CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Ruben Studdard may have found fame on the pop-music showcase "American Idol," but his roots are in gospel and the songs of the church. He performed to a full house at the Word of Life Christian Center on New Year's Eve. CLICK FOR LARGE
The "American Idol" brings his Bible-Belt charm to Hawaii
WELL, you can take the guy out of Birmingham, but you can't take the Birmingham -- wait, the guy is still in Birmingham after all. "American Idol" winner Ruben Studdard, celebrated for wearing shirts with Birmingham area code "205" during the contest, is living in a condo in Birmingham, looking for a house in Birmingham and grew up in Birmingham churches. And Idoleers Taylor Hicks, Bo Bice and Diana DeGarmo also hail from the Alabama town.
What is it with Birmingham? Musical talent in the tap water?
Studdard eased back on a hotel lounge chair and watched the rain pelt Waikiki. He thought about it. "I don't know," he said presently. "Must be our southern charm." And he made that charmingly slow smile that earned him the nickname "Velvet Teddy Bear."
Studdard was here for the first time to help out friend Henry Panion and members of the Word of Life church on Queen Street with a musical celebration on New Year's Eve that combined elements of classical and gospel music. It was also a CD release celebration of the church's "Live From Hawaii" recording that Panion was instrumental in creating.
And yes, Panion is from Birmingham, too.
"Alabama's in the Bible Belt, sir," continued Studdard. "Church is a way of life, not just a Sunday thing. And you always sing in church. Gospel helped with my ability to not be stage conscious, to be free on stage and just let it go, let the spirit enter you and channel it to the audience."
AFTER WINNING the "Idol" contest, narrowing edging out that Clay kid from Atlanta, Studdard released a mainstream R&B album called "Soulful" and got that immediate expectation out of the way. He then went back to his roots and recorded a pure gospel album, "I Need an Angel." His latest, "The Return," is edgier R&B. All three records have sold in the millions.
"Music is a really important part of our culture," said Panion. "We need it, so we buy records, go to concerts, make it part of our everyday life. It's spiritual in so many ways and it speaks through our hearts. Soul and gospel and R&B and jazz and pop -- they are brother and sister.
"In ancient times, the Levite tribe of Israel, who took care of the temples, the core of their job was music. And Lucifer, remember his job in heaven before her was driven out -- he was a musician!"
Panion lived in Manoa for half a year as a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii. ("I'm an unusual academician -- I love popular music and its relationship to modern culture. No ivory tower for me.") During that time, the Panion family became enchanted with the pro-active drive of the folks at Word of Life and wound up staying in contact.
Panion's vision of melding gospel and classical symphonic music swept up Studdard, in addition to Panion's ebullience about the cerebral nature of music itself. "Music is not a luxury, it's an essential part of what we do as a society," explained Panion, as Studdard nodded. "It's a true measure of civilization that we practice the discipline of art."
THAT CHILDHOOD discipline of both church and music has made Studdard quite a grounded fellow for an entertainment superstar. He remembers when the centerpiece of every house in the neighborhood was the family piano. Although making piles of dollars has made Studdard a star, his goal is to be an artist. The money helps him do that.
And yet, Studdard is still living in a modest condo, "having the young bachelor life."
Not by choice, it seems. He's in litigation with a former manager who ran up massive credit-card overruns and screwed up Studdard's credit rating, making it hard to buy a house. He was also clearly uncomfortable talking about that. Music is his thing.
"It's the music, always. Always," he says. "I'm so fortunate to have my level of success. My newest one has been No. 1 on Urban R&B for five weeks now! We recorded 65 to 70 songs and then picked 14, recording in Atlanta, New York and Miami. So I've been in the studio a lot -- I have a policy of not leaving until the song is done, every bit and mix of it. I love the fine tuning, I love the atmosphere of the recording studio -- I'd live there if I could."
Might narrow down his house-hunting options. Wherever he settles -- in or around Birmingham -- Studdard says his goal is to "continue to make music that people love. And to continue to live my life with spiritual integrity and make my mom and dad proud."
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
People lined up on Queen Street to see "American Idol" Star Ruben Studdard and the Honolulu Symphony perform at the "Gospel goes Classical" New Year's Eve celebration on Sunday. CLICK FOR LARGE
STUDDARD'S FATHER was in the Army and the Velvet Teddy Bear was actually born in Germany, not moving to Birmingham until he was 9 months old.
There he stayed until "Idol" beckoned him to Hollywood. The television exposure also invited in intense scrutiny and speculation about his size. Recently, however, Studdard has shed some of the weight.
"I am a vegetarian now and it's helped me lose some pounds. You can get veggie meals everywhere, no problem, so it's a good diet," says Studdard.
"Idol" judge Simon Cowell, in a televised interview last year, said he was concerned about Studdard's size and worried about his health.
"Simon? Said he was worried about me? Me? My health?" chuckled Studdard. "Learn something new every day. Aw, that was nice of him."
What sticks in Studdard's memory about his "Idol" days?
"Winning, of course! But everything about the process was amazing. And to be able to perform on live TV twice a week and sing for the masses -- all my life, that's been my dream. 'American Idol' will continue as long as it involves the audience. It was the people who chose us, not the judges. We're almost like political figures in that way. If you voted for me, it's like you own a piece of me and helped make my dream come true, so I'm so grateful to the fans."
Does he still tune in?
"Of course, I still watch the show. And pull for whoever's from Birmingham!"