Former "American Idol" winner Taylor Hicks pens his autobiography in "Heart Full of Soul."
The salt-and-pepper hair crooner writes about growing up in Alabama and life on the road. He also discusses how Hurricane Katrina put him on the path to superstardom. The book goes beyond Hicks' major pop-culture moment and sees what happened after America chose its idol.
Read an excerpt of this book below.
Boy In The Bubble
YOU TAKE A TRIP TO THE CITY LIGHTS AND TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME --''Take the Long Way Home'' by Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson
or the better part of a year, I'd been living inside a bubble called American Idol. While the rest of the world could look in and see me, the fact is, from where I stood stage right at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California, on the evening of May 24, 2006, it was nearly impossible to see out. There I was, the gray-haired boy in the bubble, living out a strange but often thrilling version of the American dream in comfortable isolation.
In the exciting and exhausting weeks building up to the Idol finale, I'd get occasional calls from friends and family reporting on what was going on in the outside world. Still, I felt incredibly cut off—both physically and emotionally. Being at the center of the most-watched reality show in history turned out not to be the best vantage point from which to appreciate how big it all was. I knew this much, though: tonight—one way or another, win or lose—the bubble I was living in would burst in a very big and public way. All around me backstage at the Kodak—the same fancy venue where the real Hollywood stars gathered each year for the Oscars—there was a sort of focused commotion playing out. From producers to stagehands, the folks who put together American Idol were all experienced pros, proud veterans of show business wars, but even they seemed to be feeling the full heat of the spectacle. As I took in the scene, I saw the clocks counting down, signaling just minutes left before the much-hyped 2006 finale of American Idol would begin.
Standing near me was Ryan Seacrest—a good guy who appears to have been genetically engineered to stand in the TV and radio spotlight. The man is a broadcasting machine who never stops working. At that moment, Ryan was busy getting his makeup touched up so he'd be ready to take the stage and direct traffic on what had become the biggest show on earth.
Tonight there'd definitely be heavy—and glamorous— congestion with all sorts of superstars on hand to take part in the Idol festivities. Amazingly, music greats Prince, Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick, Toni Braxton, Al Jarreau, and Meat Loaf were all here, as were Season 4 American Idol winner Carrie Underwood and the original Top 12 contestants from our season. Prince was keeping a low profile, though. Our surprise guest was hiding in his limo out back behind the Kodak Theater, where he'd stay until it was time for him to take the stage at night's end. To all of us producing and competing on the show, Prince was just this cool silhouette—a mysterious ghost of pure soulfulness.
Meat Loaf, on the other hand, was standing right there in the thick of things looking exactly like you'd imagine Meat Loaf to look—big, bold, and more than a little wild-eyed. Toni Braxton—with whom I'd be singing the Elvis Presley classic "In the Ghetto" later in the show—looked lovely, and couldn't have been nicer. Toni was even kind enough to bring me a gift she thought would be perfect for this moment in my life, a money clip.
"Taylor, I got you a money clip because you're going to need it," Toni said sweetly. "You're going to have a lot of money to fill this with." Of course, I was way too embarrassed to tell her that, right then, all I had to fill that clip was a bunch of five- and ten-dollar bills—and a pretty small bunch at that. Believe me, you don't get rich being on reality TV unless you win—and maybe not even then. Still, I appreciated Toni's thoughtfulness and optimism. Stars weren't just lining up to be on the show tonight— we even had stars joining the audience, hooked on the excitement just like everyone else. For instance, the world's most beloved lifeguard, David Hasselhoff, was out front, as were a couple thousand other folks including my dad, Brad Hicks, his second wife, Linda, and my younger half brother, Sean. Our three famous judges—Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and Simon Cowell, who might best be described as infamous— were also taking their places, attracting cheers and occasional catcalls from the crowd. Seemingly everywhere were executive producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick, whose jobs, I'd come to learn, were as vague and ever-changing as they were important.
Debbie Williams—one of our stage managers, a little woman with a big personality who early on helped me figure out how to play to a TV camera the way I played to audiences in southern clubs and roadhouses—came over to tell me some breaking news. Debbie let me know that we'd have to rehearse one of the numbers during a commercial break. We'd simply run out of time to rehearse all the numbers in this two-hour show. That's just the way things sometimes went on Idol. We were all doing so much—and doing it so quickly—that we were continually in danger of falling behind.
Even during the show's quieter moments—and there weren't all that many—being on American Idol felt like riding some crazy bullet train. The problem was, you were never sure if you'd get thrown off the train. That's the thing about reality TV—it offers a unique crash course in fame, one that can end suddenly and painfully. As you might imagine, the whole experience can be thrilling, exciting, and a little scary—a real trip in every sense of the word. Somehow, to the surprise of a whole lot of naysayers— the sort I'd been facing most of my life—I'd actually made it to this final destination, the Big Show, the Idol finale. In the end, it had all come down to just Katharine McPhee and myself. The two of us didn't talk much to each other as we awaited the big decision that evening. It was nothing personal, though. Truth be told, I'd been living inside my head most of the show, and possibly most of my life. I liked Katharine and knew that she'd worked hard to get this far. Plus, let's face it, she was pretty easy on the eyes, and it was more fun looking at her than Chris Daughtry.
Before the finale, we were both being held in the costume change rooms just off the side of the stage—positioned there so that the stage managers didn't have to run too far to get us into position. For our first appearance of the night, we were wearing white—not exactly my favorite color. I guess I've never felt innocent enough to pull it off, plus I already have hair that color.
As the seconds ticked away, I thought about everything that had led to this big moment. I was proud that I'd played the American Idol game so well, that my strategy had paid off—so far, at least. From the beginning my main focus was turning my biggest disadvantage into an advantage. The undeniable truth is that by nearly every standard, I didn't fit in. I was older and fatter, and I had gray hair. So I decided the smart thing to do was embrace my oddness for all it was worth—like they say, vive la diffŽrence. People who worked on Idol tell me that I stood out from the beginning as someone who was thinking ahead. Early in the competition, when I was discussing a particular performance with our show director, Bruce Gowers, and Debbie, they asked if I wanted to go out into the audience during the number. I told them I was saving that move for later in the series. Much later, they'd tell me they were shocked by my display of confidence. They realized I was thinking weeks down the line, while the other contestants were all just trying to survive week to week.
Another time Debbie kidded me about my gut, which, unfortunately, had gotten more noticeable during all those weeks with easy access to free catering tables. "Watch out, Taylor, you've got a little belly there," she said as nicely as those words can be said. I looked her straight in the eye and replied, "Hey, middle America loves that belly." And you know, I don't think I was too far off. America loved my belly more than Ace Young's six-pack. I understood middle America because that's where I'm from. That's who I am. I'm not from Sherman Oaks, California. I'm from Birmingham, Alabama, and that's as middle America as you can get—okay, perhaps not geographically, but in every other way.
As a guy whose hair began turning gray at fourteen, I was pretty used to standing out from the pack. For years, my many flaws held me back. But once I got on American Idol I began to see that not being perfect—or looking perfect— could pay off in a huge way. If America wanted flaws they could relate to, I had plenty to go around. And when the show was over and all the votes were counted, I figured there'd be plenty of time to work on that belly. Standing there backstage waiting for the Idol finale to begin, I wondered for a moment if I'd have to settle for second place. After years of struggle, though, I knew that getting the consolation prize wouldn't be enough. Deep down, I think I needed an undeniable sign that the crazy dream I'd chosen of making music was the right one. Winning would be that sign.
All I ever really wanted was to be recognized for making the soulful music that had saved me as a young man. I thought of my dad out in the crowd, sitting with his second wife and their son. We were all cool now, and I was glad to have them there. My mom had come to the show to watch once too. As I'll tell you about shortly, there were bumpy family histories all around me, but it was still good to see my dad there. At long last, he was getting confirmation that I wasn't the good-for-nothing bum he worried I might become.
Like a lot of people, I didn't grow up in the kind of happy family featured in TV sitcoms. My family started falling apart when I was just a little kid, and in many ways it never really came back together. When I was young, I learned a lot of things the hard way. For one thing, I learned that alcohol and family are a horrible and explosive combination. And as I grew up in the middle of chaos and bad behavior, I also learned that nothing is guaranteed—not even a normal childhood. Winning the American Idol title and taking home that dream record deal with Clive Davis and J Records would be the closest thing to a guarantee this boy from Birmingham, Alabama, would ever get. But first I had to be judged, and not just by Randy, Paula, and Simon. I had to be judged by America. In truth, I'd known my way around judges from a very early age. Way before getting on Idol, I'd been judged plenty— by family, by teachers, by myself, and even by an actual judge or two. The first time was when I was maybe five or six years old. I found myself in a hot Birmingham courtroom facing a judge whose job it was to decide whether I'd be better off living with my mom or my dad. For a few years, I'd been bouncing around with my mom, who was bouncing all over the place herself—in many ways. I still remember how, right in front of everyone, the judge asked me in a thick Alabama accent, "So, son, does your mother drink?" What could I say? For the record, here's what I did say: "Yes, sir, she sure does."
Suddenly, the whole courtroom lit up in laughter. All those grown-ups looking at me just about died. Now, in retrospect, I know it really wasn't all that inspired a punch line. I guess it was funny because it was true. And so it was that I gave up the goods on my mother and a shameless new entertainer was born. Anyway, having been judged so much along the way, as a kid and then later as a never-give-up road warrior trying to catch a break, I knew that in the end you can't really sing to a whole country—that's just not how it works. And unless you happen to be Ray Charles, nobody has a voice that can force tens of millions to believe in you. That's not a trick anyone can play—least of all someone like me, a gray-haired bar singer from Birmingham. To sing to the whole world, you've really got to do it one person at a time—at least, that's how it feels for me. That's what a lost decade spent playing lousy gigs and tough rooms has taught me. Singing from your soul isn't about how many notes you can hit or how long you can hold them. It's all about intimacy and honesty. It's about sharing your story in a song—whether it happens to be a song you wrote or one you decided to make your own. The only job I ever really wanted comes down to looking somebody in the eyes and telling them the truth—telling them my truth. Music has given me almost everything that's good in my life. Mother music, I call it. When something gives you so much, you damn well better give back everything you can in return. If you're going to dare to pick up that microphone, you better have something to say, something to share.
So I guess that's what I did the night of the finale—tried to share. Later, after it was over, I remember thinking—with disbelief—that for about forty-five minutes there I was maybe the biggest star in the world. As Ryan would eventually announce, 63.4 million votes were cast for me that night—more than had been cast for the president of the United States only a year earlier. But that was later.
As I walked onto the Kodak stage that night with a heart full of soul and took my place in the spotlight, it wasn't nerves I was feeling, but something else entirely. In truth, I felt right at home—a man in the right place at the right time. What was once a bubble had somehow become home—and really, home was what I'd been looking for all along.