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Documentary explores life of Lance Diamond, Buffalo's legendary music man

Lance Diamond had glitz. He had verve. He had a voice that became synonymous with Buffalo music during a career that spanned four decades. He also had a life that few people knew.

That changes – somewhat – this week.

Diamond, the famous local singer who died in January 2015, is the subject of the documentary “A Diamond in the Buff: The Lance Diamond Story.” The 80-minute film, co-directed by Buffalo native Kevin Polowy and Brandon Rae, premieres with a 7 p.m. showing July 20 at the North Park Theatre on Hertel Avenue in Buffalo. A Q&A with the directors will follow the film.

“He was this definitive local legend, this guy that loved soaking up the love as the big fish in a small pond,” said Polowy, who will be joined by Rae and Diamond family members for a red carpet arrival before the premiere. “It explores the notion of what it means to be a local legend, and this love affair between Lance Diamond and Buffalo.”

But Polowy is clear: This is a documentary, not a tribute film.

“It had to be true; it had to be a warts-and-all portrayal,” Polowy said, noting that the film explores Diamond’s triumphs and his disappointments.

“It’s hard to say how much of Lance wanted to truly become a national or even international star,” said Polowy, who is based out of Los Angeles. “He definitely hesitated to take advantage of certain opportunities that were presented to him. Guys would book him in Las Vegas and he would cancel shows at the last minute because he didn’t want to leave Buffalo.”

Polowy, who affectionately calls Diamond “a fighter,” is proud of a segment of the film that explores the singer’s role as a pioneer: Diamond was the first African-American performer to play in many clubs.

“He had to push,” Polowy said. “He had the charm and charisma and business know-how to basically force those people to pay attention to him and hire him.”

Polowy and Rae’s original intent wasn’t to make a Diamond documentary. Rather, they were developing a feature-length movie about a lounge singer who was “loosely inspired” by Diamond. Polowy approached Diamond about the role and shot some footage and interviews with the singer (who, as he learned, rarely gave interviews).

The duo put the project on hold for a while in late 2014 and early 2015, and it was during that time period that Diamond died.

“To be honest, in a lot of ways, we kind of felt a little indebted to him,” Polowy said. “We wanted to tell his story.”

Lance Diamond shone brightly in Buffalo’s music scene

At first, Polowy and Rae planned to make a short film. But as they started talking to people, the project evolved into a full-length feature. But that said, many of those closest to Diamond were hesitant to share much about his personal life — if they would talk at all.

“A lot of people didn’t necessarily know the real Lance Diamond – the real William Shingles,” Polowy said, referring to Diamond’s actual name, “because he kept his personal life so private. And if they did, they didn’t necessarily want to share it with us.”

So Polowy and Rae kept digging, trying to get as close as they could to Diamond’s core.

“This guy was kind of an enigma,” Polowy said, “and we wanted to see what we could do to break through and find out who the real Lance Diamond was — what his dreams and aspirations were, what his struggles were.”

Lance Diamond to be honored with trailblazer sign at Elmwood and Utica

Come July 20, we find out. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. There also will be an after-party at Milkie’s on Elmwood, one of Diamond’s longtime performance venues.

Sometime after the premiere, “A Diamond in the Buff” will have a theatrical run at North Park (dates are still being determined) and will likely be released later on DVD.

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