This year marks 15 years since Ruben Studdard made his debut on the television show “American Idol.” Singing Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky” for his audition, Studdard wowed all three judges — yes, even Simon Cowell — getting a unanimous vote to send him to the next round in Hollywood and ultimately, the show’s top prize for the second season.
A contestant on the show during one of its most popular seasons, Studdard, then 24, was often compared vocally to legendary singer-songwriter and multi-Grammy award winner Luther Vandross who passed away in 2005. “I was a kid when I first got that comparison,” said the now 39-year-old performer. “I didn’t really understand where it was coming from because I didn’t feel like I was as good as him. Honestly, now that I am older, I understand where it comes from. Luther was one of the best song interpreters ever and I think that people see that spirit in me.”
Studdard takes the art of interpreting songs seriously and makes sure they are done correctly. The interpreting process is all part of his growing up and as an artist. “I understand who I am as an artist now more than I did when I first won ‘American Idol’,” he said.
This year, Studdard released “Ruben Sings Luther,” a 10-song tribute album featuring favorites like “Always and Forever,” “Power of Love” and “Here and Now.” The Velvet Teddy Bear, as Gladys Knight once affectionately called him, has also embarked on a 25-date cross-country concert tour with a stop on the evening of Saturday, May 5 at the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center on the Montgomery College campus in Rockville.
“I think that (a Luther album) has been a long time coming,” he said. “People have definitely been comparing me to him since I won ‘American Idol,’ and it’s just been something that I think should have been done a while ago, honestly, but everything happens when it is supposed to. I think this is the perfect time for it.”
While he will perform Vandross’ hits, Studdard noted he will put his own spin on each song. “I could never be him,” he said. “I will always be myself. I’ll never be able to be Luther Vandross, no matter how hard I try. It’s always going to be Ruben’s version of Luther Vandross’ songs.”
“Don’t You Know That?” is Studdard’s favorite song to perform because it is one of his mom’s most beloved tunes. “It’s really a song that you have to be a real Luther fan to be into,” he said. “People respond to it really well every night and I enjoy performing it.”
The album, his seventh solo effort, took about two months to put together and Studdard conceded it was hard to choose only 10 songs. “There are so many great Luther Vandross tunes but, at the end of the day, I really just pick what I sounded good singing. …At the end of the day, if I can’t pull it off, then it doesn’t make any sense to do it.”
The Alabama resident has not heard from Vandross’ family, but he hopes they have a positive response to his album. “I’m trying to make sure I do everything as respectfully as I possibly can,” he said. “That’s pretty much all I can do.” One of Vandross’ backup singers, who worked with him for 25 years, came in and worked with Studdard’s singers to make sure the moves were perfected.
Fans of Studdard’s original songs such as “Sorry 2004,” “I Need an Angel” and “Flying Without Wings,” need not worry. Studdard plans on doing one or two of his songs during the show, which he wanted to keep a surprise. “I just hope people come out to have a good time and enjoy the music,” he said.
“Always and Forever: An Evening of Luther Vandross with Ruben Studdard” will start at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 5, at Montgomery College’s Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center, 51 Mannakee St., Rockville. Tickets are $50, $40 for faculty and staff, and $35 for students with ID. Call 240-567-5301 or visit www.montgomerycollege.edu/pac.