The Moundsville blog promotes the movie ‘Moundsville’, now on PBS, and collects writing about Moundsville and West Virginia.
Neil Diamond turns 80 on January 24, and of course Theron Denson is planning a birthday gig. Denson, who calls himself “Black Diamond”, is one of this country’s great tribute singers. He grew up in West Virginia, the son of a military veteran, and the descendant of African-Americans who moved north to work in mines and mills.
Denson is in his twentieth year of impersonating Diamond, which he’s done more or less full-time since he was fired from a Marriott hotel for singing on the job. Highlights have included opening for the Village People and performing on Jimmy Kimmel after a producer discovered him singing Sweet Caroline in a Charleston pizza parlor.
The Black Diamond learned his destiny as a teenager, he told me, “when little white ladies in church tapped me on the shoulder and said I sounded like Neil Diamond.” Based in Charleston, WV, Denson has learned pretty much every song in the Brooklyn Bard’s catalogue. “I’ll ask for suggestions, and somebody will yell out Porcupine Pie, and I’ll sing it, and of course the person who suggested it knows Porcupine Pie, so that’s a special moment.”
Porcupine pie, porcupine pie, porcupine pie
Vanilla soup, a double scoop please
No, maybe i won’t, maybe i won’t, maybe i will
The tutti fruit with fruity blue cheese
Given America’s painful racism, I wondered if Denson’s ever been criticized for singing the oeuvre of such a classically white artist, or if he himself is consciously flipping the minstrel narrative. “I don’t overthink it,” he said. “I really do just love this music.” Black audiences, he added, “have embraced” his act, “although in the first years, I got a lot of side-eyed glances.”
Denson has never met Diamond, although he did talk to the singer on the phone once, “for six minutes and 32 seconds”, after which Diamond FedExed his entire catalogue of CDs to Denson’s Charleston apartment. His three favorite Neil Diamond songs are “Song for Life”, “Forever in Blue Jeans” and “I’ve Been This Way Before”.
Over the years, Denson has performed all over West Virginia, but not in Moundsville. “When I was a kid, [in the 80s], my dad took me and my brothers to the penitentiary in Moundsville for a ‘scared straight’ program,” he said. “Prisoners would yell at us, saying we’ll be there soon.” That scared him because he was “a good kid”, but he’d like to conquer that fear now, especially that the old pen is shuttered.
One reason I loved talking to Denson is that I’m a secret Neil Diamond nut. I am the child of American immigrants in Belgium. I went to school in French and didn’t have a television. My dad played German and Italian opera on the piano for a living. In my childhood home, a handful of Neil Diamond records my parents carted over from Maryland were one of the cultural affirmations of Americanness.
When Neil Diamond sang “Far/We’ve been traveling far/Without a home/But not without a star”, I could close my 10-year-old eyes on a rainy Belgian night, and imagine my future when we might migrate “Home, to a new and a shiny place” to “Make our bed, and we’ll say our grace/Freedom’s light burning warm.”
At 17, when I moved to Maryland to attend college, I cued “America” on my Walkman headphones as the plane landed at Dulles airport. Cheesy, overwrought, and a bit foolish, yeah, but how could I resist? America! (Years later, for my 40th birthday, I drove to Cleveland with three friends to see Neil in one of his last shows before he retired from touring due to Parkinson’s Disease. After 50 years of performing, he could still bring it.)
The reality of this country, as even teenage Neil Diamond fans must learn, is complicated, an onion of Top 40 tunes layered with racism and baseball and crushing poverty and great universities and a million other things. Denson, who calls himself a patriot, said he’s been wrestling with America. “I’m an optimist, and even I’m worried,” he said. “Last time I checked, this is the United States of America, and instead what’s being amplified are voices of hate and division.”
We’d all be better off listening to more Neil Diamond. “That’s the fabric of America,” he said. He described a recent concert where a transgender woman got up to dance to “Forever in Blue Jeans”. Denson walked over to dance with her, he said, “and all of sudden, all these people in the crowd were also dancing, like it was infectious.”
John W. Miller