: Rory Hoffman
The Singer: Ruby Amanfu
The Educator: Ellen Gilbert
The Air Drummer: Steve Gorman
The Artist: Martin Cadieux
The Chef: Yayo Jiménez
The Futurist: Ken Gay
The Commissioner: Many-Bears Grinder