Melissa Walsh

Ruben Studdard

Gale Group | 2005 | Ruben Studdard

Ruben Studdard

Black Biography: Ruben Studdard singer

Personal Information

Born Christopher Ruben Studdard in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, July 14, 1978 Education: Attended Alabama A&M University, 1999-2002.

Career

Amateur musician, mid-1990s-2003; customer service representative, 2002; J Records, recording artist, 2003-.

Life's Work

Dubbed the "Velvet Teddy Bear" by soul singer Gladys Knight and described as "honey- voiced" in Jet, this bear-like singer-with-a-dream was crowned the Fox Network's "American Idol" by viewers across the nation in May of 2003. Wooing audiences and Idol judges with his gentle, satiny renditions of "Ribbon in the Sky," "A House Is Not a Home," "Imagine," and his signature "Flying without Wings," the six-foot-four, 300-plus-pound Ruben Studdard emerged as king from among 70,000 other American dreamers who auditioned for the popular television talent show. Because he jumped so quickly from amateur singer to professional recording artist, music-industry insiders are not yet convinced that Studdard's talent and star quality are enduring. "Studdard doesn't have the range of most soul singers," Gemma Tarlach, music critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote in April of 2004. "And as a songwriter he's an unknown quantity, without a single credit to his name. But what the 25-year old does have is an easy, earnest charm, which goes a long way when too many performers treat fans with surly indifference."

Dreamed of Stardom

Born Christopher Ruben Studdard on July 14, 1978, in Frankfurt am Main, West Germany, Studdard--known to family as Chris--grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. His parents, Kevin and Emily, were both teachers, secondary and elementary, respectively. His father also owned the Kevin Studdard & Sons Body Shop.

According to Studdard and his family, he began singing as early as memories begin--when he was about three years old. In a 2004 interview with CBS's The Early Show, Studdard described his mother as a strong encourager of his professional singing goals. "Mom did a lot," Studdard said. "She really was active in my career, you know, with making sure that I got to places I needed to be, like choir concerts and musicals and plays." "I kind of took his lead with things," Mrs. Studdard explained. "If he said that he wanted to be in something and I knew that it was legit, I would take him and just be there for him and with him." Studdard's grandmother, Hattie Williams, also supported Studdard's pursuit of a singing career. "He always said he had a dream," Williams told The Early Show. "He loved to sing, and he said one day his dream will come true."

Studdard trained his voice with the school's music teacher and landed a place in several school performances during his four years at Huffman High School. He also performed in his church choir and participated in the gospel group God's Gift. He also joined with friends to form the jazz and soul group Just a Few Cats. After high school, Studdard began attending Alabama A&M University on a football scholarship. After his freshman year, he abandoned football to dedicate his studies and time to developing his voice for a professional singing career. Without completing his degree, Studdard left the university after three and a half years in December of 2002 to audition in Nashville, Tennessee, for Fox's American Idol show, a televised talent contest judged by a celebrity panel and the national viewing audience. The winner is awarded a recording contract with a major record label, complete with promotional image and touring support.

Became American Idol

Studdard made the Nashville cuts and found himself on Fox's televised competition. All Music Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine described Studdard's presence on the Fox stage as distinct from the other Idol hopefuls, writing, "Where most of his competitors were pop star wannabes hungry to win the competition, Ruben was quiet and exceedingly laid-back, impressing audiences and judges alike with his large voice and easy confidence." Studdard's American Idol rival, Clay Aiken, was really a good friend, though at a glance, the large, African-American Studdard appeared to be a polar opposite to the slight, Caucasian Aiken. Yet, the competing singers were essentially quite similar in background and perspective. They both grew up in the South, both were church going and spiritually grounded, and both seemed to harbor only the best wishes for the other. Reporting on how Aiken and Studdard were coping with the hype prior to the final Idol showdown, Newsweek's Marc Peyser and Sean M. Smith observed, "Despite all the insanity, Aiken and Studdard appear to have kept their egos in check and their friendship intact. They still have a prayer circle before every show, and they still goof off backstage."

On May 21, 2003, Studdard was crowned American Idol before nearly 40 million voters, about 600,000 more than those who tuned in for the 2003 Academy Awards program. According to Nielsen Media Research, roughly 27 million American Idol viewers had judged the sing-off between Aiken and Studdard the evening before, casting about 260 million phone votes. Studdard won by a mere 134,400 votes. Determined to remain humble even after his big win, Studdard told USA Today only days after his Idol inauguration, "I'm still the same Ruben--just with extra people hanging around."

The jerseys Studdard sported on the American Idol stage--featuring his hometown area code of 205--became the subject of a lawsuit in August of 2003, when Studdard filed suit against jersey-maker 205 Flava Inc. Studdard claimed that 205 Flava profited from using his image to sell its shirts. The company's owners, brothers Frederick and Will Jenkins, explained that they had paid Studdard to wear the jerseys on American Idol, a practice expressly banned by Fox. By December of 2003, Studdard and Flava 205 had settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.

After his Idol coronation, Studdard was an instant celebrity, just as the show promised. On June 8, 2003, Studdard began shooting his first music video in Birmingham, Alabama. The "Flying without Wings" video offered Studdard's fans images of his pre-Idol life, complete with his mother Emily and several of her students who appeared as extras, shots of his home church, Rising Star Baptist, and the home of his grandmother. Studdard's hometown embraced his new celebrity status. "Everyone has been 'Rubenized' as we call it," Studdard's cousin Demetra Studdard told Jet in June 2003. "It has brought the whole state together. No matter what race. It's not a Black or White thing.... He has really shown a big light on Alabama."

Life after 'American Idol"

When Studdard was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2003 for his cover of "Superstar," he chose to take his mother to the ceremony as his guest. Studdard told The Early Show, "I took my mom to the Grammys because, I think, for her it was kind of like a graduation. I never finished college." About the same time, Studdard bought his mother a brand new Ford Thunderbird.

Although he won a NAACP Image Award in 2004, Studdard recognized that his success emerged from a mixture of his talent and plain good luck. "My hat's off to the people that get a recording deal," Studdard told National Public Radio's All Things Considered in April of 2004. "I mean, it really is about who you know, 'cause it's really about who can get that tape to that person who really needs to hear it, you know. Because I believe if God's Gift would have ever gotten a tape to somebody who could really do something for them, we probably would be one of the largest gospel groups in the country right now."

Time's Josh Tyrangiel supported Studdard's statement about the industry in the same NPR interview, explaining that American Idol made singers famous not just for their talent but also for their personal stories. "Had [Studdard] made it, it would have been a really tough sell because it would have been just another guy with a nice voice coming out," Tryangiel said. "And the fact is that the market is flooded with people like that. What we don't have on the market are people who have theses great stories...." What's more, American Idol captured a market audience who "prefer[s] an innocent love song to today's sexually explicit lyrics," Tryangiel observed.

After American Idol, runner-up Aiken was in the spotlight as much, or more than, the first-place Studdard. Aiken's debut album, Measure of a Man, appeared in stores eight weeks before Studdard's Soulful. And Aiken's sales were stronger, landing him on magazine covers and television shows. Studdard and Aiken nonetheless insisted that they maintained a rivalry free friendship, despite rumors to the contrary. "He's my friend," Studdard told freelance journalist Gary Graff in the Plain Dealer. "I personally think it's just the media trying to perpetuate a competition spirit between me and him."

RCA, parent company to Studdard's recording label, J Records, preordered 1.3 million copies of Studdard's first solo release, Soulful, which appeared on store shelves on December 9, 2003. Produced by the label's legendary founder Clive Davis, the album featured emotionally upbeat tracks, some covers, and some original sings, with celebrity guest appearances by Fred Hammond, Fat Joe, R. Kelly, and Missy Elliott. "I was just trying to get some records that people would have fun listening to," Studdard told USA Today's Steve Jones. "I didn't want to have a melancholy record."

Soulful reaped mixed reviews. Rolling Stone's Barry Walters called the album "very poor," writing "This has little to do with Studdard himself, although, like the other idols, he's essentially an imitative singer; he hasn't learned how to fill his pretty tenor pipes with convincing emotion, something painfully clear on his ill-advised cover of the Bee Gees' 'How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.'" People's Chuck Arnold called Studdard's rendition of the Bee Gee's cover "exquisite" in his largely positive review of Soulful, writing "the album does a good job of translating to record the cuddly Velvet Teddy Bear charm that won over Idol fans, resulting in a likable if unspectacular set."

The album's first-released single, "Sorry 2004," which was widely played on Top 40 and R&B radio stations across the nation during the spring of 2004, was a lyric of apology that a man might express to a woman he has wronged. The track sold more than 300,000 copies as a single in its first week. Studdard took the entire Soulful playlist with him on the road for a national tour. His touring band included band mates from Just a Few Cats.

In the fall of 2003 Studdard told Ebony that all that changed with his stardom was that "a lot of people know me now." Other than that, he said he remained the same person. About his career, Studdard said, "I want to be around for a long time. I don't want to be a one-hit wonder. I want to make sure I continue to make good music that my mom and everybody around me can be proud of." At the close of 2003, Studdard launched his own record label, Real Music Records. He immediately signed Chicago rapper Gutta and Alabama singer Kevin Bennett. In 2004, Studdard began looking into opening a restaurant. A lyric from Studdard's "Flying Without Wings" captures the moral of his inspirational story: "So impossible as they may seem, you've got to fight for every dream, 'cause who's to know which one you let go would have made you complete."

Awards

Grammy Award nomination, 2003; NAACP Image Award, 2004; Teen Choice Award nominations, 2004.

Works

Selected discography

Soulful, J Records, 2003.

Further Reading

Periodicals

Chicago Sun Times, December 24, 2003, p. 62. Ebony, September 2003, p. 24.

Jet, June 9, 2003, p. 58; June 30, 2003, p. 40. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 12, 2004, p. 6B. Newsweek, May 26, 2003, p. 53.

People, June 23, 2003, p. 22; December, 22, 2003, p. 63; January 12, 2004, p. 43. Plain Dealer (Cleveland), April 9, 2004, p. 4.

Rolling Stone, January 26, 2003, p. 16; January, 22, 2004, p. 70.

Time, October 5, 2003.

Us Weekly, July 7-14, 2003, p. 38.

USA Today, May 22, 2003, p. D1; December 8, 2003, p. D1.

On-line

American Idol, www.fox.com/idol2/home.htm (June 2, 2004).

E! Online, www.eonline.com (June 2, 2004).

"MTV News Archive: Ruben Studdard," MTV.com, www.mtv.com/news/bands/studdard_ruben.jhtml (June 29, 2004).

"Ruben Studdard's Big Career," All Things Considered, April 4, 2004, www.npr.org/features/feature.php?wfId=1832619 (June 29, 2004).

"Ruben Studdard's Big Love," The Early Show, www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/05/07/earlyshow/saturday/main616271.shtml (June 2, 2004).

– Melissa Walsh