New Year’s Eve, 2010 was my mom’s 80th birthday. Having recently celebrated her older brother’s (my Uncle Fred’s) spectacular 80th birthday party, my three brothers and I knew we had to come up with something very special for our beloved mom, known to the family as Juice or Grandma Juice (real name: Joyce; I believe her nickname was bestowed upon her by her little brother, my Uncle Lyle, better known to the family as Uncle Buddy or Uncle Butts. Yup; we’ve got some funny names in my family — and on both sides. I had a relative on my dad’s side of the family named Ada Bean).
My mom is crazy about Neil Diamond. She LOVES Neil and his music and has even seen him in concert a few times. An idea was hatched: I know lots of people in the music business. I would approach several of these guys, get contact info for Neil and either have them ask him or call him myself to see if he would phone my mom at her birthday party to wish her “Happy Birthday!”
All of my friends and music biz connections gave me the same answer to my request: “No way! I would never bother Neil with something like that. I’m sure he has much better things to do on New Year’s Eve than to call and talk to your mom.”
Shot down, I went to Plan B: Hire a Neil Diamond impersonator. On Neil’s site there is a link to officially approved Neil Diamond impersonators…er, tribute artists. I contacted several local ones with my proposal for them to perform at my mom’s birthday party.
The first bid came in at $20,000 (part of the problem with the prices I was getting was the date: New Year’s Eve, probably one of the busiest and most booked nights for tribute artist performers).
Now, I truly love my mom — but HEY! 20K!?!? I also began to rethink this tribute artist thing. I became worried that the party might possibly become about the Neil show and not about whom it should be about: my mom.
OK; time for Plan C. A lot of people have remarked on how much I looked like Neil Diamond. I sing, too. Hey! I could be Neil at my mom’s party! I pitched my brother John on the idea. He thought it was a good one.
I started doing clothing research and then called my dear friend, costume designer (Reba, The Nanny) Terry Ann Gordon. I explained my plan and asked her where I could purchase a Neil Diamond shirt.
This was her response:
“This is how much I love you, Bill: I HATE Neil Diamond — but I’m going to make you that shirt.”
The following Sunday Terry showed up at my figure drawing workshop with handfuls of Neil photos plus lots of fabric samples. Our resemblance was eerily close in some of the photos she showed me:
- (The Real) Neil Diamond
- The Real Neil again — Him & Me: separated at birth?
I picked a shirt style and some great fabric (blue sequins!) and Terry went to work.
When the shirt was finished, she gave me a call and I came over for a fitting and to see the shirt.
When I got to Terry’s house I tried it on. This is how good she is: she made no measurements at all and I never told her my size — yet the shirt fit me perfectly. Yikes!
It was magnificent. The shirt was covered in blue sequins and then lined with a soft blue fabric (“So that the sequins don’t slice you to shreds!”). Terry even added some incredible blue beaded fringe to the arms. I put that baby on and I became Neil!
For two months prior to New Year’s Eve I began planning my act and practicing my performance. I initially chose six songs to sing that evening. I cut one of the songs after realizing my old arch nemesis, my difficulty in memorizing lyrics, was rearing its nasty little long forgotten head.
I worked and worked on those songs. I bought six different Neil Diamond karaoke CDs and culled the best backing from them for each of the songs I had chosen. I watched three different Neil Diamond concerts over and over, committing to memory each of his stage moves. I worked on capturing that slight cracked roughness to his voice and his own particular enunciation of the words he sang. I learned all of his spoken intros to the five songs from Neil’s Hot August Night, my mom’s favorite album, as well as the strummed guitar parts that accompanied his intros. I worked hard on the timing of my vocal entries on each karaoke track (since I had memorized all of the lyrics, we didn’t need the traditional karaoke visual cues; everything was pure audio).
I also rewrote the words to Neil’s most personal song, “I Am…I Said” so that they applied directly to my mom’s sad but ultimately triumphant life.
My cousin Dianne (my Uncle Fred’s daughter) was the instigator of this whole event. Once it became a “Go” project, she relentlessly pumped me for details regarding the upcoming party. Around Christmas time I told her and my other female cousins and sisters-in-law that we were going to have “a very special guest” performing that evening. This “special guest” requested that they perform on New Year’s Eve as back-up singers. I told them what songs they needed to learn (I also printed up lyric sheets for them with their parts in red): “Cherry Cherry”, “Song Sung Blue” and “Sweet Caroline”. I kept them all in the dark as to whether or not (the real) Neil Diamond was going to show up — right up until the moment of the performance.
Then, a series of disasters struck. I got a nasty cold on Christmas Eve. I was pretty much bedridden on Christmas Day. After several miserable days I finally began to recover from the debilitating cold when I was in my music room practicing the Neil Diamond songs (I was now dreaming them on a nightly basis). I had a pile of CDs on the floor. My little long haired miniature dachshund Spunky is fascinated with and obsessed by shining lights. He kept seeing light reflections from the CDs. In short time he was stomping through my little CD pile, trying to get to the lights. I brushed him away and he bit me. Furious, I pushed him away. He responded by attacking me, mostly biting my left hand.
The first bite was the worst. He had bitten my thumb almost to the bone. Despite the fact that only 5% of dog bites get infected (sometimes their saliva even works as a healing agent), my thumb bite got infected almost immediately. By midnight my left hand was a mass of throbbing pain. My thumb had swollen to twice its size and I could no longer move it. I had an ominous red line running up my arm from my thumb.
My only thought was: I could no longer play guitar!
My wife gave me some antibiotics — which didn’t help. She looked up dog bites in her computer’s medical reference site (my wife practices medicine), found the correct antibiotic to use for dog bites and got me a prescription for the medicine. She told me that if the red line didn’t disappear, I would have to be hospitalized. I knew that meant I might lose my thumb — or, possibly, my hand or arm.
The medicine almost immediately made me projectile vomit and gave me severe diarrhea for the day — a typical side effect of this particular antibiotic.
But it began to work.
The Big Day arrived. New Year’s Eve morning was the first day that I finally regained the use of my thumb, enough so that I could play guitar. My wife Kent and I went over to the Community Center in Camarillo where the event was taking place. We arrived early so that I could see and assess the performance space, plan my surprise entrance, test the microphone and inform my brothers as to their audio-visual duties. We tested the karaoke disc as well. It began with Neil’s entrance music from Hot August Night. My brother John came up with an appropriate intro for “Neil”. My brother Bob manned the CD player. My brother Dave arrived late, just before my mom, so he didn’t do a damn thing but grin.
At about 7:30 PM it was decided among us that it was time for Neil to appear. Knowing my lyric remembering difficulties, as a little insurance I had taped four index cards to the microphone stand. Each card had the first two words of each line of each song as a little memory booster.
My plan was to sneak off and get dressed, then wait outside the door that was next to my microphone. Upon hearing my intro “…and now, Ladies and Gentlemen — NEIL DIAMOND!” my brother John was to open the (locked) door and let me in.
I got dressed, strapped on my guitar, went outside and immediately had a Spinal Tap moment. Not only was there no way for me to get to the entry door from outside the main building, I had locked myself out of the building! Fortunately, one of my brothers heard my frantic knocking and let me in. I was able to quickly find my way to the exterior door from the inside of the building.
Bob started the entrance music. John gave me a great intro, as well as a terrific intro for my back-up singers, The Diamond Dolls. John said the magic words and let me in. I entered with my back to the audience, keeping Neil’s true identity a secret until after I had plugged in my guitar and spun around to face the seated friends and family.
The backing track for “Cherry Cherry” began. I stepped up to the microphone and all of the planning, memorization, vocal inflections, stage moves and intro timing came together beautifully — and flew right out of my head!
I couldn’t remember a thing. The only lyrics I could recall were being sung at the wrong parts of the song. I was in the middle of and an instigator behind a total fiasco!
Then I heard these great back-up vocals coming from the Diamond Dolls (my wife, my friend Virginia, my cousins and sisters-in-law). They were amazing! Besides really belting out the back-up chorus (in tune), they were doing synchronized dance moves! I was astounded! Inspired, I pulled myself together a little bit and began to sang.
Unfortunately I began to sing with them on their parts, forgetting what “Neil” was supposed to be singing. Fortunately, I had made those lyric cheat sheets, so I looked down at them to spur my memory. Unfortunately, the only lyrics I could remember were the first two words of each line — because those were the only words I had written down to remind myself!
We got through the first song. I was shell-shocked and must have had a total deer-in-the-headlights expression stamped upon my face. But then, inspired by the performance of the Diamond Dolls and the great response we got from the party goers despite it all, I quickly regained my composure, philosophically thinking, “Hey! It can only go up from here!”
I gave Bob a nod and began “Solitary Man”. I mumbled through the verses which no longer occupied a part of my brain but hit hard on the chorus, giving it my all.
“Song Sung Blue” followed. I forgot the intro I had practiced so much but I got The Diamond Dolls back up on stage and got the audience to sing along. Everyone loved this great singalong number and had a fun time.
In character as Neil, I made an announcement:
“My next song is my most personal. I don’t usually approve of any tampering to my creations but when Joyce’s son Bill showed me that he had rewritten “I Am…I Said” so that it related directly to his mother, I agreed to sing it.” Well, that’s what I had planned to say. I’m sure I said something kinda similar that roughly conveyed the same meaning. Because “Neil” was not expected to memorize my rewrite, “Neil” was allowed to sing from a lyric sheet. At least this song would go well.
My back-up music began playing and I began singing at the wrong spot. Flustered, I had my brother Bob restart the song — which, as it turned out, was very difficult for him (or anyone) to do. He and John finally got it restarted and I still came in at the wrong spot — but I punched it hard on the chorus, giving it my vocal all. I was told that everyone was crying in response to my rewritten lyrics (although I suspect my desecration of this great song may have inspired the majority of those tears).
After “I Am..I Said” I thanked everyone and announced that this was the conclusion of Neil’s performance…unless there was, perhaps, an important song I might have forgotten to sing.
Without hesitation my mom blurted, “What about ‘Sweet Caroline’? It’s my favorite!”
I nodded to my brother Bob and the electric piano to “Sweet Caroline” began. The Diamond Dolls and I encouraged the entire audience to sing along with the hit’s famous chorus.
I forgot a lot of the lyrics but the spirit was very high in that room. It was perhaps the goofiest Neil Diamond impersonation in history, but my friends and family knew where it was coming from (deep in my heart) and everyone seemed to truly enjoy the show — perhaps even more than if it had gone off without a hitch.
My mom came up to me right afterward and confided, “You know, I know all of Neil’s songs by heart — and I was forgetting the lyrics, too. You were great, honey. You sang so well!”
Moms. They’re the greatest.
At least mine is.
This whole Me as Neil fiasco will shortly be forthcoming as a YouTube or FaceBook video so that you (and Neil) may watch in abject horror.