Small-town boy hits the big time

Columbia native famous for impersonating singing sensation Neil Diamond will appear on late-night TV
Wednesday, August 6, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:22 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

After graduating from Rock Bridge High School in 1982, Theron Denson didn’t know what his life had in store for him. But after years of wandering the country and searching for himself, he found Neil Diamond.

“Only in America can a bald black guy impersonate a white Jewish guy,” said Denson, 39. “I’m not the originator, I’m the impersonator.”

As the “Black Diamond,” Denson performs about 10 shows a month, earning about $1,000 a show. Tonight Denson will make his national television debut, appearing on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Although Denson has never met Diamond, he hopes his appearance on national TV will change that.

Pamela Ramsey, whom Denson refers to as his sister — and who is white — said she always knew he would do something in the entertainment industry. Although they are not related, Denson lived with her family, the Livelys, when he was in high school.

“Living with the Lively family in Columbia may have been where I got some of that Neil Diamond influence,” Denson said. “They must have been playing it around the house.”

While attending the Church of Christ in Columbia, the congregation often told Denson he sounded like Neil Diamond.

“At that time, I didn’t know who Neil Diamond was; I thought he was just a guy at my church,” Denson said.

He never imagined he would become the “Black Diamond.”

Whether it was hearing the “Beautiful Noise” of Neil Diamond’s lyrics coming from Denson’s siblings’ bedroom or the influence of church, Diamond’s lyrics have stuck with him.

After graduating from Rock Bridge, Denson went to college in Oklahoma and then lived in California for 10 years. In 1998, he was out of work and living in Washington, D.C.

“I became a gypsy, just wandering around the country more or less,” Denson said. “I ended up being homeless, staying in dormitory-type housing … singing for tips.”

An article in a Charleston, W.Va., newspaper comparing Denson’s voice to Diamond’s changed his fortune.

Now, Denson has made singing and impersonating his full-time career. His most recent shows were at the annual Decatur Celebration in Illinois, where he drew thousands of spectators.

“If you would’ve shut your eyes and turned your back, you would’ve thought that was Neil Diamond out there,” said Bill Wood, chairman of Denson’s stage and volunteer at the Decatur Celebration. “I never before had the kinds of crowds my stage had this weekend.”

Denson said a mixture of feelings overwhelms him when he enters the stage, with lights beaming and the crowd cheering.

“The first few seconds I’m on stage, the audience kind of cock-eyed looks at me, like, is that guy lip-synching or is this guy really real? By the end of the song the audience is up on their feet, cheering and shaking their Bics. I love taking people from quiet and soon they’re up on their feet rocking.”

Being an impersonator was not a part of Denson’s plans growing up, and he certainly didn’t expect to get a call to be on national television. He first performed to a group of 10 women. But what started out as 10 has turned into thousands.

“The ladies went out like little spiders and just told everyone,” Denson said.

After about a year, “my life had completely changed from being homeless and wondering where my next meal was coming from sometimes, to being booked in the nicest hotels and resorts around the area,” Denson said.

Not only is Denson thinking of the lyrics and beat of the music, he continually is thankful for where he is today.

“Even though I am perspiring and jumping around like a headless chicken, I am thinking about how blessed I am to get to do something I really love,” he said. “I’m just having fun with it.”

Denson is planning a performance in Columbia in October.

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