Long before he starred in Broadway's "Spamalot," Clay Aiken was a performer. Some might say he always knew his audience.
One day during a trip to the North Carolina coastline, Aiken and his mother came across a Christian puppet show on the boardwalk. The performers were singing "Kum Ba Yah" and asked if anybody wanted to sing along.
"At five years old I threw my hands up and I was like, 'OK, I'll come sing,'" Aiken said. "And they said, 'Sing whatever you want to,' and my mom said she was paranoid, petrified, that I was going to sing "Islands in the Stream" at this little Christian puppet show and embarrass her. But I think I sang something like 'Jesus Loves Me.'"
When all the other kids were proclaiming "I'm a Little Teapot," young Aiken favored "Islands In The Stream," by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, after hearing it on the radio.
Today Aiken, 29, still knows how to please a crowd and remains the most successful of the male "American Idol" contestants. His first three albums played it safe, with few original songs and lots of crowd-pleasing covers. Critics complained Aiken wasn't revealing enough, and after belting out Brian Adams and Mr. Mister, Aiken himself has admitted that it was tough for him to make a statement via repackaged music.
But unlike his previous albums that conform to a particular genre, Aiken considers his newest album, "On My Way Here," which arrived in stores this week, to be an eclectic mix that reflects his personal style. Aiken only wrote one song on the record, "Lover All Alone," but selected the remaining songs to represent experiences he's had in the past five years.
"I feel kind of lucky that we're in a position where I don't have to make everything sound the same on the album so people can say, 'Oh he fits in this category or this category.' We've been kind of lucky to do what we want to do and kind of test the waters in different places," Aiken said. "I mean, there's so much I like to sing and there's so many different styles I think are fun and worthy of being performed. So we don't let ourselves get pigeon-holed too much. We spent a lot of time making sure that we just found songs that we good for me."
Aiken says he has been singing even before he can remember.
"My mom says that I sang from the time that I was 18 months old, which I don't necessarily remember," he said. "I remember auditioning to be the mascot for a local high school's 'Queen of Hearts' dance when I was 5 years old… Probably the first thing I ever won; only thing really."
In 2003 Aiken did, however, come very close to winning "American Idol," the most well-known singing contest in the nation. As one of the two finalists left standing, Aiken lost while Ruben Studdard walked away with the coveted recording contract.
Since then, Studdard was dropped by his label after a disappointing performance on the music charts, while Aiken's albums went platinum. After receiving several prestigious honors from Billboard and the American Music Awards, Aiken has sold more albums and had more No. 1 songs than any other "American Idol" alum except for Kelly Clarkson.
Aside from his impressive vocal range, Aiken is best known for his work with special needs children. In the 1990s he directed a YMCA children's camp and majored in special education at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte.