BRUNSWICK — Gary Gomez was a typical high-school kid in Brook Park during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He rocked to heavy metal and new wave music but kept part of himself hidden.
“I was always a closet Neil Diamond fan,” said Gomez, who today lives in Brunswick. “I could listen to the Iron Maidens of the world, but when I was home by myself, I listened to Neil Diamond and The Carpenters.”
More than 35 years later, Gomez, now 55, is lead singer in The Diamond Project, an 11-piece Neil Diamond tribute band that has sold out venues like Hard Rock Rocksino in Northfield and Music Box Supper Club in Cleveland. The group has performed in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, West Virginia and New York, among other states.
Tim Richissin, who plays rhythm guitar and mandolin in The Diamond Project, can barely comprehend the band’s popularity.
“When we played The Tangier (in Akron), we looked at each other and said, ‘This is nuts,’” Richissin, a 58-year-old Brunswick resident, said. “We never thought we would play Rocksino, let alone sell out there. We’re playing the Lorain Palace Theater, which has 1,400 seats, in February. It’s amazing.”
The band is beginning to record CDs, having performed Neil Diamond’s version of “Silent Night” for a Christmas collection of songs by local artists. The CD, called “Christmas Memories,” was released in December and is raising money for children with cancer at Akron Children’s Hospital.
The Diamond Project will have three tunes on a CD called “Just a Kid from Cleveland,” another local-artist compilation that will generate funds for children with autism and special needs. The CD is scheduled to come out in spring 2018. Also, the band plans to release its own CD of Diamond songs this summer.
Richissin, a retired Cleveland police officer, said his group is unique. While the world is abundant with Neil Diamond impersonators who sing to prerecorded music, The Diamond Project is one of the few full bands, with a horn section, that brings the entire live Neil Diamond experience to the stage.
Most of the group’s members have full-time day jobs. Gomez drives a truck. A doctor, lawyer and media-relations professional are in the band.
“We don’t make a lot of money performing, but it’s turned into a real love and family thing,” Richissin said. “We’re as close as a band as we are with family members.”
The Diamond Project, formed about six years ago, was Gomez’s vision. Ironically, he has less musical training than anyone in the band.
Gomez and Richissin grew up together in Brook Park. Richissin strummed guitar with friends down the street and never stopped playing, even after he became a police officer.
But Gomez, though he loved music, never learned an instrument. He took a few piano lessons as a child and tried the guitar and trumpet, but nothing stuck. He sang, but only in the proverbial shower.
After high school, Gomez was at a party when Neil Diamond’s “Hello Again” began playing on the radio. He sang along, just as a joke. A young lady told Gomez he sounded just like Diamond. His sisters said the same. It was something he would remember.
“Twenty-five years later, I was 45 or 46, sitting at my work desk, and I must have been going through a midlife crisis because I was looking at want ads for musicians,” Gomez said. “No particular genre. Lo and behold, I saw an ad for a five-piece, a Neil Diamond tribute, looking for a singer. It was an aha moment.”
Gomez auditioned with “Sweet Caroline” and landed the job. Not long afterward, the band ended up playing Richissin’s family reunion. Richissin was shocked to see Gomez in the group.
“Of all the things I thought Gary would be doing later in life, from the time we were kids growing up, a Neil Diamond tribute singer was not something I would have picked,” Richissin said.
Gomez stayed in the five-piece for about two years. The group performed in a few bars, but no large venues. Gomez wanted to increase the size of the group and add a horn section, to re-create the Neil Diamond concert experience. His bandmates resisted.
So Gomez and a former bass player for the band ventured out on their own, placing ads for musicians. It took them about eight months to assemble The Diamond Project — with Richissin’s assistance.
A chance meeting
Gomez had stayed in touch with Richissin over the years, but they rarely saw each other in person. Then they met by chance at the Brunswick Community Recreation and Fitness Center, and Gomez invited Richissin to join his new band. Richissin just laughed.
“l knew maybe five Neil Diamond songs at the time,” Richissin said. “I just never thought that a Neil Diamond tribute band would attract crowds. There weren’t that many Neil Diamond tributes out there. I always thought of singers performing to track music, like Sinatra or Elvis impersonators.”
Nevertheless, Richissin helped Gomez find musicians, most of whom are classically trained. Richissin remembers them first performing Diamond’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” during a rehearsal.
“The musicians just stopped, looked at each other and applauded,” Richissin said. “It was amazing once we got everyone together, to hear this thing work like we thought it would.”
When the group plays venues today, Gomez walks into and interacts with the audience, something Diamond himself doesn’t do much in large arenas. Gomez said that’s OK because he’s not a Diamond impersonator.
“That’s a good point,” Richissin said. “Most of us went to see Neil Diamond the last time he was in Cleveland. He walks back and forth on stage. He occasionally sits down and let’s the band do their thing.
“But the voice is just unbelievable,” Richissin said. “And basically, that’s the same thing we do. Gary’s voice is what makes this thing. They don’t care what he looks like. We do the fancy shirts every now and then, but that’s not what we’re after. We’re after the sound.”
After most of the band members experienced the real Diamond in concert, Richissin asked them if they were missing anything in their performance.
“To a person, everyone said that we do Neil Diamond justice,” Richissin said. “The way we perform him live, he could get up there and sing with us.”
For more on the band, visit thediamondprojectband.com.
Messages may be left for Bob Sandrick at (330) 721-4060.