With three women and one man, a pop diva, two R&B singers and a country thrush, it’s fair to say that there’s no mold that’s emerged for an “American Idol.”
But it’s equally safe to note that Taylor Hicks doesn’t fit any of those that have been established.
“Idol’s” fi fth-season champ, chosen May 24 in a record finale watched by more than 35 million people, looked — rather than sounded — like a long shot even at the fi rst auditions.
Start with his age — 29, which is practically AARPeligible in the pop world. And a head full of salt-andpepper hair makes Hicks look more like a parent who would be take his kids to the “American Idols Live!” tour rather than be its headliner.
And Hicks’ rock ’n’ soul style — the highlight of his “Idol” run being a rendition of the Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ It to the Streets” — is more old school than cutting edge, much to the delight of a fan base that was dubbed the “Soul Patrol.”
Nevertheless, the Birmingham, Ala., native is indeed the latest American Idol, with a fi rst single, “Do I Make You Proud,” which shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with fi rstweek sales of nearly 130,000 copies. And Hicks believes the fact he has a bit more life experience than some of his predecessors makes him even more ready to take on the role.
“I think it has a lot to do with it,” says Hicks, who turns 30 on Oct. 7 and also is Ford’s latest pitchman for TV and radio ads.
“I think you need experiences to connect with the audience, because the audience is going to have been through their experiences, and anything you can draw comparisons to or relate to and be on the same page, the better off you’re going to be.”
And, he adds, a little gray hair doesn’t get in the way of that.
“Yeah, I’ve had people try to steer me another direction from the color aspect,” Hicks acknowledges. “I’m just ... what you see is what you get.”
Hicks, it turns out, is a longtime denizen of the Soul Patrol. He’s “always been entertaining and singing and stuff” from the time he was a child.
But music became his obsession about the time his parent’s divorced when he was 8 years old, when he was listening to the radio and heard his first Ray Charles song.
“After that it was all over,” Hicks says. “That guy could evoke so much emotion in his voice. I just fell off the deep end when I heard Ray Charles. I caught the disease, so to speak, and I just started studying.
“I listened to every Ray Charles album I could possibly find. And after reading about him and studying and listening to his music and connecting emotionally like that, there were other names that popped up within that music that I started listening to, too. It’s like a tree; there’s all kinds of branches, and the root at the base of the tree is Ray Charles.”
Not surprisingly, Hicks, who also played baseball while in high school, was a bit of an odd duck among his friends, who preferred the more contemporary sounds of Nir vana, Pearl Jam, matchbox twenty and Blind Melon.
“I thought those were all great bands,” he notes. “I was just on a completely different planet, musically.
“I mean, I would get VHS copies of ‘The Dick Cavett Show’ with Sly & the Family Stone, and I would run ’em over to different people’s houses and watch ’em. They didn’t understand it, but their parents did.”
And if anybody wasn’t sure just how far Hicks’ music geekery extended, they were clear when he took up harmonica at age 16.
“I would find, like, the key that an airplane fl ying over head was in, or the sound of a running car,” recalls Hicks, who subsequently learned to play guitar, too. “I would start playing off of different sounds that I heard around my house and repeat solos I heard on a record or the radio without practicing them.
“And after I taught myself (harmonica) and guitar, I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can write ...’ ”
The writing took a different path when he enrolled at Auburn University in 1995 to study journalism and business. He left after three years to play in bands and record CDs of his songs that he’d self-promote to radio stations. He also worked day jobs, including an Easter Bunny gig at a local mall.
Hicks didn’t see “Idol” as a path that was open to him, but after being stranded in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, he took a flyer — literally — and hopped a plane to auditions for the fi fth season in Las Vegas.
“My flight had been canceled, and they said they’d give me a free ticket anywhere around the country,” Hicks says. “I’d never been to Las Vegas before, and I knew the (auditions) were going on there, so I decided to and try it out.”
And, he acknowledges, “I was at a crossroads. I didn’t have any idea this was the way it was going to happen. I felt like if I kept at it and was persistent, something would happen — and this turned out to be that something.”
Mercurial “Idol” judge Simon Cowell, by the way, made an early prediction that Hicks would not win the competition — a position he reversed in May, however, when he declared Hicks the winner on the night before the public vote.
“It’s not up to Simon Cowell,” Hicks notes. “It’s up to America.”
The populace remains steadfastly behind Hicks at the moment, and he hopes the reception for “Do I Make You Proud” is a harbinger for his first album, which he’ll work on during the summer concert tour and finish in time for a late fall release. But Hicks is staying mum on what he and the record company have planned, alluding only to “some secret stuff” that’s being plotted behind the scenes.
“I’m really excited,” he says. “There’s going to be some really, really great things on the album that I’m completely stoked about, and I know everybody else will be, too. I’m just really excited about some of the stuff that I’ve heard through the grapevine and some of the stuff I’ve received.
“Hopefully it’ll just be a great album. I’m having fun, to say the least.”
American Idols Live! featuring Taylor Hicks, Katherine McPhee, Ace Young, Bucky Covington, Chris Daughtry, Elliott Yamin, Kellie Pickler, Lista Tucker, Mandisa and Paris Bennett, plays at 7 p.m. Wednesday (August 16th)at Joe Louis Arena, 600 Civic Center
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