BOILING SWEATY SOUL : Derek and the Diamonds Are Hardly Your Average Cover Band

<i> Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly writes for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

If there’s one breed of musician that music critics typically despise, more than Phil Collins, even more than Whitesnake, it’s cover bands. Most often turning out dead, rote versions of other performers’ mediocre efforts, average cover bands toil not, neither do they swing.

Which makes it just a bit out of the norm that, to this critic’s ears, the most exciting Orange County band of the last couple of years is a cover band which typically can be found plying its trade at upscale coastal clubs.

But, though their material is chiefly familiar hits, to call Derek and the Diamonds a mere cover band would be like saying Muhammad Ali was just some guy who hit people.


Singers Derek Bordeaux and Venson Quarles seem incapable of performing at less than a simmer, and more often than not their open-hearted, entwined soul vocals boil over with emotion. They and the rest of the seven-piece outfit have that all-too-rare quality of being thoroughly alive onstage, with the music--no matter how timeworn the song might be--being born in the moment.

A song is never played quite the same way twice, and if it feels right, the number might jam on and grow for 20 minutes. It scarcely matters that Al Green or Bobby Brown may have written the song; by the time they’re through, Derek and company have purchased it with all they have to spend.

Along with the dance-floor momentum they generate, it is not unknown for the Diamonds to move listeners to tears. And listeners aren’t the only ones.

“Sometimes I almost cry when we’re singing,” Bordeaux said, “and that can happen three or four times an evening because I know when it feels right, and Venson and I will get eye contact and know exactly what each other is thinking. And it’s too heavy for me.”

The band has some deep roots. Cousins, Bordeaux and Quarles have been singing together since they were children. Bordeaux’s brother Byron is the band guitarist, while drummer Gary Wing and sax player Karl Denson have been friends and musical associates since grade school. Rounding out the group is keyboardist Francisco Loyo and bassist Gerardo (Lalo) Carrillo.

In this digital age, most club bands with an eye toward earning a living have few members and lots of electronic augmentation. The Diamonds head in the opposite direction.

In a conversation recently with Derek Bordeaux and Quarles at the former’s Santa Ana home, Bordeaux said, “I don’t want to have that programmed stuff live, because then there’s no spontaneity. We’d like to make more money, yeah, but we want to be proud of what we’re doing. It’s so easy to sound like a CD with all of the technology that’s around. But it’s so locked in when you’re computerized, you can’t change. I want players who can jam and change. . . .”

“And,” Quarles interjected, “who wants to look at one man and hear an orchestra, with voices and instruments coming from nowhere? People like to see people sweat .”

Both 33, the irrepressible Quarles and soft-spoken Bordeaux have an interplay that doesn’t stop at the bandstand. They are so adept at finishing each other’s sentences it scarcely matters that their stories are sometimes wildly divergent.

They and Byron were born in Topeka, Kan., and both of their families caught a train to Orange County in 1966 after being uprooted by a Midwest tornado. The twister proved to be far from the last of their upheavals.

“We were the first blacks that a lot of kids had seen in Garden Grove, the only blacks in their schools,” Bordeaux said, “They had only seen blacks on TV, so they would be turning our hands over, going, ‘It’s all black here, but why is this white?’ ”

“I had to fight every day,” Quarles added.

Bordeaux said: “You know how cruel kids can be. Every time we’d come home we’d all have stories about what had happened during the day, how many times you’d been called what at school, and asking each other ‘How many fights did you have on the way home?’ I hate fighting, and that still bothers me to this day.

“And it was a culture shock for us because where we came from was all black, our section of Topeka. Then, because the land it was on was bought, we ended up moving our house (from Garden Grove) to Santa Ana. They dropped the house into what seemed to us like the center of Mexico. It was one shock after the other.”

Feeling that in the community “there really was nowhere for us to go,” members of the family wound up spending much of their time indoors, where they had their music to rely on. The whole family sang, and their interest in playing instruments had begun in Kansas where they had used brooms to pretend to strum Beatles songs.

It was a time before they were able to afford real instruments. With 11 kids under one roof, their mothers had their hands full supporting them. Both were nurses, and they would work alternating shifts, so one of them could be minding the children.

The music-making began in earnest when Quarles’ mother managed to buy him a drum set when he was in the fifth grade. “Then I wanted to learn the sax in school,” Bordeaux said, “but you had to rent it, and we couldn’t afford it. So instead my mom bought me a $15 guitar out of a pawn shop on 4th Street in Santa Ana and said she’d get me a sax later when she could. We all ended up playing that guitar, but Byron really took to it, and he’d lock himself away in our room to play it. He thought I wouldn’t want him playing my guitar, but I didn’t care.”

“We started a little band, and I didn’t just want to be standing around, so I figured I’d start singing until I got the sax. I didn’t ever get one yet,” he said with a laugh.

The group started off singing Temptations and Four Tops songs at family get-togethers. Influenced by their older siblings’ tastes, by the late ‘60s they were into Jimi Hendrix, Grand Funk Railroad, Buddy Miles, Santana and others. They once spent a day collecting pop bottles all over town so they could buy Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland” album.

Soon they found a better way of making money, playing high school and college dances. Bordeaux and Quarles were then only 13 and in the seventh grade. “We’d be ending up with 50 bucks each a weekend, and for a 13-year-old then that could really convince you that was what you wanted to be doing with your life,” Bordeaux said.

Since then, music hasn’t always been enough to sustain them, and the three also worked for a moving company in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

“I used to move homes in Newport, and I moved a lot of pianos,” Bordeaux recalled, “I’d set them up and play them a bit, and I got hired to come back and play for a lot of dinner parties that way.”

“Yeah,” Quarles clarified, “We’d be moving furniture, be really humping, and he’d sit there and go ‘Tinka-linka-link’ on the piano, and the owners would be going ‘Oh, would you play some more? Here, have a beer. . . . Oh, and you all there just keep moving. ‘ I hated that job. Every night I’d go to sleep, I’d dream the icebox was chasing me, going ‘hyugha-hyugha!’ ”

Though usually in bands together, the three have also gone their separate ways at times. Byron had a Hendrix tribute band that was one of the last acts to play the original Golden Bear. For a time Quarles and Byron Bordeaux struggled along in an original music band, while Derek was in a relative gold mine of a cover band.

Quarles said, “He was always saying ‘Man, come on over here and get some money in your pockets,’ and we’d say, ‘Come over here so we can do some originals, something that’s ours.’ I think we’ve finally made it to the middle so we can do both.” (The Diamonds have dozens of originals, some of which find their way into their sets. Byron plans to release his own solo album shortly.)

Derek and the Diamonds were formed in 1986 at the instigation of local musician Gary Roach (currently in the Jetsons), playing ‘60s Motown and Stax soul oldies. Bordeaux soon brought Quarles into the group, and before long the other original members, who Bordeaux said preferred a smaller, less lively outfit, were edged out of the band.

The group has gone through several more member changes in the past year (drummer Chuck Morris departed to be in the house band of the Arsenio Hall show), and the present lineup is about as lively as Bordeaux wants to get.

“Sometimes the band is so strong I just have to get out of the way. The same thing I used to get from Venson I get from everyone in the band now.”

Quarles explained: “Basically what we’re doing is we push like two runners. It’s hard to grow if you have nobody to push you. When Derek was with another band, I’d come in and he’d go ‘Oh, here he comes’ because he knew I was going to jump onstage with him. . . .”

“And he was going to make me work !” Bordeaux cried.

“Now we do that to each other all night long,” Quarles said. “I push him, he pushes me. At the end of the night when we go home I can’t sleep for two or three hours because I’m so wound up. I have to walk myself back down to sleep. I might be dead tired, but my clock’s inside going tick, tick, tick.”

“Last night a lady paid me a great compliment,” Bordeaux said. “I went up to the bar to get some orange juice, and this woman said, ‘Your music is so moving, so spiritual, even if the things you’re singing about aren’t necessarily spiritual, it’s just the way you sing it. I just really feel your music so much.’ That was a real compliment to me, because I feel it too. And if I can get it to come across to you, that’s why I’m doing it. That’s why we don’t have a three-piece sounding like a CD. We want the real deal.”