It's not like doing an Elvis. There, one twitch of the lip, one shake of the leg, and you're good. When you're Neil, you have to do it from the inside out.
"You have to get his mindset," says Jimmy Roussel, aka Jimmy Diamond. "I listen to his music with headphones, I try to get what message he's trying to relate. I study the box set to get the history behind the songs. 'America,' I can see Ellis Island. 'Cracklin' Rosie,' I can see a guy with a bottle of wine for the night."
Jimmy Roussel is a burlier man than Neil Diamond, but his voice has Neil's low tones, and he does what he can visually, by putting in brown contacts and applying straightener to his thick hair. His glittery shirts are made by a seamstress; the material comes from Wal-Mart and the pattern from album cover photos. These details help, he says, but the audience still knows the difference between impersonating and faking it. "They know if it's coming out of your mouth or out of your heart," Roussel emphasizes.
Roussel is part of a small-but-growing army of Neils who, in the past couple years, have begun to emerge from behind the long shadows of the Elvises. This exposure is thanks to Neil Diamond himself. Clearly flattered by the sincerest form of flattery, Diamond appeared right next to Will Farrell-as-Neil Diamond (and not far from Chris Kattan-as-Gay Hitler) on Farrell's final Saturday Night Live episode last year, leading off a sing-along of "Cherry, Cherry." Diamond also made a cameo in last year's Saving Silverman, an otherwise forgettable comedy about the frontman of a Neil Diamond cover band.
Other Diamonds are sprinkled throughout the country. Vegas has several, of course. The Milwaukee-based Lightning and Thunder work the Midwest circuit; they starred in the tribute-band documentary An Incredible Simulation, and Lightning, the husband in the husband-and-wife team, once joined Eddie Vedder onstage to sing "Forever in Blue Jeans." The most active Diamond is "The Surreal Neil," who fronts the California-based Super Diamond, a band that notoriously recreates the entire album Hot August Night.
But New Orleans is all Jimmy Diamond territory. By day, Roussel remodels kitchens as the owner of Kitchens by Roussel. Many of his fans, however, don't even know that name. One recent weekend, at JR's Sports Bar and Grill in Kenner, Roussel and a small entourage settled into a center table for karaoke night. When his name was called -- "Ladies and gentlemen, it's Jimmy Diamond, Neil Diamond's younger brother!" -- he strode to the club's designated stage, beneath a string of Christmas lights. Amid the pool games and bar chatter, he went to work, swaying back and forth, curling the microphone into his body, finally raising one arm toward the sky in triumph.
The magic worked. At least one patron was heard to say she never knew Neil Diamond's little brother actually lived, worked and frequented karaoke bars in New Orleans.
In truth, Jimmy Diamond was born only five years ago, during Roussel's first trip to a karaoke bar. By then, Roussel had already sung in church choirs and in a Chalmette band called "the Presidents" -- a garage band that never got out of the garage, he says. Against the taped backgrounds of karaoke -- the word's translation from the Japanese is literally "empty orchestra" -- he found his creative calling.
"I'm good at karaoke," he states matter-of-factly. "Where else do you go if you like to sing, unless you're in a band? The only drawback is the bars, the smoke, the aggravation."
With his wife, Patty (also a karaoke singer), Roussel makes the weekend rounds to clubs like JR's and Shooters in Fat City. He occasionally hosts karaoke nights, subbing for Joey Conner, whom Roussel calls the godfather of local karaoke. Roussel sees a bigger future for Jimmy Diamond, even though he's not exactly sure where to begin.
"What's the next stop?" he asks. "Where do you go? I have 45 minutes of music, I know what to say between the songs, but now what?"
Questions like these once prompted Roussel to call a local Elvis impersonator for advice. Here's what he found out: doing Elvis, this guy makes $150 a show, and does 200 of these shows each Christmas season. After doing the math, Roussel took out a Jimmy Diamond ad in The Times-Picayune. But it was as if no one read it at all -- not even the chair.
Such are the challenges of being Jimmy Diamond. Roussel has his tickets to this week's Arena concert, and they're not even floor seats; he had to purchase a big block, because his friends all wanted to come with him. So when the orchestra crescendos and Neil Diamond enters the stage, Jimmy Diamond will be far from the spotlight, watching, taking mental notes, singing under his breath.
"I'd like to meet him, bump into him at a restaurant," Roussel says. "I know he's a humble guy and he'll talk to anybody. I'd walk up to him and say, 'Hey, I'm Jimmy Diamond, Neil Diamond's younger brother. ...'"
Glittery shirts help, but the secret to becoming Jimmy Diamond (left) is to get into the right mindset.
Photo of Jimmy Roussel by Donn Young