Constable: Singer forever in Neil Diamond's wake will celebrate solitary man's birthday at Pheasant Run
Singer Steve Richards makes his living pretending to be famous people. Judging from the photos on his website, Richards seemingly has met nearly every celebrity except the one he'll portray during his show Saturday, Jan. 26, on the Mainstage at Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, where Richards will celebrate Neil Diamond's 78th birthday by performing the artist's songs in his Diamond Live tribute show.
"We've seen him," Richards says of Diamond, whom Richards has been impersonating for 35 years. "We haven't met him."
Richards and Jim Pearson, a guitarist who has accompanied Pearson for decades, have attended a dozen Diamond concerts, "basically to steal ideas," Pearson quips.
One year ago, Diamond, the singer-songwriter who gave us a half-century of songs including "I'm a Believer," "Sweet Caroline," "Forever in Blue Jeans" and "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," retired from touring due to his diagnosis of Parkinson's disease. Richards still feels a personal connection to the artist. "His lyrics are mind-blowing," Richards says, breaking out a verse from Diamond's "Morningside" ballad. "An old man died, and no one cried. He surely died alone. And truth is sad. For not a child would claim the gift he had."
During one of Richards' performances of "The Story of My Life," he says, "I cried on stage." Audience members did, too, he says. That's the power of Diamond.
"He's basically sharing his life with the rest of the world," says Richards, a Chicago native who makes his home in Burbank.
As a teenager, Richards was content being on the other side of performers.
"My father was an elevator operator in the Merchandise Mart," Richards begins. That's where Chicago Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet filmed TV's "Kup's Show," featuring celebrity interviews. A budding photographer, Richards would show up with a camera and take photographs of the stars, selling some images to news agencies.
There's a crisp black-and-white photo of a young Richards chatting it up with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. There's Richards with Paul McCartney. There's Richards hanging with George Harrison. There he is with a shirtless Alice Cooper. There he is with a bespectacled Elton John. That's him with Bob Hope. There he is having dinner with Roger "Jame Bond" Moore. There Richards is with The Beach Boys, Richard "Shaft" Roundtree, Curtis Mayfield, Barry Manilow, Jerry Lewis, Burt Reynolds, Robert Klein, Christopher Lee, Jonathon "Dark Shadows" Frid, Tiny Tim, Marcel Marceau, Liberace, Svengoolie, Vincent Price, Hugh Hefner, Michael Caine and Sean Connery. And there is that newspaper clipping from the night he was selected from a Las Vegas audience to sing a duet with Garth Brooks.
Taking photos and writing for his Northeastern Illinois University newspaper, a young Richards interviewed the former Beatle Lennon. "He liked me," Richards says, noting Lennon gave him the private phone number for his apartment in The Dakota in New York City.
"One time John called me, said he and Yoko were trying to make bread, and asked me, 'How do you make bread?'" Richards says, adding a British accent for authenticity.
Then there was the time Richards got an emergency phone call from Mayfield, the soul-singing R&B artist, during a late-night session at Mayfield's recording studio in Chicago. "He called at midnight to ask if I could get him pizza," remembers Richards, who phoned a friend at a restaurant after closing hours and got him to make enough pizzas to feed Mayfield, The Staple Singers and their crew.
It was while photographing an Alice Cooper concert that Richards realized photographers were invisible while the singers got all the applause and attention. "I kind of like this," Richards remembers thinking as he launched his own singing career.
Richards also performs tribute shows as Elvis, Elton John, Billy Joel and Garth Brooks, but he really carved out a niche as a Diamond impersonator.
"I started in 1984 when I saw an ad for a Neil Diamond Impersonator," Richards says. "I could do the voice."
Professional musician and jazz guitarist Pearson was teaching music in Lombard when he took out the ad after realizing the popularity of singers who impersonated stars such as Elvis and Frank Sinatra.
"Neil Diamond's stuff is different," says Richards, who resembles Diamond, especially when he wears his sequined jacket. "Nobody was doing it. It was an untapped market."
He says there are thousands of singers performing Diamond tribute shows now. But Richards says he never tires of performing Diamond's songs for fans.
"I love it," Richards says. "What we're doing is having fun."