"In the nightclub culture, people don't sing together," says Mike McKinney. "People go and dance or nod their heads or go 'Woo!' after every song, but they don't sing together. It feels really good when people do that." He should know. We're sitting at a dimly lit table at the Orange County Social Club, a bar in which McKinney holds court often, and he's explaining to me what drove him to perform Neil Diamond songs with a seven- to eight-piece band twice a year in Chapel Hill.
Neil Diamond. Correct. N-E-I-L D-I-A-M-O-N-D.
Let's back up. McKinney is known by friends and acquaintances as Jack Whitebread, a name he was given after arriving in Chapel Hill 17 years ago, and for the record, "I actually wish people would stop calling me Whitebread." He is the frontman and driving force behind the Neil Diamond All-Stars, a biannual band of local musicians whose lineup shifts from performance to performance. There are plenty of opportunities for Triangle residents to see cover bands; Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Dave Matthews Band (sadly), and Grateful Dead (incessantly) tribute bands come here on a regular basis, and The Great Cover-Up held every December at Kings allows various local bands to cover various famous bands over three nights. But there are few, if none, Neil Diamond tribute bands, and even less Neil Diamond tribute bands that have only performed eight times in seven years, with various local musicians coming and going from the lineup at McKinney's will.
Born in Texas, McKinney started traveling at an early age. His parents moved around a lot, so he grew up "all over the country-- California, Oregon, Washington, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, two years up in Canada." He settled in Bloomington, Ind., for a while, leaving occasionally to live in Memphis and Charleston. But after running into hard times in Bloomington (hard times in this case being unable to find a job for a year and a half), he set his sights on Chapel Hill, where a friend, Kirk Ross, from current local band Lud, who according to McKinney is responsible for the "Jack" part of his moniker, had moved.
"I called [Kirk] and I said, 'If I were to move down there, how long would it take me to find a job?'" says McKinney. "And he said, 'Oh, probably up to six ... ' and I thought he was gonna say weeks, but he said, 'Hours.' And I said, 'Wow, I'll be there next week.'"
It only took him two hours to find employment when he moved here, and soon he was calling Carrboro home. Thus Orange County was introduced to a man who would become one of its most unique characters.
Enter Neil Diamond. McKinney was not a huge Diamond fan growing up, but he was exposed to the illustrious performer through his father's copy of Hot August Night, the live album Diamond released after he "retired" in 1972 (in case you've been under a rock, the man is in the saddle again, "still going strong," McKinney says). As he grew older he began to appreciate Diamond's oeuvre, and an idea formed at a party thrown for him in Bloomington before he moved to Memphis for a summer.
"The night before I left town, somebody had a going away party for me, and I wasn't enjoying the music that was being played at the party," McKinney recalls. "Well, I had everything I owned out in my car, including my Neil Diamond records. So I went out and got a Neil Diamond record, came in, put one on. ... I think I put on 'Sweet Caroline.' When the song first started, I think about 30 people groaned, 'Oh, God,' but within about 30 seconds, all those 30 people were singing along."
As the clamor of the party and naysayers' cynicism were drowned out by " ... reaching out/touching me/touching YOOUUUUUU ... " it hit him: "Wow, play Neil Diamond and everybody sings along ... that would be a neat band, somebody that does only Neil Diamond songs." Five years would pass before McKinney himself would take up that torch, providing a setting in which people could drink beer and relate to each other through overwraught, slightly familiar songs.
"When people in that audience are singing along with 300 other people, these great, fun songs, they just feel good," he says. "And sometimes they don't even realize they know the songs. When I tell people to come to the show, they say, 'I don't know any Neil Diamond songs', and I tell 'em, 'Yes you do. You won't remember til you hear 'em.'" In his mind, "Kentucky Woman," "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" and "Cracklin' Rose," among others, have seeped into a generation's collective psyche through AM radio and their parents' record collections. So when he moved to Chapel Hill, the planets aligned correctly for McKinney--the time was ripe for a band who would perform these songs and pay tribute to the besequined performer.
Living in Carrboro provided plenty of top-notch musicians whom McKinney grew to know and love. He wanted to get different members of his favorite local bands to play together, and this band he envisioned would provide a vehicle for such a scenario. Hence the name: "The reason it's called the All-Stars is because I have so much respect for the musicians involved," he states. As for his role as the Flamboyant One, McKinney had to do it, but he was frank with himself. "I thought, 'I'm not a very good singer, but if everyone else is singing along it won't matter. And if they're in a bar they're probably drunk, and they won't care!'" he says, laughing.
Their first show was opening for local fried-chicken flingers Southern Culture on the Skids at the Local 506. McKinney, by his own description, was "terrified."
"Most bands play their first show to 10, 20 people, and most of them are their friends. I played my first show to 300," he remembers. "I sang the songs, stood perfectly still the whole time, barely moved, barely did anything, then got offstage and thought, 'Now I need another beer.'"
The entourage has slowly grown in popularity over the years. Countless members of the musical community have served time in the All-Stars. Their audience has grown enough to warrant moving the shows from the 506 to the larger Cat's Cradle, and now 21-year-old frat boys stand side by side with hardcore Diamond fans, drenched in irony and ecstasy, respectively, at McKinney's altar of genuine schmaltz. He is acheiving his goal of bringing people together through song (sung blue), and now the public is clamoring for more.
"Every time I do this show, people tell me I should do it more often," McKinney states, "My answer's always the same; it really takes me about three months to organize the show, when you've got, you know, eight or nine people in your band, and they're all in other bands so you gotta work with all of their schedules. And it's just a hobby."
With three months to work with, McKinney has to find a band--he books the show first, then decides the lineup. Different roles in the band change at his whim, with no hard feelings between anyone. He just wants to involve people that he likes and hasn't played with before. Choosing the songs isn't too hard for him; the band usually does 14 to 17 songs, consisting of the hits up until Diamond's retirement in 1972, with the exception of "America": "You gotta do 'America,' because it's such a crowd pleaser. Everybody in the audience wants to sing along to 'coming to America.'"
The band gets a CD of the songs McKinney has chosen, but amazingly, they don't start rehearsing until two weeks before the show. It's not as hard as it sounds, he claims, as a lot of the songs have similar structure, so the musicians just need to learn a few patterns and adjust those patterns to each song. "And I've always got such good musicians that they just figure it out," he says.
Preparation on the day of the show begins at 8 a.m. McKinney arranges soundcheck times with band members, makes sure the lighting at the club will be sufficient, and buys lumber for the 2 1/2-foot-by-6-foot platform that he builds and extends from the stage every time they play. This platform provides more room for McKinney to fully experience the audience, and vice versa.
Pre-show rituals include wandering through the crowd thanking people for coming, changing outfits, drinking a six-pack, throwing up. ("It's a ritual, man. I've got butterflies in my stomach; I've got to.") The band starts playing, McKinney hits the stage, and from then on he basks in the white and sometimes red or blue light of the live entertainment utopia: "I'm the guy. I'm who they came to see. They didn't come to see this guy or that guy, well, maybe somebody came to see the bass player, 'cause he has a crush on her, or something, but they came to see me, and it just feels really good," he sighs. "When I get a good beer buzz on, just opening my mouth, something fun will come out. So I'll keep everybody entertained for the most part."
It's blindingly obvious that Neil Diamond is McKinney's favorite artist. He's only been to two stadium concerts, and both were Diamond shows. Last year when the performer came to the heinous new thunderdome in Raleigh, McKinney had second row, center stage seats. You can imagine his excitement.
"Man, that was incredible. The whole time that he's playin', he's about 10 feet from me," he says. "Absolutely, absolutely amazing." When I mention that my girlfriend won tickets to that particular show that day but I was unable to go, McKinney groans--he's more upset than I was about it.
Love him or hate him, one has to acknowledge the uniquely obssessed fans Neil Diamond spawns (brilliantly captured in a recent, highly recommended documentary called Neil Diamond Parking Lot). For some of us the infatuation may seem odd. "What's wrong with these people?" we may ask. "What has he got that, say, Lawrence Welk or Burl Ives doesn't have, other than still being alive? I mean, 'Turn on Your Heart Light'? Jesus ... explain yourselves."
"Not only are his songs really good and fun and easy to listen to and easy to sing along with," McKinney explains, "but also he's just a really nice guy, and it comes through. The guy's never been in trouble for drinkin' or drugs or anything, and he's been on the road for years." Decency embodied, McKinney conveys. Diamond takes care of his people and his fans. Like McKinney, he seems to derive pleasure in binding masses of people together with messages of innocence kept and hearts mended. A valid undertaking, perhaps prompting forgiveness for reprehensible creations akin to E.T.'s theme song.
The inevitable question left to ask is if McKinney has ever met Neil Diamond. Such a rendezvous could bend the space-time continuum; how many dopplegangers encounter their inspirations, and what would they talk about? In this case, the Diamond/Whitebread colloquium has not yet come to pass, and McKinney addresses the possibility with respect toward his favorite singer.
"If I were to meet Neil Diamond, I'd like to meet him in a coffee shop, where I'm sittin' havin' coffee and there's no other seat, and he wants to sit down so he asks me if he can sit at my table, and he sits down and we chat. That's how I'd like to meet him," he says. "I wouldn't want to meet him backstage and say, 'Oh my god, you're so great, I love you' and all that shit." He's such a fan that he'll front a tribute to Neil Diamond, but he's conscientious enough to recognize that Neil's got plenty to deal with, what with those hundreds of thousands of deranged individuals wanting to give birth to his children.
So that's that. This man, this Bud-drinking, enormous-Cadillac-driving (I mean MASSIVE--it's longer than some SUVs), all black-wearing Everyman, wants to make people happy. He wants to bring together musicians that he's met in the thimble-sized bar scene of Carrboro/Chapel Hill. He wants to bring middle-aged Diamond fanatics together with college students who've been introduced to the performer through Saving Silverman, the brainless Jack Black film from a couple years back, or Urge Overkill's not-so-tongue-in-cheek version of "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon." Sure, he gets to bask for a couple hours in a limelight created by someone else, as all tribute bands do to an extent, but does that matter if he's making people sing together? This isn't about perfect pitch or recreating entire Neil Diamond sets ("Cleveland 3/19/71, dude") or even making money off such a massive, albeit informal, production. It's about intent, and sometimes, but not often, intent carries more weight than execution.
And for McKinney, it's sometimes about the premier details.
"Right now, as we speak, I have no idea what I'm wearing for the show this year. No clue."