Some are born to greatness, the legend goes, some acquire greatness, and still others have greatness thrust upon them. For Birmingham, Alabama’s favorite son, whose self-titled new album on Arista Records, TAYLOR HICKS, is the penultimate year-end release of 2006, it has been a case of all three. After a lifetime steeped in the blues and soul and R&B of his native Southern heroes – Ray Charles, Otis Redding, James Brown, Sam Cooke, to name a few – Taylor’s artistry was reaffirmed and validated in no uncertain terms this past year, as he won the fifth season of FOX’s American Idol.
Signed to Arista Records by the label’s founder, Clive Davis, BMG U.S. Chairman & CEO, emphatically underscored Taylor’s breakthrough. “Taylor has to really move to the next step and show he is a recording artist that can compete with the best,” said Davis. “He is charismatic and soulful at the same time, and already knows how to use his stage presence in a very winning fashion.”
In addition to bringing some strong new material into Taylor’s repertoire, Davis was also responsible for hooking up the singer with two-time Grammy Award-winning producer Matt Serletic. His multi-platinum track record with matchbox twenty & Rob Thomas, Santana, Willie Nelson, Courtney Love, and others made Serletic the perfect choice for the project.
Taylor’s dedication to roots music resounds throughout his new album, from the opening feel-good up-tempo groove of “The Runaround,” the dramatic ballad “Just To Feel That Way,” and the heartfelt closing number, “The Right Place,” which was originally written by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance for Ray Charles to record before his death. Taylor considers it an honor to have had the opportunity to make this song his own.
The spirit of Ray Charles permeates the TAYLOR HICKS album, most notably on “Heaven Knows,” whose instrumental passages pays homage to Ray’s “What’d I Say” and Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar,” the Motown classic written by Smokey Robinson. The album’s next track, “Gonna Move,” comes from another personal favorite of Taylor’s, the late San Francisco-based blind singer-songwriter Paul Pena, the highly-regarded composer of Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner.” It is followed by another nod to Marvin Gaye, “Wherever I Lay My Hat,” co-written back in 1963 with Motown staff writers Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield.
Virtually every new song on the album was ‘Taylor-made’ for the artist, starting with “Dream Myself Awake,” which was written by Rob Thomas and presented to Clive Davis, who kept it aside for Taylor. “Give Me Tonight,” was co-written by Taylor and Serletic with Matt’s friend Kevin Kadish. Hitmaker supreme Diane Warren contributed “Places I’ve Been.”
“The Maze” was written by the same duo who penned Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn.” And Taylor’s fans will be delighted to hear that he has re-recorded new versions of self penned “Soul Thing” and “The Deal,” two songs that previously appeared on his second indie album Under the Radar, released prior to AI.
Serletic recruited the crème de la crème A-list of L.A.’s most experienced session players, rhythm sections, and brass musicians for the sessions, which took place in October-November 2006. “I’m thrilled to work with Taylor,” Serletic said. “He is a phenomenal vocalist and an experienced artist… Though practically a household name, Taylor will be revealing an exciting new facet of his talent with this project.”
The feeling was mutual: “He truly gets where I am coming from,” Taylor said, “and I completely respect his smarts in the studio and as a real song person. It’s not easy to make a record expediently without sacrificing integrity and aesthetic in the production, songwriting and performance worlds. I really think Matt and I have the right chemistry and we have some amazing players supporting me and the songs.”
“The last year of my life has been an amazing journey that happens to very few people,” says Taylor Hicks, “and I intend to make the best of it.”
It was an emotionally uplifting night – May 24, 2006 – when 36.4 million tv viewers tuned in to watch the fifth season finale of FOX’s American Idol – the year’s third-biggest audience for a televised event, after the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards. In an unprecedented landslide, some 63.4 million people decided to cast their vote for a gritty, down-home white R&B singer as AI’s new champion. Unlike virtually any competitor in the series’ five record-setting seasons, Taylor’s song choices every week emphasized the deep-rooted blues and soul that were his bread and butter for the past ten years, since he’d been making his living as a performer on the club and concert scene around the South.
Born in Birmingham on October 7, 1976, Taylor was eight years old when his family moved to nearby Hoover and his parents divorced. The difficult childhood of a broken home led him very early on to the warm and tender mercies of soul music. As a youth he realized that he had perfect pitch and soon taught himself to play guitar and a blues-wailin’ harmonica. Upon graduation from high school in 1995, he enrolled at Auburn University where he studied business and journalism. His first independently-released CD came out soon after, In Your Time.
After three years of balancing college with his life as a working musician, it was clear which held the winning hand. “This has been my vision since I was a kid,” he says. “All I wanted to do my whole life was to bring a feeling and talent to music. Music has provided an outlet for me to touch people and make them happy. It’s like a conductor between individuals. I’m just lucky to have a bigger battery to conduct than others. I’m a hands-on kind of dude. You have to connect with people in this job.”
Putting his energy into music full-time, Taylor became a fixture around Birmingham, opening concerts and club dates for visiting performers who included James Brown, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Drive-By Truckers, Robert Randolph and Keb’ Mo’, to name a few. Taylor honed his skills, and learned to please others while pleasing himself. “At some of the beach bars I played over the years, I had to entertain 15-year-old kids sitting with their 75-year-old grandparents. I’ve been performing live for a long time,” he says, “whether it’s performing with the VFW Outpost group or backing up Keb’ Mo’. I’m a working musician. That’s how I’ve made my living.” In early 2005, he released his second indie CD, entitled Under the Radar.
Taylor’s twist of fate came in New Orleans, at the wedding of an Auburn friend, the night before Hurricane Katrina hit on the fateful day of August 29, 2005. With his out-of-town flight cancelled, he was given a free airlines voucher. Earlier in the summer, Taylor had considered auditioning for AI in Memphis, but auditions were subsequently cancelled there as the city became one of the centers of the Katrina relief effort. Throughout the summer and fall, however, auditions proceeded in eight cities across the country, and Taylor eventually used his voucher to travel to the auditions in Las Vegas, his first steps up the steep AI ladder.
The seemingly endless rounds of AI eliminations began to wrap up in January 2006, as the fifth season officially got underway. By February, the 24 semi-finalists had been chosen and the competition was off and running. From the very start, Taylor’s material set him apart from the pack, with such blues and funk based rockers as the Doobies’ “Takin’ It To the Streets,” Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” and “In the Ghetto,” Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” and others keeping Taylor out of the bottom three for the entire season, a rare feat on AI.
By May 12th, “Soul Patrol!” fever was everywhere, as Taylor was brought to Birmingham for a weekend celebration, a concert in his honor, and a personal meeting with Governor Bob Riley, who officially proclaimed Monday, May 16th as “Taylor Hicks Day.” (It is no secret that his fans include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Birmingham native, and President George W. Bush.) Taylor’s winning night trifecta on AI the next week – Stevie Wonder’s “Living For the City,” Elton John’s “Levon,” and a new original self-penned composition, “Do I Make You Proud” – proved that Taylor would always remain true to his musical roots.
At the same time, the June 13th release of Taylor’s first single was announced, “Do I Make You Proud” coupled with “Takin’ It To The Streets” (culled from the AI Season 5 Encores CD). The single entered at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, Pop 100, and Single Sales charts (June 21st issue date), with first week sales over 190,000 copies. As with four previous AI winners’ singles, a portion of the proceeds from every CD single sold, every digital download, and every ringtone and ringback went to benefit the American Red Cross. Coinciding with the single release, a cover story named Taylor as People magazine’s Hottest Bachelor of the Year.
His first major post-AI tv appearance was singing “Do I Make You Proud” on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on June 22nd. The performance set the stage for the two and a half month American Idols Live!” tour (July 5 through September 24).
In the midst of the tour, on August 4th – four days before the tour rolled into Birmingham – it was announced that Crown Publishers in New York had acquired worldwide rights for an inspirational book to be written by Taylor, tentatively titled Heart Full of Soul.
The six-week recording schedule with Serletic for the new album spanned October and November, and was the greatest challenge of Taylor’s life. “I’m looking for a great vocal sound,” he said at the time. “It all starts with the voice. Although I play guitar and harmonica, I am essentially a singer and I’m excited about capturing that in a way I’ve never been able to do up until now.”
“It’s a very critical time for me. I have a great opportunity to work and write with some really cool people. I’m just now starting to open up creatively. I no longer have to worry about how much gas to put in the minivan just to get from point A to point B. I can let my brain open up, create and trust my instincts. That’s the approach I’m taking… the gut feeling.”
And that’s the spirit, the heart and soul that makes TAYLOR HICKS one of the most satisfying and honest new album releases of the year. It celebrates an artist who is ready to pursue the highest heights he can attain – and get right on down to the core of his roots while he does it.
(Above Bio Updated December 2006.)
Taylor’s much anticipated new self-titled album is now out in stores.