Dennis Svehla could probably recognize the opening strains of “Sweet Caroline” from a mile away.
The 55-year-old Poplar Grove resident has performed a Neil Diamond tribute act since 1999. He goes by the stage name Denny Diamond and the Jewels since his two sons, Lucas and Spenser, tour with him full time. Lucas plays guitar, Spenser plays bass and drum, and both do back-up vocals.
“We do kind of a ‘Six degrees of Neil Diamond’ act,” Svehla says. “Lucas will do a Buddy Holly song like ‘That’ll Be the Day,’ since Waylon Jennings was bassist for Buddy Holly and (Jennings) did a duet called ‘One Good Love’ with Neil Diamond in the mid-1990s. Spenser sings Waylon’s part, and I sing as Neil.”
Svehla grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and has distinctive memories of going home after school to listen to “Hot August Night” and “Moods” on 8-track tape and vinyl.
“I’ve always liked his music. I was in eighth grade and broke my leg. I was stuck on the porch, so I listened to all of his music. The song ‘Gitchie Goomie’ on ‘Moods’ was a favorite.”
As a teenager, Svehla did community theater and took voice lessons at McHenry County College, taking a particular liking to songs from Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. He got his start in the music industry when he was 19, performing with his brother in wedding bands. He also was a DJ and karaoke emcee for special events. It was during his karaoke days that audience members started telling him how much he sounded like Diamond.
“I don’t hear it at all, but other people think I do. I think if you put the two of us in a room together, we’d sound pretty different. I have a similar timbre in my voice. We’re both bass baritones. A lot of his songs are more musical-theaterish. That might be where people see the similarity.”
In 2000 he was on a Dick Clark Productions show, “Your Big Break,” and sang “Coming to America” from “The Jazz Singer,” the 1980 remake in which Diamond plays the lead character, a Jewish cantor who wrestles with becoming a stage performer instead of making the synagogue his career.
“They let people come on stage with me, it was really fun. Alfonso Ribeiro (aka Carlton from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”) was the host, and he came up on stage to interview me. I think I was in shorts and a T-shirt. When I came back out in a puff of smoke (to perform), I had puffed-up hair and a sparkly T-shirt. It was kind of a hokey show, but it was so fun.”
In August 2000, just before the show aired, Svehla’s tribute band – then called Denny Diamond and the Longfellows – played at a small English pub called Tavern on the Square in Woodstock and was discovered by Sean Kelly, a guitarist for Christian rock band Sixpence None the Richer.
Kelly asked if the band would open for them at the House of Blues in Chicago. The band was already booked, but Svehla eventually played with Sixpence in Nashville and other venues over the next 10 years.
Sixpence “thought it was funny that I didn’t look anything like him or act like him,” he said, insisting that his current touring act is solely a tribute, not an impersonation. “They liked that I just sounded like him. I didn’t dress up like Neil or approach it as being cheesy at all.”
The exposure led to attention from other celebrities, too.
“I had people like Rob Reynolds, Big & Rich and Keith Urban calling to ask if I’d play at their houses. … That was pretty neat.”
In January, Svehla recorded the title track for “Diamond Mountain,” an upcoming documentary about Neil Diamond tribute artists. The director told him that he didn’t have to sound like Diamond, “he just wanted me to belt it out. He told me, ‘I want you to do the song the way you sound, you have the chops to do this’.”
Svehla said that, at some point, he and his sons would like to team up with other musicians to record an original full-length album, including “Sentimental Nights,” which he wrote for his wife.
In the meantime, Denny Diamond and the Jewels began an 88-city tour this month, headlining at festivals, parks and performing arts centers. Svehla looks forward to singing the crooner’s lesser-known songs more than his radio hits and admitted that, if he ever finds himself in the same room as Neil, he won’t be starstruck.
“I really never think about meeting him. I think I’ve gotten everything I need from him already. If he called and said ‘Hey man, come on over for dinner,’ it’d be different.”
— Sarah Wolf