Lance Diamond prepares for his show in a storage room in the back of the Elmwood Lounge. He brings five different outfits for each night: hats, slacks, jackets, ties, shirts, even underwear. His back hurts, but he won't take the powerful pain pills in his pocket until much later.
Tonight, as on any Friday, people are streaming through the door of the Elmwood Lounge: singles, couples, groups -- some old enough to remember Sinatra, some only old enough to remember Nirvana. By 11:30 the room is full. Girls hold court at the tables while guys stand elbow to elbow at the bar, nursing beers.
"They'll wait for him," says Allison Gikas, who works the bar. "One week he was doing a wedding, so he came in late, like 1 o'clock in the morning. When he came in they gave him a standing ovation."
When Diamond hears himself announced, he exits the dressing room and steps up to a mirror just around the corner from the restrooms. Even after more than 25 years of performing, he needs to calm the butterflies in his stomach by breathing deeply. He points at his reflection and tells it, "There's no pain."
With that, he sprints into the main room, slapping the hands that reach out to him. He smiles as he steps up to the microphone. Backed by the Diamond Band, he does "My Girl," "Hot Hot Hot," "Copacabana," "YMCA," with barely a beat of silence between songs. Diamond rolls the mike stand out of his way as if twirling a dancing partner, a trick that never fails to impress the girls.
By the third song, Diamond is invisible: Dancers crowd the singer into a back corner of the parquet dance floor. Diamond keeps going, stopping only to flirt -- "I'd like to thank the ladies from 'Baywatch' for showing up" -- or to encourage the dancers to get cuddly during his version of the Commodores' "Easy."
Diamond won't take a breather until he reaches the end of his set 45 minutes later. It's the first of three sets he'll do tonight. He'll do three more Saturday evening. He has done them every weekend at the Elmwood Lounge for more than six years.
"It's a love thing," he explains. "It's three orgasms a night, you know?"
Why does Lance Diamond, a crooner and cover-band leader, draw capacity crowds of alternative rockers and baby boomers to the Elmwood Lounge week after week? He doesn't write his own material or play an instrument. He admits, "I can sing, but I'm not a phenomenal singer."
Collaborating with Buffalo's biggest rock export, the Goo Goo Dolls, has certainly given his career a boost. Diamond joined the band for a cover of "Down on the Corner," which appeared on their 1989 album, "Jed." He later cut "Never Take the Place of Your Man" and "Bitch" with the Goo Goo Dolls and eventually per-formed with them "everywhere from Pilot Field to the Essex Street Pub," according to Robby Takac, the band's guitarist. Diamond's biggest exposure to the alternative market came when he and the band sang "Bitch" on MTV.
"It opened him up to an audience that wouldn't normally go to see such a performer," says Rich Wall, programming director for WEDG-FM. "But once they do, they're hooked."
"I always wanted to be a great entertainer," Diamond says. "A lot of people have forgotten about that."
Diamond is reminding them. It's tempting to dismiss him as a Generation X in-joke: the gray-haired dude with the old-school cool, a local version of camp icons such as Tony Bennett and Barry White. But if young rock fans were initially laughing up their sleeves at Diamond's lounge-singer shtick, their attitude now is one of respect. In many ways, Diamond is the living legacy of several decades of popular culture that twenty-somethings know only from movies and TV shows.
Diamond's low voice is equal parts Isaac Hayes and James Brown, made slightly rough by years of menthol cigarettes. His natty outfits recall class acts such as the Spinners or the O'Jays. Donning his Captain Stubing outfit, Diamond becomes a "Love Boat" lounge singer. He's also part soul man, part Blues Brother, part funk-meister.
"As we see pop culture go back and forth," Wall says, "we see different fascinations with things that started in an older time, one of those being the lounge singer. Between Harry Connick Jr. and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, there's a hip appeal to such entertainment."
Wall himself helped transform Diamond from a local singer into a local landmark. While working at the Buffalo State College radio station in the mid-1980s, Wall played Diamond's solo material and brought the singer in for interviews. After Wall moved to WEDG-FM, he put together the yearly Edgefest concerts. Diamond played Edgefest this year, belting out David Bowie's "Modern Love" and the Psychedelic Furs' "Heartbreak Beat," backed by the Goo Goo Dolls.
"There's something very Buffalo about Lance," Wall observes. "He's got the fuel to go the extra mile, which is something that's pretty apparent with all the Buffalo artists, from the Goo Goo Dolls to Ani DiFranco. It's an intense feeling when you feel like every show could be their last show or their best show."
His showcase club
Drop for drop, Diamond has probably worked up more sweat than James Brown and B.B. King combined. He has been known to book nine gigs in one day. He picks up extra work doing weddings. Robby Takac, news anchor Victoria Hong and 10,000 Maniacs guitarist Jerry Augustiniak all hired Diamond to celebrate their happy occasions. But the Elmwood Lounge remains his showcase club.
"I'm there for one reason and one reason only," Diamond says. "To make people have a good time."
"It's not just about playing the music," agrees Rick Coons, Diamond's bassist. "He makes the club into everybody's living room."
"That's why I slap that hand," Diamond says. "It takes the edge off. I ain't out to steal your girlfriend, I'm here to make you have a good time with her."
"The fans are like family," says Diamond's longtime guitarist, Bill Texido. "People come back to interact with Lance. They want him to fuss over them, ask them where they've been."
Recommended by Lance
Diamond may be one of the most familiar faces in the city, but not much is known about him. He likes it that way. He declines to say whether or not his name is real. He proudly claims Buffalo as his birthplace, but will say little more than that he grew up in the Cold Springs area. His father still lives in the neighborhood and celebrated his 96th birthday there. Diamond himself might be in his 50s, but won't say. "I'm Mr. Diamond, that's how old I am."
Yet Diamond's arms seem open to everyone in Buffalo. "You cannot beat this place," he says, sitting outside Louie's Foot Long Hot Dogs at Elmwood and Hodge. "I love the trees; I love the changing of the seasons. I love the people. They've made me a part of this city."
Diamond holds office hours at Louie's, where the menu's chicken club sandwich comes "Recommended by Lance Diamond." Here, the singer has merely to sit down and light up a Salem 100 to receive numerous passing tributes.
A driver lays on the horn and waves. "If I had your money!" Diamond calls to him.
"How you doing?" says a young girl walking by. Diamond replies, "Much better, now."
Robby Takac, looking very much the rock star with his multicolored hair, pulls up in a boat-size convertible. "Are you going to be home later?" he asks. "Like, 6 o'clock? Can I come over? OK, I'll see you then."
Of all the Goo Goo Dolls, Takac is the closest to Diamond. They discovered each other when Takac took an apartment in the same building as Diamond.
"In my hallway, there's an echo," Diamond explains. "So I'd go out in the hall with a tape machine and sing." Takac, who lived on the floor below Diamond, knocked on the singer's door one day. "What's that sound?"
Diamond answered that it was a song he was working on. Takac replied, "I got a little idea for it." He fetched his guitar and the two began jamming together in Diamond's apartment. Eventually, Diamond and Takac were regularly hanging out, watching TV and playing music together.
"When I first met him," says Takac, "our band was much different than it is right now. We were sort of taking over the world a bar chord at a time. And he was intrigued by that."
"It's been one of the most interesting meetings of the minds I've ever experienced," says Diamond. "It showed me that music is a universal thing. Doesn't matter what color you are, what age you are. If you think young, you stay young."
The Goos' driver
Diamond became the Goo Goo Dolls' designated driver, often tossing the tipsy band members into the back of his car. Diamond himself gave up alcohol 15 years ago.
Diamond is happy to discuss the five-song demo he's preparing with Takac, but doesn't talk much about the Goo Goo Dolls. "I don't want to ride on nobody's coattails," he says. When the press came to Diamond for gossip about the departure of the band's drummer, George Tutuska, in 1995, they received a firm reply: "I don't know nothing about it."
For his part, Takac enjoys sharing stories about crashing on Diamond's couch and having late-night rap sessions in front of the TV. But he won't reveal what he and Diamond talk about.
"Oh, that's private stuff, man!" Takac says. "You know, he's one of the five people who have pretty much a running tab on my life. So what we talk about -- well, usually how I'm frigging things up. He's seen a few more balls drop than I have, and it's helpful just to have somebody listen to you."
A stash of pain pills
Takac has spent enough time with Diamond to know that the singer's ever-cheerful personality is genuine. But it is also an act. Diamond has suffered constant pain since 1986, when he fell down a flight of stairs after trying to break up a fight. The result was three broken discs in his back and one in his neck. Even today he regularly receives cortisone shots and keeps a stash of pain pills in his right-hand jeans pocket. Both make him so groggy he can barely talk, let alone perform.
"Just because he's moving around doesn't mean he's not hurting," Takac acknowledges. "There've been days when I'd be in his house and there'd be tears in his eyes -- but he'd be at the Elmwood that night."
One afternoon, the day after a cortisone treatment, Diamond sits at the bar in the Elmwood Lounge and confesses: "The thing that scares me the most is if this pain got so bad I'd have to quit. If someone said, 'Lance, where you playing these days?' And I'd have to tell them, 'I'm not playing anymore'?" Diamond shakes his head. "I couldn't handle it. I'd have to just leave."
Singing in the stockroom
Singing has been Diamond's passion since his pre-teen days. Phil Spence, a classmate of Diamond's from grade school through Burgard High School, remembers: "We used to go over to his house and he'd say, 'I want to hear how this sounds.' And then he'd sing. I wasn't into music, but I'd give him my attention because he seemed so sincere."
Diamond sang in high school, during his six years in the Army and while working at a JCPenney's. "I was singing in the stockroom one day and a guy said, 'Hey, you got a good voice.' " Diamond joined a couple of bands -- New Breed and Isaac -- before starting his own.
"I gave up a lot of jobs, a lot of good jobs, to be in this business," he says. "There's been so many women in my life who have been so helpful -- but they knew that my first love is music."
"I have to give you credit for sticking it out," Diamond's father recently told his son. "You may not have reached the level you wanted to reach, but a lot of the big places you wanted to play are now Rite-Aids."
Diamond has racked up more than a few honors: an affectionate note from the MTV host Kennedy; a platinum album from Warner Brothers for his work with the Goo Goo Dolls; a proclamation from the City of Buffalo designating Nov. 23, 1992, as "Lance Diamond Day."
"I think the saddest thing about my career is that I never got that big major deal," Diamond admits over a Pepsi in the Elmwood Lounge one overcast afternoon. There's not a trace of bitterness in his voice. In fact, he's in a terrific mood and has just picked up the tab for the 10 drinkers at the bar. "Deep down inside, I wish I had risen to the level of a Rick James or a Goo Goo Dolls. But so what? I'm still trying to please the people I can please."
Diamond is fond of saying that he measures success not by how high he rises but by how long he keeps going. Earlier this year, a picture of Diamond, standing in tuxedo and top hat before City Hall, went into the city's time capsule, to be opened in 50 years. More than likely, Diamond will be here to open the thing himself.