Gary James' Interview With Neil Diamond Tribute Artist
David J. Sherry
Since 2005 David J. Sherry has been fronting an eight piece band that gives audiences the authentic experience of being in a concert hall with Neil Diamond. Critics and fans alike love what David Sherry has put together in his Neil Diamond tribute. We spoke to David Sherry about Diamond Is Forever: The Neil Diamond Experience.
Q - So David, when you were growing up, did anyone tell you that you look a little like Neil Diamond?
A - You know, yeah, and I just couldn't see it. I didn't really buy it and it wasn't until a couple of years later that I grew my hair back to the way I wore it in the '70s. You know, The Beatles were my favorite group and Neil Diamond was my favorite solo artist. There's not a whole lot in-between that I didn't love. Detroit in the '60s was a cornucopia of Motown, Blues, the Pop / Black music, the hard-core Black music if you knew which radio stations to go to. It was everything for me from David Cassidy And The Partridge Family and The Monkees to the singer / songwriters Neil Diamond, James Taylor, and of course any of the big stars from Janis to Jimi. So, I'm twelve, thirteen, with the transistor radio glued to my ear and this is all the stuff I got on a daily basis. It was pretty great in Detroit. I'll never stop being a fan. You know the thing that was cool about those times? If you were young enough, you liked everything. You didn't have this pre-conceived judgment, "Oh, Neil Diamond? He's not cool." He was on my record shelf with Three Dog Night, my first Led Zeppelin album, my entire Beatles collection. I didn't think it wasn't cool to have a Petula Clark album. To me, it was like "Wow! These are great ballads!" So, it wasn't until later, until high school that I realized you had to hide some of your stuff because it wasn't cool. But I realized that openness. Once I got into high school I realized you had to be a snob. I never was. I always loved what I loved.
Q - What kind of people are coming out to see you perform?
A - I expected people my age and older to be there. But I look out and it's moms with babies, young kids, it's teenagers, it's the thirty year old, the forty year olds. Certainly it's the people in my era and above. But it's not just this demographic. There's a guy that's been doing a Neil Diamond impersonation for fifteen years in Las Vegas, until recently. He was considered the main impersonator. I was in Vegas one year, around 2001, and I thought this would really be cool, let me go see him. I understand he's at The Imperial Palace. Well, he was no longer at The Legends In Concert show. So I went to see that and thought this was kind of cool. There's this John Lennon guy, Reba, Dolly, Aretha Franklin. And then Neil came out of course, all of those others I enjoyed it because I wasn't looking at it as a hardcore Neil Diamond. where this guy's music changed my life and made me want to be an entertainer. I wasn't looking at the others through this eye. I was just enjoying the entertainment. They were pros. They could sing well. They pretty much looked like who they were supposed to look like if you squinted. I just dug the whole experience. It was part of that cool, flashy, cheesy, lots of lights and glitz and it was Vegas. And then the Neil Diamond guy came out and he was like 5'4". Neil is 6'. It was obvious he was wearing a wig. During "America" these girls came out in red, white and blue hot pants and umbrellas and were high kicking to "America". You could tell he was rushing to hit the other side of the stage 'cause the light was gonna come on and he was gonna have to point his finger in the air just like he did every night at 7:02. I walked away and thought, wow! Why did I enjoy the others? Then I found this other guy was at The Aladdin and this is the guy that was supposed to be the cat's meow. I went and it was a nice little five piece Vegas show band. Nothing that really made the music jump, but it was note accurate. This guy comes out and he's got the hair and he's got the costume and he sound like Neil and he does about a fifteen minute show. I leave depressed. I'm thinking, what was wrong? This guy's really good. He really sounded like Neil. He really looked like Neil. I realize that the thing that's kept him alive for forty some years in the entertainment business is that he's passionate! He somehow knows how to get out there and sing "Song Sung Blue" and makes you feel blue. I realized that was what was missing. Even though this guy (Neil Diamond impersonator) was doing it, it was two dimensional. So, when people started approaching me, saying "C'mon, you look like Neil. You sound like Neil and you love Neil. Why aren't you doing this?" I was like, "Oh, no. I'm a professional musician."
Q - When did you see Neil Diamond in concert for the first time?
A - Oh man, my favorite story. Wow! It's so hard to talk about, yet so easy. It was the moment my life changed forever. "Sweet Caroline" came out in Summer of '69. I'm in my bedroom. I'm twelve years old. I look like I'm fifteen because I'm 5' 10" by then and I'm hanging out with the high school kids, trying to be cool. Thank God for The Beatles because they gave me a lot of lessons on how to dress and be cool. But I was this little Neil Diamond wanna-be in grade school. Every time I'd see a new picture of Neil, I'd comb my hair that way. I got myself a fringe vest because I couldn't afford the leather coat with the fringe. I found some bell bottoms and a shirt. He was my Elvis. He was cool to me. "Sweet Caroline" just came on my little A.M. radio. And here it is, "Hands touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching you." I'm twelve years old and I'm getting it. I'm getting how wonderful making love is. He talked about sex without making it dirty, yet at the same time I was knocked on the ground, literally. That song came and just threw me on the ground. All Summer long it climbed the charts . It was number one on most local charts, and it hit top three on the Billboard charts. Suddenly I wanted to know everything about this Diamond guy. I realized I knew "Solitary Man" and "Brother Loves". My best friend had pushed me to buy "Thank The Lord For The Night Time" in a cut-out store for 69 cents. I didn't want to waste my money on some old song. I wouldn't like. He said "Trust me, if you like Neil Diamond, you'll like this." Then CKLW A.M. radio in Windsor and Detroit started announcing that Neil Diamond was gonna be at The Masonic Temple in Detroit on November 8th, 1970. I'm not reading something. This really is from memory. I can see it in my mind like it was yesterday. "Sweet Caroline" knocked me on my butt. I'm starting to get the power of music to make me feel or think or revolt or whatever it was. "Sweet Caroline" made me realize... I wanted to grow up overnight. I thought if this was what making love was like, oh my God! I can't wait to grow up! It was quite remarkable what he put in one little 45 piece of vinyl. It comes out and three weeks before my fourteenth birthday, I basically tell my Dad this is all I want. I literally had to beg, cry, revolt. I'll pay for it with my own allowance thing. I think I paid $6.50 for the ticket. I expect this Neil Diamond guy to knock me out. I really did. I found out that the little "Neil Diamond" in brackets under the song meant he wrote it, and started understanding how many songs he wrote and that made me start to appreciate the stuff even more. But what blew me away was there was this tight little unit, Randy Stirling on bass, a beautiful chick lead guitarist playing a Fender twelve string, electric guitar, hair down to her back with stage make-up on, wearing a long, blue velvet dress that I found out from her later that she had just gotten about a month earlier to wear at Carnegie Hall. And Mark Kefner from Country Joe And The Fish on keyboards, doing the organ sounds, and a drummer. It was a religious experience. The next day I went to school, an 8th grader, told my friend, "Look, I'm telling you, this Neil Diamond guy, someday he's going to be as big as Elvis Presley." No. You don't get it. I feel quite vindicated. The serendipitous thing is, onstage that night, that was my first Rock concert other than high school dance bands that were doing whatever was on the charts at the time. So, Neil Diamond was my first concert experience. I've got to tell you, Neil Diamond did rock back then.
Q - That venue you saw him in, was that an auditorium? A theatre?
A - It was a theatre. It was the Masonic Temple Auditorium. It probably held 2,500 to 3,000. It seemed enormous at the time, but there are many times I'll walk on a stage like that and I'll think to myself, this is what Neil was doing. But I've had a mentor over the last six years that was Neil's bass player from '69 to '71. He played on "Holly Holy", "Cracklin' Rosie", "I Am, I Said" and all of that stuff. I met him in a serendipitous way. The universe is good. If you believe and you put your trust in the universe and put your dreams out there like the Tony Robbins and the Wayne Dyers say, as soon as I stopped looking at the obstacles and started putting the dream out there, it really started happening. Randy Sterling came along through some mutual friends and kind of poked at me with a stick at first because he had seen these tribute things and in his opinion they were pretty pale compared to what he experienced being four feet from Neil's ass cheek onstage. (laughs) He came to see me at a concert and we've been close since. In fact, he's producing the CD I'm recording right now.
Q - Was your stage show as elaborate in the beginning as it is now?
A - Actually, it was. Other than the first couple of test runs... I was managing a Big Band orchestra called The Big Daddy Orchestra and I was also a guest vocalist. I was the manager and did the "Heeer's Johnny" type hawking because they were really trying to jump in on that Jump / Jive revival that happened with The Brian Setzer Orchestra. Then 9-11 hit and we went from doing twenty gigs at the U.S Grande in San Diego to doing weddings. I kind of went on a spiritual weekend to learn about meditation. Some people there pushed me with the question "What would you be doing if money wasn't an issue? Age wasn't an issue? What would you really be doing with your life right now?" I just blurted out "I would be doing a Neil Diamond tribute that's really about the music. Oh yeah, it'll be costumes and lights, smoke, flags and all of that stuff in a theatre. I'll be true to the music and about the passion of Neil Diamond's 'live' performances." I knew there was some desire to do that. I was singing Neil Diamond songs along with other stuff. The first couple of shows I did locally, it wasn't playing bars to thirty people. I was doing smaller venues and selling out 200 seats for the matinee and regular dinner show. So, I looked at what the other bands were doing, the other tribute bands and there were a lot of impersonators changing their name to "tribute" because that was what was hot. Impersonators suddenly were not. And a lot of bands were tributes with just a limited amount of talent and ability or lots of talent and ability, but they were all flooding the bars. I just thought, this is not what I want to do. I don't want to play some bar. I'll be at a nice bar. I really want to do theatres. I want to do amphitheatres. I want to re-create the feel that Neil Diamond had in his concerts in the 1970s. Randy came to see us at a concert we did when I first got to know him, which is actually where we met. He came backstage afterwards. I said "Mr. Sterling..." and he's like "No, Randy." I said "How did I do?" Tears came to his eyes and he's in a wheelchair, "I was standing onstage again with my legs and my 1959 Fender bass, Precision bass, four feet from Neil. When you got to the third, fourth, fifth song, the Kentucky Womans the Cracklin' Rosies, the I Am I Saids and the things I played when I toured with Neil, you took me back for the first time, 30 some years." I was just like, Wow! So he said "What you need is not some Vegas show band or some pick-up band or playing the pre-recorded studio tracks like most of these guys are doing. You've got all the charisma, the 'it' that Neil Diamond had," that he saw in very few entertainers and certainly never saw in any of the "copycats" as he called them. He said "What you need is the band. You need a band that's as good as you are." So I kind of pulled things back for about 18 months and I put together my first really serious other musicians that are really quality musicians and think that this is a kick-ass band's band. (laughs)
Q - So, you're primarily performing on the West Coast? Is that where you're taking your act?
A - Well, I've been everywhere in the last 6 years, from Anchorage, Alaska to the Mid-West. I performed in Europe last year (2011) as a solo, as a precursor to a tour I'm going to be doing in Germany and ending up as kind of an "Elvis comes back to Tupelo " thing, going back to Malta and performing a concert there. They had an ABBA band that was just incredible, one of the best, and they had almost 7,500 people show up. So, they're really thinking with my Maltese - American connection and having lived on the island for a number of years as a performer and entertainer, that we really should be able to do a few nights at one of the places that Bryan Adams and Tina Turner played at. I'm really excited about that. I also going to Europe for 3 weeks in June (2012). There's a promoter in Hamburg that has a couple of radio interviews and a potential TV performance and wants to court us about doing a tour in Germany and maybe some of Europe. Right now the United States is pretty dry. A lot of the concerts-on-the-green and the casinos, we're still getting that work, but the paychecks are half. We're turning a lot of them down. It was really fun doing Balboa Park in San Diego because it was built for The World's Fair. This wonderful stage... We usually get 3,000 to 4,000 people there. That's one of those we've done, but the paycheck isn't there anymore. I'm really glad that it seems Europe is opening up for us. They're really trying to do something different than even the other tribute bands. They're doing a loving, musically accurate fan-hearted based thing, even if it's those that became fans later because they could play like Jimmy Page or something. It seems that people who are in the really serious tribute bands that are really making a mark and doing something good, are the ones that are really taking the music seriously. It's such a tightrope. You can't be an imitator, but then you can't not do the lead lines. I find it fortunate that Neil has so many versions. There's eight different versions of "Sweet Caroline" just in the last two decades. Our version of "Shilo" we take the horns off the Bang record, we take the mandolin off the "Hot August Night" version and we take the tempo off the Uni single and put it together. The fans aren't going "Huh? That doesn't sound like Neil Diamond," but it may not be a version that Neil Diamond specifically did. And other songs we just really try to go for that 45 'live' stage version of the song that people really want to hear and really try do what Neil does and that's bring a certain life to the song. Because I'm excited about the songs and the band is, the audience feels that connection. Alan Graham, Jim Morrison's brother-in-law, interviewed me and he wrote that Jim Morrison brought doom and a dark side to people and I bring a shopping bag of good feelings and joy and when people leave, they got the good news of "Brother Love". I just thought, Wow! What a cool way to describe it. If I wasn't doing something that was real, I couldn't get up there and do these songs. I want to be able to please the guy like me in the audience. It's cool that I'm the same height as Neil, the shape of my face is like Neil. But really when it comes down to it, that's just not worth a whole lot. It's smoke and lights. It's great that that's the case. For me it's really about the fact that the music is what's alive. If I'm just bringing some stillborn copy out there, I'd rather play in a bar band doing originals. I come out in the second song; "Ladies and gentlemen, my name is David Sherry. I'm not a Neil Diamond impersonator. This is not just a Neil Diamond tribute band. We are Neil Diamond fans. I'm a Neil Diamond fan." I don't do the "When I wrote this record in 1969." I'm saying "When I was 13 years old, I heard this record." And for some reason Randy says talking to the audience the way Neil used to in this very personal, naked, intimate way, not being ashamed of my passion for this music or for the man, it comes off as real and again, I'm lucky that I really do sound like him. But I don't make that an issue. A lot of people have told me if you do this or you do that, you could sound a lot more like him. I thought, by the time I put it through all of those presses, maybe to some other Neil Diamond tribute guy I would sound more like Neil, but what I want is what the fans want. They want to hear the record. They want to hear the passion. When you start worrying about being exactly too something, you lose that edge in the realness, I think. So, I look a little like Neil, a lot like Neil when I'm in costume, yeah. I sound a lot like Neil. But somehow we've hit some lucky medium that's a real love affair with us and the music and the audience and the music.
Q - Does Neil Diamond know about you?
A - I got to meet Neil Diamond the second-from-the-last of his concert tour in 2008 / 2009. As I mentioned, Randy and I got to be pretty good friends. He called my friend and manager and said "Make sure David isn't doing anything January 4th, 2009, I need him to take me to Ontario." Finally he had to reveal to her what it was all about. He had arranged with Neil's assistant to get some time for us backstage. From the first time I got into Neil, I wanted to meet him for 40 years. But when I started doing this, I kind of no longer wanted to meet him because I thought what if he thinks I'm one of those impersonator guys that he doesn't like? He's been pretty vocal about the fact that these guys in bars in England in sequined shirts are singing karaoke tracks and calling themselves a tribute. I'm thinking, what if he associates me with that type of thing? Fortunately with Randy stepping up and saying "Neil, you know me. I played in your band. I toured with you. I'm not going to put some schmoe (backstage). This guy's really a fan. He's really cool. He's really a musician. He's got a kick-ass band. What he's doing with your music, you would be proud of." That kind of paved the way, instead of just being fan boy behind velvet ropes saying "Hey Neil!" and hope I make eye contact. I understand it was about twenty-five minutes. It felt like about three (minutes), backstage with him and Randy just kind of hanging out, talking about music. In fact, Randy said "David saw us back in 1970 when it was just the fab four, just us." Neil looked at me and said "Really. Where was that?" I said "Masonic Temple." He said "Oh, yeah. How were we?" (laughs) Here's Neil Diamond looking at me sincerely. Eye contact. I just said "Oh, man. It really kicked. I got into entertainment because of that night." He goes "I guess we did pretty good. Cool." He did something that just blew my mind. Remember that old '60s handshake, thumb to thumb? Well, he did the old '60s handshake with both of us. Little things were pretty incredible. It was fun because we're sitting backstage getting to hang out. It wasn't that typical fan experience. So, it was worth waiting for.