Gary James' Interview With
Neil Diamond Tribute Artist
For years Dean Colley was told he looked like Neil Diamond. And one day he did something about it. He put together a Neil Diamond tribute act called Hot August Night. Dean and his band have performed in casinos, at corporate parties, at fairs and in clubs all over the United States, Japan, Canada and England. Dean has had an incredible experience with Hot August Night and he shared his story with us.
Q - Dean, you had a businessman, a financial backer if you will, who helped you put Hot August Night all together. Did he personally like Neil Diamond or did he have dollar signs in his eyes and thought he could make some money off of you? Why did he approach you is what I'm asking.
A - Funny thing about it is, the guy that approached me, approached me for my original project back then. I wasn't even doing the Neil Diamond thing back then. His name is Dennis Koller and he was an emergency physician that I used to work for when I worked in the Emergency Room.
Q - You have a medical background too?
A - Yes. I worked in an emergency room for twelve years. It was my first job. I was one of those dudes that took pre-med in college and never got into medical school.
Q - Why is that? Did you want to pursue it?
A - No. There was just a big, old, long line of Asians with A+ grade point average that beat me to it.
Q - That'll do it every time.
A - I came from a very humble beginning. My Dad was an L.A. city fireman and we didn't have a lot of money, so I had to work my way through college. Being pre-med, that's a pretty competitive thing in any era, but in the '70s and '80s everybody wanted to get into medical school. It was like a free ride to riches. So, me having to work during college in a hospital, an actual setting, I may have time to go through the chapter once, but these Asian dudes were going through the chapter three, four or five times. So, I couldn't keep up with 'em. My C average was not good enough to get into medical school, so I changed gears after about two years of school. I didn't graduate. I just wanted to take some time off because I didn't see myself working in a laboratory the rest of my life. I wanted to be a doctor. I didn't want to be a scientist, let's put it that way. So, I've always had an affinity for music. My brother was in bands. I kind of loosely started booking him at fraternity parties. One of the fraternities I was in, I was the assistant social chairman, and when the band didn't show up one day, my brother handed me a guitar and we entertained a group of 300 co-eds for about two hours. I kind of liked it. From then on, I was in bar bands until 1998 and that's when I first did my Neil Diamond impersonation or impression. That was at this little club and we filled the club up to capacity when the club owner had to shut the thing down and let nobody else in. It was just a smashing success. From then on, 1998 was my first concert in the park which was put on by Steve Eastis. He was a Kiwanis Club member and the Kiwanis Club put on the community concert in the park every year. He hooked me up for that. Immediately I had to find new guys and I had to learn Neil Diamond songs. I couldn't do a two hour show with just four songs that I learned a couple of months earlier. So, I had to hustle up and get onboard. And it slowly kind of built up from there. It's been fourteen years now and I've been doing this full-time for eight years now. I quit my job eight years ago, which at the time was working in a vintage motorcycle shop.
Q - What were you doing there, re-building motorcycles?
A - Yeah, the old European moto-cross models, the stuff I grew up with.
Q - You had a lot going on even before you got involved in the Neil Diamond tribute.
A - I've worn a lot of hats. I'm an auto mechanic. I restore hot rods. I build vintage motorcycles. I can repair any modern bike on the face of the earth as long as I have the tools and parts to fix it. It's kind of like that book that was popular in the '70s, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Mechanics. That's kind of in my life. My passion has always been music. Music is everything to me, but I've never been classically trained. I never went through music theory. I don't read or write music. I have my own notation which my band members now know quite well. As long as you know how the song goes you can read what I call my "audio map" and know where you're at during the set in case you lose your place.
Q - Tell me more about your financial backer, Dennis Koller.
A - He's a Canadian fellow. He lives in Vancouver now and he flies back and forth to the very hospital I used to work with him at in West Covina. It used to be called Queen Of The Valley Hospital. Now it's called Cities Valley Group or something like that. He was the first one who backed my musical endeavor.
Q - You must've seen everything in that Emergency Room.
A - You name it, I've seen it. The only thing I haven't seen is a decapitation because they don't bring them into the Emergency Room. The coroner comes out and gets those people directly. Everything you can imagine and beyond. I've seen patients that looked like they stepped on a land mine come through that have been run over by a train. Everything you can imagine. You kind of numb up after a while. The initial shock lasts about two or three seconds and all of a sudden somebody shouts an order at you and then you go into the work mode. But what really made it difficult for me to stay there is when I started having kids and seeing these kids come in with injuries like that. That's when it really got me and kind of wearing on me. I noticed because I would be inappropriate with my anger or I would be overly sensitive or see something that would stick with me for two, three or four weeks, just countin' my lucky stars that nothing happened to my kids. I would just be beside myself if anything happened to my children like I've seen in an Emergency Room. But don't get me wrong. I'm not a ghoulish, hard-core kind of guy 'cause I can fix somebody up and do what I can once they've been injured or ill, but I cannot bear to watch somebody get injured. That's what will make me faint. Once every two or three weeks I have the Emergency Room dreams. They're stuck with me like I went through Vietnam. Not near as bad 'cause no one was ever shooting at me, but I'm telling you it's there. That's why I had to get out of the business. I put in twelve years and the second longest guy in my position had put in six years before he had had enough. But I had to pay off my student loans. What else am I going to do? I had a nut to cover and a new wife and two babies and then a ten year old from my wife's previous marriage. I had to stick it out until I found something better. When this music thing started paying, it was like "Hey, I got an extra $500 a month" or "I got $150 to $200 this week. Maybe I'll take the kids to the beach." That's how it started. It wasn't that I was passionate about a certain genre of music and it wasn't that I was a Neil Diamond fan because Lord knows I liked his music. I would turn on the radio and learn there, until I was offered to do these shows at quite an increase in pay and I looked at my family and said "I'll put on floppy shoes and a squeaker nose and act like Bozo The Clown if I can bring groceries home." Slowly but surely as I started doing more of these Neil Diamond concerts. I started getting better at it and getting better players and getting more offers and better pay and hooked up with a better seamstresses that could sew me up better costumes. I really started enjoying it. I enjoy it today and I'm very glad I went that route, but it would never have been a route I would've picked. If I would've picked somebody to do a tribute to, it probably would've been The Doors, The Rolling Stones, The Who. Anything but Neil Diamond. To me, his boots were just too big to fill. He's got that very unique voice. He's got a vibrato in his voice that sounds like two bowling balls in a washing machine and he's got that kind of growly thing with his voice and those were two things I did not have at that time. So, I had to figure out a way to get his voice down. Once I did, it was just going to somebody who knew how to cut what hair I do have and make it look like Neil Diamond and two different kinds of hairspray and away we go!
Q - You bear such a striking resemblance to the young Neil Diamond. Do you use hair pieces to reflect what Neil Diamond looks like today?
A - No, I don't. It's all my own hair and it's just thick enough to where I can style it in two or three different manners. Obviously the shorter the hair, the older he gets. I don't do that. In the Summer time I let my hair grow a little bit longer because no matter what I do, if I'm sitting outside for three and a half hours and it's hot and I'm sweaty and the winds blowing, there's no way you're gonna keep a hair-do unless you've got hair that's two inches long. In the Winter time I crop it a little bit closer because I don't do any outdoor gigs and I can get away with it because I don't do any outdoor gigs in the winter.
Q - Do you make costume changes?
A - When Neil was a young man, in his late 20s and early 30s, he did that kind of jump suit deal like Elvis Presley did. You'll never see me in a jump suit. So what I took up was the 1976 and beyond look which is the Angels Flight, high wasted pants, bell bottoms, the Italian boots and the sequined sparkly shirts. That's usually what I go for and my shirts are very nice. They're not the cheap stuff you see the other dudes wear. I pay $300 a piece for mine, plus I have to go buy the material. I go down to the garment district in L.A. I buy special material, fully-lined and double seamed. I usually get a year's wear out of 'em before I have to buy 'em again. But every year it's about $1,200 in shirts and about $800 worth of pants.
Q - I wonder what Neil Diamond pays for his shirts and pants.
A - That's a good question. Neil Diamond had the same seamstress in the '70s and mid '80s. He had the same guy he would pay to make his shirts for him and sew up his pants. Neil Diamond had a unique looking pair of pants. They were called Zanzibelt. You can still buy 'em on the rack, but then he'd have a tuxedo stripe sewed up the side. That was one of the deals. Reportedly to sew up one of his glass beaded shirts that you see him wear in the early '80s and mid '80s, those shirts were $10,000 a piece. There's no way I can come close to that. From fifty feet I look just fine as far as the Neil Diamond thing. I look like him. I can walk like him. I can talk like him. I can sing like him and I'm a better guitar player than he is.
Q - To get his act down, you must have really studied his videos.
A - That's how I did it. I have two videos that I look at. One of 'em is from 1984 and one of 'em is from 1976. 1976 is the Greek Theatre show in that year and it was called "Love At The Greek". That was an album he put out. That's when Neil Diamond peaked. He was about thirty-four years old, slender, fabulous voice. This was a guy who was twenty-eight, twenty-nine years old who was on the cover of Teen and Sixteen magazine. He was that good looking. He was known as the Jewish Elvis. To get it down where I felt I really nailed it and people came up and sincerely said "Hey, I closed my eyes and I heard Neil Diamond," that was about seven or eight years ago. Since then I've been getting better and better and better at it and getting better players. These guys are pro. We put down the sound that Neil Diamond does with his thirteen piece band with my five piece band. No problem.
Q - Does Neil Diamond know about you?
A - Yeah. If you look at my website, www.HotAugust.com, you'll see Corporate References. That's a link on my website. Click on that that it'll throw a page up and the first thing you'll see is a letter from Neil Diamond thanking me about taking care of one of his relations who went out to see me in Laughlin.
Q - Have you met Neil Diamond? Have you seen him in concert?
A - I've seen him in concert, but I've never met him. I've met a lot of his relations. He's got a cousin that comes out and sees us at a Concert In The Park we do just North of Pasadena (California). Anytime I do anything or have a message for Neil Diamond, I give it to her. She makes sure he gets it. Whether he ever gets it or responds, I don't know. But he did the one time and I've got the letter on my website to prove it. Whether I meet him or not, it doesn't really matter to me because I know the guy is really busy and probably gets hammered from tribute artists and look-alikes to get their picture taken with him. It kind of validates a tribute artist or look-alike when then can get their picture taken with the real guy and everybody can see how much they look like him. I don't rely on that at all. I don't need that kind of validation for my art and my music and what I do. I create a character and when the concert is over, I get out of my shirt, put my regular clothes on and people don't give me the time of day.
Q - You mean nobody has ever come to you and said "Are you Neil Diamond?"
A - I've had that when I'm waiting at the airport for an airplane. Usually somebody will play a joke on somebody. Usually it's a adult who plays a joke on their kids. "Hey, that's Neil Diamond. See if he'll take a picture with you." And they'll walk over with their teenage daughter or son and kind of wink at me and kind of play it up. Before they walk off I'll tell them, "I'm not really Neil Diamond. I'm a tribute artist," and I'll hand them my card so they can go to my website and see it.
Q - Some fans will go to a tribute artist's concert and pick up on every little detail. Is it important that you look like the artist you're paying tribute to?
A - 90% of a tribute artist is their look. Unfortunately that's just the way it is. There's tribute artists that do Neil Diamond, two of 'em I can think of, "Super Diamond" and "Fantastic Diamond". None of the guys in the band, including the lead singers, bear any resemblance to Neil Diamond what-so-ever. But they've got a nuance with their voice that leads people to believe, hey, that's a Neil Diamond kind of sounding voice. And that's it. That's about as far as it goes. There's guys that look better then me and there's guys that can sing better than me, but there's nobody on earth who can do the combination of the two. And there's nobody that has the killer band that I do. Everybody in my band has got a credential a mile long. I've got the guitar player from Chuck Negron that was the lead singer from Three Dog Night. Chuck Negron tours all over the world. I've got a guy who's got a music publishing company and owns a music agency and every note on the keyboards is precise, and the bass players I use all tour with Disco bands and high-end artists who were at one time high on the charts but now are just kind of middle of the road, but they're still considered national touring acts. I don't have any amateurs in my band. All these guys I use, music is their bread and butter. That's all they do. And they nail it. They really do. Matter of fact, I've got a chick that sings the duet "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" and she nails Barbra Streisand's voice. I've had a lot of girls in that spot over the years. This one I have now just totally thrashes it. She don't look a bit like Barbra Streisand, but she's young, she's sexy, she's slender, she's built, she's beautiful, she's pleasant and she nails that song.
Q - You could probably make her up to look like Barbra Streisand, but I'm guessing you wouldn't want that.
A - I think those new players don't really want to play a role or an act. They want to be themselves. They want to be known for their prowess with their instruments or their voice. If you're honest about it, it's a platform or a step-up in their career. I'm not saying "this is my band, that's it, you can't pose anybody else." No. Matter of fact, I let them play in other Neil Diamond tributes because I think it only helps their game. So, I'm constantly moving people in and out, but the ones I move in, if there's a vacancy for a spot for a couple of shows, they're usually better than the previous person or at par.
Q - When your financial backer saw you playing original material, what did that original material of yours sound like?
A - It sounded a lot like U2 or The Fixx or Pink Floyd. Kind of that early '80s vibe. He never even saw me play. The reason he wanted to get in on the game was he overheard some conversations I had with my then girlfriend, who is now my wife, talking about going down and doing an interview with a local DJ here on FM Radio which was Hit Radio at the time. His name is Rick Dees. He's known throughout the United States. He had his own program. I actually went down to his office to talk to his music programmer about putting some of my music on his playlist. When he heard that, that's when his eyes opened up. I already had the deals going with Capitol Records and I.R.S. (International Record Syndicate), Atlantic Records. I had all the turn-down letters they sent me while I was submitting things. He figured as I was talking to him, I said "If I had a little bit more money, if I didn't have to save up for a year to do a demo of one song to submit, if I can do several demos at a time and just get the ball moving quicker with a little bit more money, I can make it." That's what really cracked open his wallet.
Q - Isn't it funny, everybody wants to be in show biz.
A - They want to be in touch with people that do that because deep down I think they believe those people are blessed or special or extremely lucky or extremely talented. The truth is the matter is, it's a little bit of all of it. But they've got the genes to be a good singer or a guitar player or they're a good front person because they're charismatic because they draw attention to themselves. The truth be known, they are very, very hard-working people. This is a hard job to do. Unless you're at the very top, it's so stressful being at the top, you're constantly worried about falling off and not being able to make your $20,000 a month mortgage and a nice house in Malibu. So, the stress never leaves you. You've got to find solace in being on the stage and doing the things that a musician does or a singer does or a performer does, to make themselves that much better every other time somebody else sees them. So, last year's show has to be better than the previous or people will not go to your shows.
Q - You almost have the same stress as Neil Diamond, don't you?
A - I do, but I have the added stress of, oh my gosh, am I gonna make my bills this month? I hope I don't have to put tires on the car! That'll break me. I hope the air-conditioning doesn't go out in my house 'cause what am I gonna do? Load up my credit cards again? No. They're already at the top. He doesn't have that kind of stress, the day to day working man stress. His stress is different. It's more ethereal.
Q - Why do you think there continues to be such interest in Neil Diamond today?
A - It's his songwriting. Period. I had a girl sit in last night and did the backing vocals for us and she did the "You Don't Bring Me Flowers". She's a published songwriter. She plays with all the big heavies in L.A. as far as a big horn band and everybody's sight reading and she's classically trained. A lovely person. She came to me after the show and said "Dean, I didn't realize how cool some of these songs were until I started singing 'em." I said "That's right! These people who have been fans for twenty or thirty years, they're more open-minded than the average musician. When they hear something that touches them, they let it in immediately. They embrace it. They hang on to it. As a musician, now that you have to really dissect that music so you can get to do it onstage, you become a fan in itself when you learn the music on that level and you make it your own." She goes "Yeah, I think you're right! But I really dug doing it." I've done all sorts of gigs and I do my own stuff and she travels all over the country, and she flew out from the East Coast, landed in San Diego, did a gig and then that afternoon she drove four hours just to be at our Neil Diamond concert. He's a songwriter. He spent the first formative years of his adult life writing songs for a publishing company in Greenwich Village, supporting a wife and kids. What balls! He was probably working for nothing, unless he got something placed, which he obviously did and that started with The Monkees' TV show, "I'm A Believer". That was the first hit Don Kirshner picked off of Neil Diamond's repertoire for The Monkees to do and it was a smash. That got him out of hand-to-mouth for sure.
Q - How often do you perform with your act?
A - In the Summer time, two to three days a week. That's from June 'til about mid September. In the Winter time it's two to three shows a month.
Q - It slows down considerably in the Winter.
A - Yes, it does.
Q - You travel, don't you?
A - Yeah. I travel all over the country.
Q - Like other musicians I've talked to, the venue probably provides the back line of equipment you need. You don't truck your equipment across the country, do you?
A - No way. Everybody flies. That's why I maintain such a small band. It's easier to travel with me and four dudes than it is to have nine or ten people dragging stuff around. These are the guys that have cut their teeth and did the different gigs with me or did the off gig with me that was below the scale they normally make. It's a merit thing. So when the gravy gigs come up, and they get paid like they've been playing for two days, for one night for usually seventy-five minutes, I pick the guys that deserve it.
Q - For you, the turning point in your career is when you performed in Japan on a military base? Would that be an accurate statement?
A - Yes, I think so. That got me on more of a global view of things like, Hey, I made a lot of money doing this. America is not the only venue. Europe is big. England is really big. I've been to England twice. Canada is huge because they have all those Indian casinos there. In Canada there's virtually zero unemployment up there. Canada is kickin' ass! Everybody's got bucks in their pocket. So they're in the casinos spending money. They'll drop forty bucks to see the Neil Diamond tribute, but they want to hear one song, where out here in L.A. it used to be a good place to get a record deal or get in the movie business, but since YouTube and i-Tunes have popped up, there's no record deals anymore and L.A. is so spread out and people are so into their own lives that it's mostly a smattering of bedroom communities. There's no sense of culture. This is the wrong place for a musician to be unless he wants to hook up with other musicians. There's no gigs out here. They're everywhere else. There's still that 1980s Pay-To-Play thing. You go to a club in Hollywood and you want to book your band, they'll book you. They'll book you on a Friday night, but you have to buy tickets from the venue and re-sell them to get your money back.
Q - What does the future hold for Hot August Night?
A - The future is I have a special agent that I've hired to get my act on the Las Vegas Strip. She's flown out there three or four times to talk to all the big, heavy casinos. She knows everybody out there through her connections in other business and she is Hell-bent on getting my show on The Strip, either at The Excalibur, The Luxor, The New York New York or most recently The Venetian. Once our show is there, it'll probably be there for three to five years. Every night. One or two nights off a week. That's when the show is really going to be fantastic 'cause I've got pyrotechnics we're going to include, trans screens of the New York skyline going from daylight to dark, multimedia clips that are going to fly, all sorts of smoke and mirrors and costume changes in the same high-tech kind of thing you'd see in The Blue Man Group. We've got heavy duty investors. We've got talent. We've got a game plan. We've got a formula that works. We play a fair. There'll be four to five thousand people there. They'll wait for two or three hours just to get a seat in a good spot to see our show. We're that good. There's kind of gonna be the culmination of everything and hopefully I'll have enough money to retire or at least keep myself out of a State rest home. Even if I don't perform myself, I'll be in the music business or entertainment business in some way, shape or form, like opening up an agency or a backline company. I'd like to open up a little club myself. I know how it should be run because I've been in the ones that were run right and were successful and then ones that aren't run right and they're unsuccessful. So, I've got a good outline of it. I've also got a movie script written about what I've done. It's gonna be in the same line of Forrest Gump. It's gonna be humorous, but it's also gonna be tragic. It's gonna be a true story. That's gonna be a tougher sell. I'll have to meet another line of people to get that off the ground. That's in the works and I've written probably half of a book about my life in general. That's about it. The rest of it is just gonna be luck and the pick of the draw from here to there. I'll never work for anybody else again. You work too hard. You're unappreciated. And at the drop of a hat they can fire you and let you go. That's not gonna happen to me ever again. I'll stand on a corner with my hat in my hand and a tip jar and play with my guitar case open before I do that. The reason I can say that and be so smug is all three of my boys I raised are out of the house. They've got bigger houses than I do. They're doing quite well, so it's just me and my wife right now. And my wife is doing quite well. She's a corporate lady. I'm not saddled with bringing the bacon home anymore, so I can afford to go out there and do something I wanted to do for my whole life.