Jack Powell shows how to become a profitable tribute artist, and he's here to share the secrets

click to enlarge Jack Powell turned his karaoke skills into a touring Neil Diamond tribute. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Jack Powell turned his karaoke skills into a touring Neil Diamond tribute.

It might not work for everyone, but Jack Powell has found a pretty lucrative way to make money during his retirement. And it's something that you just might be able to do yourself, depending on your singing voice, music taste and willingness to travel.

About three years ago Powell — a 71-year-old former motivational speaker — was touring the Southwest with his wife, Brenda. The two snowbirds spend summers on the South Hill of Spokane, and winters cruising RV and retirement resorts clustered mostly in California and Arizona. A natural performer after a childhood doing dance and playing in bands, and a professional life speaking in front of hundreds at corporate seminars, Powell would hit the karaoke stage when the opportunity presented itself. One night in Temecula, California, he did a version of Neil Diamond's "Holly Holy" that silenced the room, and inspired a resort representative to ask Powell if he had a whole show.

click to enlarge The real Neil performing in 1976. - JESSIE EASTLAND PHOTO
Jessie Eastland photo
The real Neil performing in 1976.

He didn't, and the guy persisted in convincing him to create one, telling Powell "you've got the stage presence. You've got the mannerisms." Powell borrowed a friend's karaoke machine and loaded it with as many Diamond songs as he could find, plus some other favorites to fill out a couple hours (Billy Joel, Kenny Chesney). The free show two weeks later packed the place.

"And the guy said, 'We'll pay you next time,'" Powell recalls in a chat at his Spokane home. "And I thought, 'OK, maybe I'm onto something here.'"

Indeed he was; in just a couple of years he's built up a schedule of doing 20-30 shows in retirement communities and small-town theaters while on the road for the winter — shows in which he takes home 80 percent of the ticket sales while providing audiences sick of Elvis impersonators with musical reminders of their beloved, and now retired, Neil Diamond.

Now, those retirement communities aren't always going to be full of Neil Diamond fans. Eventually, they'll be full of Taylor Swift, Kanye West and Lady Gaga fans.

That's where you come in.

Maybe you slay the crowd doing "Shake It Off" or "Stronger" or "Poker Face" at the Monterey Cafe every weekend. And maybe, like Powell, you're good enough to inspire people to ask if you're a professional singer. He's managed to turn his karaoke chops into a gig he says often leads to taking home thousands of dollars. Here's some advice on how you can, too. Eventually.

PICK THE RIGHT ARTIST

DIALING UP SOME
LESSER-KNOWN NEIL

We all know, more or less, the Neil Diamond standards that will dot the set of any Neil Diamond tribute act, whether it's a relatively new one like Jack Powell, or long-running band like Super Diamond. "Sweet Caroline," "America," "Forever in Blue Jeans" are all primo karaoke fodder and a must in any Diamond tribute act's set. But Diamond's written songs for decades, and some of them don't get the attention they deserve. Here are a few we'd like to see the next time a Neil deal comes around:

  • "Delirious Love." A gem from Diamond's Rick Rubin-produced 2005 album 12 Songs.
  • "Hey Louise." A slick bit of '80s yacht-rock pop from Diamond's The Jazz Singer.
  • "Memphis Streets." A jaunty number from 1969's Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show.
  • "Walk On Water." The version on Hot August Night offers plenty of drama for a tribute artist.
  • "No Words." A simple but winning love song from Diamond's 2008 album Home Before Dark.

Powell says there are a couple of reasons Neil Diamond is appealing to paying audiences. The launch of Powell's tribute coincided with the real Neil's retirement from performing, so he's providing a show fans can no longer get from the original source. Plus, "it's multigenerational. His songs are timeless, and his message is timeless. He's probably written about every human event you've gone through." A little online research told Powell there was only one other person doing a Diamond tribute in the West, and he used a live band. Powell briefly thought of using live instruments, "but you can't get the violins, the horns and the big-band sound," so he's sticking with backing tracks downloaded online.

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

Powell books his shows in retirement resorts because he knows people living in them are in dire need of fun nights out. "These are villages that are 55+ (in age), 3,000 people living in there, and they walk around, or ride in golf carts. They don't leave the resorts!" Powell says. "They have grocery stores, bowling right there. They have nothing to do, and they've got bucks to spend, so when you have a show, they all turn out." You get 500 people to spend $20 to see you sing your set of Garth Brooks, you're walking away with $8,000 if you make the same deal Powell does.

GO THE EXTRA MILE

When Powell first did the free trial show, he wore a black shirt and white jacket. Now that he's going full-Neil upwards of 30 times a winter, he wears a Diamond-style sparkly shirt and dots the show with stories about the songs. He also goes the extra mile to interact with the audience — a skill from his motivational-talk days — and even invites an audience member each night to be the Barbra Streisand to his Neil Diamond on "You Don't Bring Me Flowers."

"They have their 15 minutes of fame, and they're doing it for the resort or town they're in, it becomes a conversation piece," Powell says. "Like, 'I saw you on stage! You did a really good job!'" So if you're doing, say, a Nirvana tribute someday, be sure to load up on cardigan sweaters and grow your hair out appropriately. If it's too late for that, start investing in wigs now.

BE YOUR OWN AGENT

Powell not only contacts venues and resorts on his own behalf to book shows, but also tackles all aspects of promotion. He did a photo shoot early on wearing different dazzly shirts. He recorded several Diamond songs at Spokane's Amplified Wax studio to have samples on his self-maintained website. And he reaches out to media outlets like the Inlander on his own behalf, pitching his story. "I do my own bookings, I do my own insurance, my flyers and posters," Powell says. "It's all marketing. You've got to make it easy for them."

GET A SWEET RIDE

click to enlarge Comfort is key in the touring life. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Comfort is key in the touring life.

Powell and his wife travel in the nicest RV you've ever seen, one loaded with three TVs, a satellite dish, an electric fireplace at the feet of two recliners, even a washer/dryer. And behind it they pull an SUV that he can fit everything he needs for a show inside: sound system, stage backdrop, small lighting rig — even an American flag that dramatically unfurls when he pulls a string at the beginning of (you guessed it) "America."

Granted, not all of us can afford a plush home-on-wheels before launching our retirement music careers. But if your car is big enough to carry some sound equipment and a couple of costume changes, you'll be on your way to being the next Beyonce tribute in no time. You have a few years to work on it. ♦

Jack Powell: Neil Diamond Night • Mon, Oct. 7 at 7 pm • $30/$40 • Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox • 1001 W. Sprague • foxtheaterspokane.org • 624-1200

A Place to Call Home @ Spokane Civic Theatre

Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through Nov. 3
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About The Author

Dan Nailen

Dan Nailen is the managing editor of the Inlander, where he oversees coverage of arts and culture. He's previously written and edited for The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City Weekly, Missoula Independent, Salt Lake Magazine and The Oregonian. He grew up across the country in an Air Force family and studied at...