Local Neil Diamond tribute artist ‘really sad’ about singer’s disease

What does it take to be Neil Zirconia?

The Neil Diamond tribute performer — and alter ego of Delray Beach resident Chuck LaPaglia — takes to the stage Thursday in Wellington for a performance during the village’s weekly free concert series.

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LaPaglia — or is it Zirconia? — is known as “The Ultimate Faux Diamond” and has been a staple of the South Florida tribute music scene for a decade. But his path though life did not lead directly to the stage.

He answered questions for The Palm Beach Post on Wednesday before heading to a private concert in Naples.

What was your reaction when you heard about Neil Diamond’s recent Parkinson’s diagnosis and retirement from touring?

“That was really sad,” LaPaglia said. “It hit me hard at home because we had a family member, my father-in-law, who had Parkinson’s. And to think that Neil has to go through that — it’s just terrible. I know what he’s in for and it’s not pretty.”

RELATED: Neil Diamond’s first Palm Beach County concert might surprise you

How were you introduced to Neil Diamond’s music? 

“I’ve been listening to his music since I was young,” the 60-year-old LaPaglia said. “I started playing the guitar at 10. My father would tell me, ‘You’ve got to listen to this guy. He’s got great music.’ “

How did you become a tribute artist?

“It actually started when I was in a music store looking at a guitar to buy,” he said. “I never sang in front of anybody except my family and friends.” LaPaglia’s wife, Lori, asked him to sing a Neil Diamond song.

Who should overhear but an Elvis impersonator?

“He happened to be in the store and overheard me and came running in,” LaPaglia said. The faux Elvis told the soon-to-be faux Diamond that he should consider performing as a tribute artist. “Jokingly I said, ‘You look like Elvis Presley,’ because somehow those guys look like Elvis even when they aren’t working,” he added, laughing.

“Elvis” invited LaPaglia to play a show on Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach. “I was scared to death to do it,” LaPaglia said. “That was 10 years ago and we’ve been booked solid ever since.”

The timing could not have been better for the LaPaglias: Lori had been a successful artist, and the couple traveled the country selling her artwork at shows — until a family emergency brought them home to South Florida. Performing was the right door at the right time, LaPaglia said.

“The older you get, you’re like, ‘If I don’t do this now, I’m never going to do it,’” he said.

What is your favorite performance memory? 

“At the end of every show I sing ‘Coming to America’ and I dedicate the song to the veterans,” LaPaglia said. “Everybody — I don’t care if it’s 100 people or 2,000 — they all get on their feet and they all salute and they pay tribute to the veterans.”

It brings tears to his eyes, he noted, saying people approach him after the show to tell him their stories of fighting for the U.S. “Of all the things, I think that’s the most important part,” he said. “That’s what I look forward to at every show.”

What is your favorite song to perform?

“If You Know What I Mean,” he said, saying it reminds him of growing up in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa. But he also loves to perform “I Am I Said.”

“The crowd just goes crazy for it,” he said.

What is the crowd’s favorite song?

That’s a tie between “Sweet Caroline and “Coming to America,” LaPaglia said.

“I could go in and do ‘Cracklin’ Rosie,’ ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘Coming to America’ and I think people would be happy,” he added, laughing.

Have you met Neil Diamond, and has he seen your show?

This is a question LaPaglia said he gets a lot from his fans.

“They say, ‘He would love you.’ It’s Neil Diamond. He’s like, 50 years of all this music. What would he want to do with me?” LaPaglia said, laughing.

“We have a lot of parallel things in our lives,” he added, referring to the singer-songwriter who has written nearly 400 songs. “He was just as scared as I was to get on that stage.”

With such a busy schedule, how do you stay energized?

“The adrenaline from the performances,” LaPaglia said. “I would rather work than not work. It’s tough in the summertime because the pace drops down so much. You might do one show a week. … When you’re out there every night just running, boom, boom, boom, I love that.”

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