Bands
June 15, 2014 • 11:28:11 a.m.

Diamond Dad: Head of Neil Diamond tribute band is all about family, on stage and off

By JAMI KUNZER - jkunzer@shawmedia.com

(Photo provided)

You'd think Denny Diamond's voice would make him stand out in a crowd.

When he takes the stage as a Neil Diamond tribute artist, as he's done since 1999, it does. But ask his children, and something else comes to mind.

"He's always laughing," said 24-year-old Spenser, who has been performing alongside his father for the past eight years or so. "If we were in a crowded room, I could hear him laugh. I would know, 'Oh, Dad is here.' That's how often he laughs. It's just so recognizable."

Laughter seems to have created a sweet – or you could say, "Sweet Caroline," – sort of harmony both on stage and off for this family rooted in Harvard. Hands, touching hands. Reachin out...

Laughter and a shared love of the oh-so-catchy music of Neil Diamond. Well, most of the time.

"Every once in a while, we'll be listening to the radio and his song will come on, and we'll be like, 'Change it. I played this song four times; I don't want to listen to it,' " Spenser said with a laugh.

Love on the rocks. Ain't no big surprise...

"It's never in a bad way like 'I don't want to do this ever again.' It's more like, 'Let's get away from Neil Diamond for a while and listen to something else.' "

Spenser's 26-year-old brother, Lucas, also takes the stage to make up Denny Diamond and the Jewels. Playing the bass and drums, Spenser sings a bit of Johnny Cash in the show, while Lucas, on lead guitar, performs a few Buddy Holly songs, sporting glasses that look like the iconic artist.

Their sister, 21-year-old Sarah, joins them occasionally, often singing "These Boots are Made for Walkin" by Nancy Sinatra.

It's kind of a Six Degrees of Neil Diamond act as the family performs mainly Diamond hits, throwing in other artists, such as Ricky Nelson and Glen Campbell, from his era.

"Occasionally we'll slip some new ones in. It's hard for me and Luke to figure out what's a good song from that time period because we don't know," Spenser said.

All living under the same roof – with Mom Janet and three dogs – the family spends quite a bit of time together on and off the road.

Denny Diamond and the Jewels performs three to four shows a week throughout the Midwest and elsewhere, traveling often to Florida and Tennessee.

"A lot of times, it can tear things apart for families," Denny said. "But I think the time we have together is good. We still sit at the table together and have dinner and go out and play together."

A full-time job – although Spencer and Lucas work part-time jobs, as well – the act has built up a fan base through the years. The group puts on lunch and dinner shows, entertaining crowds with both their music and their interaction.

"Really the way the show goes is very natural. It just kind of flows together. We hardly ever script anything out, and people notice. The way we smile back and forth, people have said it's like being in your living room. That's what we want it to be," said Denny, whose real name is Denny Svehla.

(Someone started calling him Denny Diamond years ago when he used to sing karaoke at Nicolino's in McHenry. "That kind of caught on, so I just left it. The funny thing is people always say, 'Is Denny your real name?' Well yeah, it's the Diamond that you need to ask me about.")

Coming to America… Harvard, specifically, in about 1995, the Svehlas weren't always a musical family. Denny worked as a computer programmer.

A love of Neil Diamond – since 1974 when he his mother gave him his first 8-track player and his first 8-track tape, Diamond's "Hot August Night" – and some karaoke performances led to an appearance in 2000 on Dick Clark's television show, "Your Big Break." The talent show featured contestants playing the role of their song's original singers.

Later that year, the pop band Sixpence None the Richer happened to be in town to perform at the McHenry County Fair and heard Denny perform on the Woodstock Square. The group helped him create a band for himself in Nashville, where he performed for years before joining with his children.

The group eventually would like to create an act in Branson, Missouri.

"We'd really like to give that a shot some day," Denny said. "That would be a nice little homebase to stop and play."

As for his children, Sarah enjoys taking the stage with Dad but wants to be a culinary chef, he said.

"A pastry chef," he quickly added as Sarah corrected him in the background. "Sorry, I said that wrong."

And yes, Sarah likes Neil Diamond too, ever since the day Dad took her to a Diamond concert – her first ever – when she was 10 years old.

"I definitely got it from him," she said of her singing ability.

"My mom, she can't even snap. … She's yelling at me now," she said with a laugh as she talked over Mom's muffled words. As for Dad, she gets a bit embarrassed when teachers introduce her as Denny Diamond's daughter and get a bit gushy over the singer.

But for the most part, she and her friends "think it's really cool that my dad sings for a living," she said.

"I would describe him as amazing because he's my dad. He's passionate about what he does," she said. "I wouldn't trade him for anything."

Spenser and Lucas are kicking around the idea of taking center stage once in awhile. Each wants to make a career of music.

"Dad's always like, 'I'll gladly go in the back and let you play,' " Lucas said. "We were trying to figure out how to open for ourselves. How do you be the opening band for yourself?"

Told by their father simpy to find a passion and commit to it, the two actually turned to music on their own, picking up guitars and jamming in the family's basement.

"There always was a supply of Neil Diamond CDs," said Lucas, whose favorite song is Diamond's "Thank the Lord for the Night Time." I get relaxation, it's a time to groove...

"We would sit in the basement and just figure out how to play the songs," Lucas said.

Friends would burn them CDs of more modern artists and suggest they give them a listen, but the boys knew what they liked. "That's what we stuck with," Lucas said.

One day, Denny heard them and asked if they'd like to join him. The trio performed on a float during the Settlers' Days Parade in Marengo and have been together since.

"People are always complaining. They talk about, 'My boss this, my boss that.' My boss is my Dad. I didn't have that problem," Lucas said. "I think technically Mom is the president."


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