SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — You know you have made it as a performer when your fan base has its own name. The Grateful Dead have their Deadheads and Justin Bieber has his Beliebers. Taylor Hicks had the Soul Patrol when he won the most-watched season of “American Idol” in 2006. And though a decade has passed since Hicks established himself as one of the most beloved contestants in the series’ history, the Patrol is still on high alert for the singer’s brand of soulful blues, country and R&B.
One can bet that the Soul Patrol will be in attendance when Hicks takes the stage at the South Orange Performing Arts Center on Nov. 3, and the “American Idol” champion would not have it any other way. While he admitted it was a bit overwhelming at first to be embraced by such a devoted legion, Hicks said he is immensely thankful to have developed a large following. But that does not mean he has grown complacent.
“Luckily, I’ve got a great fan base and I work to cultivate that fan base all the time,” Hicks told the News-Record in an Oct. 18 phone interview. “You have to just keep plugging away and kind of have to reinvent yourself in every way possible.”
The Soul Patrol surely does not want a complete reinvention of their beloved artist, though. After all, it was the singer’s boyish charm and ability to soulfully belt out songs by everyone from Sam Cooke to Elton John that captured the nation’s attention on “American Idol,” propelling him to victory in a finale watched by more than 200 million people worldwide.
Since then Hicks’ debut single “Do I Make You Proud?” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and his 2006 self-titled album made it to No. 2 on the Billboard 200. He also starred in the Broadway revival of “Grease” and was once named People’s “hottest bachelor.” Yet the singer’s career always will be linked to the show that made him a household name — and that is fine with him.
“It changed my life,” Hicks, who spent years trying to make a name for himself playing small venues and peddling demo tapes before auditioning for “Idol,” said. “That allowed me to be an entertainer going on 10 years in show business now.”
Hicks said he learned a lot while on “American Idol,” particularly about staying focused onstage while always having fun. He added that it was a blessing to be mentored by musical greats such as Rod Stewart and Stevie Wonder, who appeared on the show. He also made a lot of friends with whom he still keeps in touch, explaining that his competitors became like family to him while on the show.
“American Idol” was not the only experience that shaped Hicks as a performer. The singer recalled that it was listening to Ray Charles as a young boy that first instilled in him a love of blues, soul and R&B. From there, he moved on to studying other artists who could seamlessly transition between those three genres as well as country and rock. They became his inspirations for his own musical style.
But whether he performs his own songs or covers some of his favorite artists — as he will at SOPAC — Hicks always tries to make the music he plays his own. But in order to do that, he said he first needs to choose the right song.
“You just have to find songs that you believe in lyrically and musically,” Hicks said. “I think lyrically, for me, first and foremost, is the most important. And then you just branch out after that.”
Hicks is now branching out beyond music as the host of the new television series “State Plate,” which airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on INSP. The show follows Hicks as he travels to different states, sampling their most emblematic foods and visiting the farms, ranches and markets where they originate. The first season covers nine states, with Hicks naming Maine lobster among his favorite meals.
On paper, it might sound odd that a singer would host such a series. But Hicks is no stranger to the food world, being part-owner of Saw’s Juke Joint in Birmingham, Ala. Plus, he said that growing up in Alabama and then touring the country as a musician has made him a die-hard “foodie.” And he thinks fellow food-lovers will enjoy watching “State Plate” as much as he liked making it.
“It’s just a wonderful concept for everyone to be able to grasp because there are some iconic foods that come from this great country,” Hicks said. “‘State Plate’ really represents a show that’s educational in that sense.”
Even with his television work, however, Hicks has no intention of giving up music. In fact, he said he plans to release a new album in the spring that includes songs he has always wanted to record. He is excited for the world to hear the finished product, describing it as a return to his blues, soul and country roots.
Beyond that Hicks may not know what the future holds — but he is sure that it will involve music.
“I think there’ll always be some sort of musical component to whatever I’m doing,” Hicks said. “I try very hard to make sure that the music is very close to me.”
It looks like the Soul Patrol will be on watch for years to come.