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.
Fame has provided Aiken with a new platform for the kids he wants to help. In 2003, after becoming a household name to "American Idol" fans, he created the Bubel/Aiken Foundation, an integrated program for children with and without developmental disabilities.
Given Aiken's passion for teaching and community outreach, it's not surprising that one of his favorite songs serves as a reminder of the summer camp Aiken used to run.
At the summer camp Aiken ran, they'd start each morning with "A Lovely Day." It was "one of those songs that kind of gets you going in the morning" and "gets stuck in your head and stays with you all the time," Aiken said.
"That one reminds me of working with kids and working at that summer camp or working as a teacher and the likes."
Five-year-old Aiken favored "Islands in the Stream" after hearing it on the radio. It was one of the first songs he sang in public.
"I really don't have much current stuff on my iPod," Aiken said. "It's a lot of stuff that I remember or songs that have been favorites of mine."
Born in Raleigh, N.C., Aiken grew up listening to Christian music. One of the first songs he ever sang was in church was "The Great Adventure" by Steven Curtis Chapman.
"He's just one of my favorite singers, favorite artists, favorite performers of all time," Aiken said. "It was something that was easy to sing, it was fun … you know, I grew up in churches that were always singing hymns. And it was just fun and exciting, and the church allowed me to sing it and I was like, 'Yeah, OK sure. If I can sing something fun, I'll do it.'"
"Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" is especially important to Aiken, who attributes this song to his "American Idol" resurgence.
"I had sung 'Open Arms' by Journey and didn't really make it and got cut. So I came back and we were really trying hard to find a song that would make sure I had a great performance,'" Aiken said. "And we had a really tough time getting that song cleared at the time. You know, there's permissions you have to get in order to sing a song on the show. 'American Idol' was so new at the time, people didn't really want to have their songs butchered, and somebody who worked on the show actually made a phone call — was friends with Sir Elton John — and called him up and said, 'Listen, let the boy sing the song.' And so I did and that's what got in me in the top 12, and so I'm kind of nostalgic for that one."
Aiken's biggest hit, "Invisible," was also his first video, and one of Aiken's most memorable experiences. "I did and I remember actually being in New York and we got the demo for that song and everybody around me was really hooked on it and loved it," he said. "We were sitting in a hotel over near Central Park and put the CD in, and people who were with me got really excited about, you know, how great the demo was, and I was like, 'Wow, this is a good song, I actually get to sing a good song.' And it turned out being a hit for us. And so of course I'm always going to be nostalgic for 'Invisible.' I get asked to sing it all the time; I get asked to sing 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' all the time; I get asked to sing 'Solitaire' all the time but 'Invisible' is one that's still fun," he said.
Aiken describes "Carolina in My Mind" as "the quintessential North Carolina song."
"James Taylor considers himself a North Carolina boy and went to school at UNC, and he tours through the area every time he tours," Aiken said. "And one of the strangest things to me that I've never quite understood — people go to the concerts because they want to hear him sing 'Carolina in my Mind.' I mean, that's just — they use it on the news, they use it in every single marketing piece, anything that's about North Carolina at all you hear 'Carolina in my Mind.'"
Whenever Aiken goes to Taylor's concerts, he said the song ends up in the second half of the concert. "And then everybody goes, everybody leaves. I mean, if you want to beat the traffic actually you're probably better off just to stay to the end because once he's sung 'Carolina In My Mind' the roads clog up. Everybody wants to hear it live, and then you've got your fix for the year and then you go back next year and hear him sing it again."