It’s been nine years since crooner Ruben Studdard took top honors on American Idol. The big man with the big voice came charging out of the gate with a debut album, Soulful, piloted by music–biz mentor Clive Davis on his then–red–hot J Records label. Soulful entered the charts at No. 2 and went platinum.
Fast–forward to 2012. American Idol has lost most of its momentum, J Records is long gone, and Clay Aiken — Studdard’s equally–popular TV runner–up — is struggling to maintain an up–and–down career.
Studdard, on the other hand, has been quietly getting better with each record release. The 31–year–old native of Birmingham, Alabama hasn’t always raged up the charts — his last Top Ten album was 2008’s The Return — but he is supremely focused with not only improving as an artist, but in attaining longevity through work he can be proud of.
Studdard sings Saturday, Sept. 15 at a Savannah Ocean Exchange–sponsored show on Tybee Island’s North Beach.
The “Velvet Teddy Bear” grew up listening to classic American R&B vocalists like Donny Hathaway and Luther Vandross. His latest album, Letters From Birmingham, was produced by Elvis “Blac Elvis” Williams (Beyonce, Fergie, T.I., Ludacris, Ciara) and Studdard’s longtime collaborator, Harold Lilly.
Studdard and Lilly decided to make Letters a concept album, telling the story of a “21st century romance” through a series of songs that includes everything from “Pure Imagination” (from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, of all things) to the Bobby Brown chestnut “Rock Wit’cha.” Chrisette Michelle duets with Studdard on the sultry, sexy “Tonight.”
The album closes with a sublime slice of pop–branded R&B, from the pen of Studdard himself, called “June 28th (I’m Single).” It is, the artist admits, pointedly about the end of his three–year marriage (a “21st century romance”) to Surata Zuri McCants.
What does Letters From Birmingham mean to you?
Ruben Studdard: First of all, it’s my fifth album, and it meant the world to me because I had the opportunity to do what I really wanted to do on a record. And that doesn’t really happen that often. Also it gave the opportunity, while I was going through my own personal situation, to have a musical outlet. A lot of the music on there is really personal, and it talks about things that I was going through in my life. I’m sure everybody that hears it will feel the emotions that I felt while working on these songs.
My first thought, when I heard “June 28th” was “Oh, he’s doing Here, My Dear, Marvin Gaye’s divorce album.”
Ruben Studdard: Hear, My Dear was a little bit inflammatory (laughs). I only have two songs on the album, really, that talk about how I felt during the breakup of my marriage. That’s “June 28th” and another song called “What’s the Reason.” For the most part, I loved my wife, and there truly are no hard feelings. A relationship is beautiful when it’s right, you know what I mean? And so a lot of these songs talk about the beautiful part of the relationship, and how it feels to be in love. But I couldn’t do the album without expressing the hurt that I felt when the relationship went sour.
It’s good for an artist, isn’t it, to be more involved in the production end?
Ruben Studdard: When you first come in the industry you know what you want, but you really need guidance on how to get to that place. Even though you think you know best. I remember being upset sometimes when Clive would not like a song that I really loved. But you have to defer to the knowledge. I’ve had the opportunity to sit under the best talent in the world; I took all of those things that I learned from those guys and put it into working for myself.
When you won on Idol, did you think at that point “I’m going to be a superstar now”?
Ruben Studdard: I didn’t know what to expect. That’s probably why I always looked so freaking excited, or surprised. I had no real expectations. You know, I’ve been wanting to do this job since I was 11 years old. To get an opportunity to do it at that level ... I never really knew how to absorb it all in the beginning, because it was almost like a sensory shock.
But was it a little scary, after that big support system was gone and you were on your own?
Ruben Studdard: Most definitely, and the thing about it, it’s also about longevity. All the people that I looked up to, from Stevie Wonder to Luther Vandross, to the O’Jays, to Donny Hathaway, the one thing all these guys had to do to be legends was endure the ups and downs. But because you’re a fan, you never really see those kinds of situations. You never really see when Luther Vandross puts out an album that doesn’t sell like his first album. The only thing you know is that he’s a great singer. So for me, those are the kinds of lessons that being in the industry taught me. You just have to keep pushing, man.
You’re a great singer. But “American Idol winner” is always attached to your name. How do you feel about that?
Ruben Studdard: American Idol is like the All–Star game or the Super Bowl. Honestly, who wants people to stop calling Brett Favre a Super Bowl champion? That’s how big that show is. I don’t know how long the show will be on television, but for right now they still get Super Bowl–type ratings. I’m proud of that accomplishment. As long as I continue to put out great art, they can pretty much call me whatever they want to call me!
Opener: Trevor Hall
Where: Tybee Island North Beach stage
When: At 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15
A Savannah Ocean Exchange event