Drilling down to the emotional heart of the music is the touchstone for tribute artist Steve Richards, who will celebrate Neil Diamond's birthday with a concert Jan. 26 in the Mainstage Theater at Pheasant Run Resort on the border of DuPage and Kane counties.
Performing in the Midwest and around the world for more than two decades, Richards also has crafted tributes to the artistry of Elton John, Garth Brooks, Elvis and Billy Joel. His television work includes "America's Got Talent" and "The X Factor."
He said his concert will fall two days after Diamond's birthday, and will be a two-hour tribute performed without intermission.
The show will mark his first performance at Pheasant Run, where he recalls going as a child to see "Star Trek" lead Leonard Nimoy perform in "Visit to a Small Planet."
As he readies to take that same stage, it's bringing back some great memories, Richards of Geneva told Kane Weekend Editor Renee Tomell. The following is an edited version of the rest of their conversation.
Renee Tomell: How did you get into doing tributes?
Steve Richards: I started at 16 or 17 – imitating Elvis – privately … to the record. I didn't know if I was any good. A girl [convinced me] to do it in front of everybody. After that, that was it. I listened to him and watched him. Naturally, everybody wanted to be Elvis. I started to see what my voice was capable of doing.
Tomell: Talk about music's role in your life.
Richards: To me, it's a blessing. Music is so important in this world. It means so much in people's lives. Every time I felt bad, I listened to a song. lf I felt good, I listened to a song. [As Elton put it,] sad songs say so much.
Tomell: How have you prepared for your Neil Diamond homage?
Richards: I've see him at least 10 or 12 times. I've watched the videos. Most of his moves are very natural. [It's all about] the connection of the song to the artist. When you're singing these songs – anybody [whether] singer Tom Jones and Bobby Darin – you have to understand what the song [story] is about [in order] to connect to it [like] a two-minute movie. When I was in school and I was a geek, the only comfort I had was going to my music and finding salvation. I connected to the pain and the joy. Like Neil Diamond's songs' varieties of emotions – I connect to those.
Tomell: What do you try to give audiences?
Richards: I want to give people an emotional ride. If they haven't seen Neil Diamond – his life was to be in front of audiences. I want that connection there. I want them to feel [what] I call [an] emotional transfusion. And that's what it is. If I'm in pain because of the song, I want them to feel that too. There is strength, power, therapy … in the music.
It's going to be a big party for his birthday, celebrating somebody who's made … great music – a great entertainer and a good person all the way around. To do Neil Diamond is a great pleasure. I love his music.
Tomell: Will you be joined by other artists on stage?
Richards: We have an incredible band. I've been with these people for almost 29 years. We are a family. Everybody's having fun. I can't do it without them.
Tomell: You describe your tribute as carrying the torch.
Richards: I want that to be as authentic as possible. It is a tribute. It is also a declaration of what he is about and always will be when he performed in concert – nonstop excitement from beginning to end. The music stands now as it did [in 1969, when he released "Sweet Caroline"]. Certain songs will never ever lose their power. I listen to a lot of George Gershwin. [You] hear how the soul of the artist is captured. That's what makes these songs stick around forever.
Tomell: On stage, you wear shirts inspired by Neil Diamond's distinctive look. All the shimmer must weigh a lot?
Richards: They can be very heavy. It depends on how much sequins are in there. I have a special company. They hand make them for me. That's part of the Neil Diamond mystique.
Tomell: So many people have favorite songs by him.
Richards: We did a private show a couple weeks ago. [They had me sing] "Sweet Caroline" seven times.
Tomell: Have you met him?
Richards: I've never met Neil Diamond. He is very shy. A lot of people in this industry are very shy.
Tomell: You met Garth Brooks in Las Vegas, one of your tribute subjects, and got to sing "The River" with him onstage when he invited you out of the audience. What was that like?
Richards: There's a part where the music stops and the two-voice harmony sounded like we rehearsed it. He gave me a hug and the audience gave us a standing ovation.
If you go
WHAT: Diamond Live – The Tribute!
WHEN: 8 p.m. Jan. 26
WHERE: Mainstage Theater at Pheasant Run Resort, 4051 E. Main St., St. Charles, just west of DuPage Airport
INFO: www.pheasantrun.com, 630-584-6300