Have you ever had a dream so big it consumed you? So big you were willing to crawl into bed with hardship and heartache, rejection and disappointment, fear and frustration. And then one day when you had almost nothing left to give, when you’d been passed over and turned away countless times, when you were feeling beaten down and had all but given up, when you were wondering if it was crazy to still believe that you might still make it as a singer-musician-performer in this crazy, unpredictable world, a national disaster occurred that left misery, destruction, and devastation in its wake and altered the trajectory of your life.
It didn’t matter if it was destiny or the Divine, suddenly you were given the opportunity to go someplace you’d never been before – Las Vegas, the Entertainment Capitol of the World – and hours after arriving you found yourself standing in front of three judges named Simon, Paula and Randy, who held your dream, your very life, in their hands.
Here is Taylor’s audition tape where he sings a powerful rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” I can only imagine how he felt knowing this was his one big shot. Though he seems calm, he had a lot riding on this audition, and although Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul liked him, Simon Cowell did not think he had “the look.”
It’s an amazing story, one that Taylor Hicks knows all too well because it is his story. After more than ten years of obscurity, performing in one small, seedy club after another, things changed dramatically in 2006. After beating out thousands of other people who had also auditioned; after going from the Top 24, to the Top 20, to the Top 16, and the Top 12; after performing his heart out each week and escaping elimination, it came down to Taylor and Katherine McPhee.
Thirty-seven million viewers, many of them devoted “Soul Patrol” Taylor Hicks fans, cast 63.5 million votes for the final two, and on the night of the finale, the silver-haired, good-ole-boy from Alabama who talks like he’s country, sings like he’s soul, and looks like he’s George Clooney’s brother, was crowned the winner of Season Five’s American Idol.
During these tough times when a lot of people are questioning what lies ahead, wondering where they are going and how they’ll get there, Taylor Hicks serves as a reminder to never give up.
I got the chance to meet Taylor after one of his high-energy shows in the Indigo Room at Bally’s in Las Vegas. Later on I had a chance to interview him. We talked several times and I found him to be a bit shy, down-to-earth, and extremely grateful. His story of unwavering perseverance that finally led to his success will inspire anyone who is having challenges achieving their dream.
Marsala Rypka: What are you passionate about?
Taylor Hicks: My career. As a small child I recognized I had a vocal ability and I envisioned myself becoming a successful entertainer. The drive, focus, and determination needed to bring out the emotions in people comes from a deep place within me, and I believe those are the pieces of the puzzle necessary to fulfill your destiny and make your dream a reality.
LIFE LESSON: How many people dream of success, but don’t do what it takes to get there. As you read the rest of the interview you will see that Taylor never gave up despite the many obstacles he faced.
“One reason so few of us achieves what we truly want is that we never direct our focus; we never concentrate our power. Most people dabble their way through life, never deciding to master anything in particular.
- Tony Robbins
MR: What three people have greatly influenced you?
TH: My parents split up when I was four and I had some rough boyhood years going back and forth between them where I learned a lot of things the hard way. My hair started going gray at 14, an age where you just want to fit in. By 20 it was fully and forever frosty. I had to grow up a bit earlier than most people and I guess I got the hair to go along with the reality.
I’d say the greatest influences were my father, my grandmother, and the Holy Ghost, which was Ray Charles. My dad was a rural dentist and the practical, level-headed, hard-working voice of reason. Though we didn’t have much money he wanted me to go to college. He said I’d have better odds winning the lottery than making it in the entertainment business. Sometimes the people that love you the most want to protect you from disappointment and failure, and their doubts test your belief in yourself the most. You have to have tunnel vision.
My grandmother wasn’t a good cook, but she was an exceptionally bright business woman, the first female marketing director for shopping malls in the state of Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s, which was rare for a woman in the south. Through her I got to dress up at the mall as the Easter Bunny or a Christmas Bear and experience being around crowds of people at an early age. She taught me about being selfless.
Third is the “Genius of Soul,” Ray Charles. As a child my allergies were so severe that in the spring when the pollen was high I’d have to stay indoors instead of playing outside with my friends. I escaped by listening to Ray Charles. The first time I heard him sing “I Can’t Stop Loving You” I was transfixed. He was the source of the Nile for this soul-loving boy from Alabama, the root of my musical tree. No one could emote like he did. His voice touched a raw nerve in me. Whenever I find the going a little rough, I think about how hard life must have been for Ray – this brilliant, blind, black man trying to find his way in an extremely racist world.
My version of “Georgia” became the state song of Georgia. That was a big thing for me, man. It really touched me. Here is a state that used to lynch people like me suddenly declaring my version of a song as its state song. That is touching.
- Ray Charles
MR: You play the hottest, meanest, fifty shades of harmonica I ever heard. Where did you learn that?
TH: When I was 16 I was at a flea market with friends and I saw an old beat-up Marine Band harmonica for two dollars. I immediately fell in love with it and we became inseparable. I slept with it and took it to school. I taught myself to play the guitar when I was 19. I’d play along to soul and blues tunes and rock tracks like Eric Clapton’s album “Unplugged” and “Take the Long Way Home” by Supertramp. I played day after day, month after month until I started to get good.
MR: Who else influenced your raw, bluesy, Southern-soul, R&B style?
TH: Soul music is gospel music for everyone – black, white, saint or singer – and it lifted me up like nothing before or since. I loved Otis Redding’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” about digging deep and having faith during troubled times. After Otis Redding turned me loose, I began a full-blown soul education studying greats like Sam Cooke, James Brown, Sam and Dave, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye. And just so it’s clear I’m not prejudice, I also checked out great white soul singers like Bob Seger, Steve Winwood, Springsteen, Joe Cocker, and Van Morrison. I studied where each of them came from and where they’d traveled. Eventually I learned that all roads led back to Ray Charles.
MR: You spent ten hard years playing clubs, barely scraping by, sleeping on peoples’ couches. Most people would have given up.
TH: From the time I was little I had this knowing about what I was going to do with my life. I was a mediocre student and I went to Auburn University to please my father. Much to his regret I impulsively dropped out with only 30 credits to go before I graduated. I put everything on the line and moved to Nashville with the dream of getting a major-label record deal. I envisioned returning to Birmingham as music’s latest rising star. I imagined there would be a homecoming parade, maybe a limo ride down Main Street, sold out concerts, and the mayor declaring it Taylor Hicks Day while presenting me with keys to the city, all while the TV cameras were rolling, documenting it as if I was some kind of “idol.” (All of that did happen when Taylor won “American Idol.”)
I spent almost two years in Nashville knocking on doors, hustling tapes to whoever I could pawn one off on, but I couldn’t stir any interest. Putting your heart and soul out there day after day to be judged by the powers that be can be horribly soul-crushing. I discovered that everyone on Music Row was looking for the next Tim McGraw; they didn’t know what to do with a seriously depressed, slightly overweight, twenty-three year-old, gray-haired, R&B bar singer.
Putting your heart and soul out there day after day to be judged by the powers that be can be horribly soul-crushing.
- Taylor Hicks
The only gigs I could score were in clubs back home in Birmingham, so each weekend I’d drive three hours back and forth to scare up some much-needed dollars to survive. One time I got back to Nashville at 3:00 a.m. and went for a walk on Lower Broadway where all the club were that had already closed for the night. I passed Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge where Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson made their stand. I walked around the Ryman Auditorium remembering a story I’d heard about how Johnny Cash got so angry once that he kicked the stage lights out and fell out of favor for a while.
I was exhausted and depressed and I felt very close to the Man in Black. Songs started pouring out of me about heartbreak and misery, about every girl who’d broken my heart and every girl I wished had broken my heart. I wrote about all my frustrations and fears which were growing by leaps and bounds. I had fewer and fewer prospects and more and more material. Not all the songs were great or even decent, but they were about me, a soul singer in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Here’s Taylor singing “Trouble” by Ray LaMontagne, a song that was so apropos.
Nashville taught me that if you’re unhappy, you shouldn’t sit around wallowing in misery. Go out and do something to change your life. I’m a great believer in fighting your hardest to make your dream come true, but you have to pick your battleground wisely. I remember someone from Sony Nashville looked me straight in the eye, handed me back my tape and said ‘Son, you’re not going to make it in this town. If you’re ever going to get a deal, it’s going to be in Los Angeles.’
I went back to Birmingham bloodied with unfulfilled dreams, but I held my head high and was ready to get back to work. Failure fueled my ambition and I decided to become a traveling troubadour and try and conquer the whole country. But that dream didn’t work out either. When you live mostly on the road and only come home to do laundry and sleep for a couple of hours it becomes a lonely struggle for survival filled with isolation, confusion, doubt, and uncertainty.
My most dismal dark years were between the ages of 25 and 28. Band members were constantly leaving and I needed money and sleep. But more than anything I needed a big break. When my father asked what I was doing with my life I couldn’t fake the optimism any longer. I’d followed my burning passion for music wherever it led and in my father’s eyes I had nothing to show for it. I’d left college convinced that I was born to entertain people who were going through their own journeys and troubles, and it had been ten long grinding years. I didn’t fit Nashville’s country labels or Los Angeles’ rock and pop labels.
My father kept telling me to grow up and get a real job, and I was scared he was right. I had no record deal, no representation, and no clear prospects of anything changing. I felt like I’d hit the end of the road. But Henry David Thoreau said ‘It’s not until we’re lost that we begin to understand ourselves.’
MR: And then you auditioned for American Idol.
TH: It’s a story that’s stranger than fiction. I went to a friend’s wedding in New Orleans the weekend Hurricane Katrina hit. One minute we were partying, the next we were frantically fleeing town. It was 3:00 a.m. and the airport was closed. Luckily I had $500 which I got out of the ATM and I chased down one of the last taxi cabs in the city. I spent 15 hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic in a taxi with no air-conditioning, and got as far as West Monroe which was 285 miles away. From there I rented a car and drove home to Birmingham. I called Southwest Airlines, and because my flight had been canceled they offered me a round trip ticket anywhere in the country.
I had vaguely considered going to the Idol auditions in Memphis, but they were cancelled because of the storm. I was staring down thirty-years-of-age with precious little to show for all my time and effort so I decided to fly to the Entertainment Capitol of the World. I’d never been there before. The farthest north I’d ever gotten was Little Rock, Arkansas. I arrived around 1:00 a.m., found a hotel room and gambled with money I couldn’t afford to lose. In my near penniless state I felt like a fool wondering what I was doing there. Then my brother called and said that American Idol auditions were being held in a couple of hours. I rehearsed over and over what I’d do at the tryouts. I laid down for a short while and then exhausted, I walked from my hotel to the convention center and joined all the other wannabes hoping to be discovered.
I was older than the rest of the crowd, I had gray hair, and was the only one wearing an over sized golf shirt. People in line asked if my children were there to audition. I almost didn’t qualify due to my age. They kept checking my I.D. Contestants had to be between 16 and 28, and I was a couple of months shy of 29.
I knew there was no way I would fit in with everyone else. If I had any chance of winning, I had to stand out. For years my flaws held me back, but I began to see that on Idol Americans wanted flaws they could relate to, and I had plenty. So you see, that airline voucher ended up being the winning lottery ticket my dad had talked about.
MR: What would people be surprised to learn about you?
TH: How much of a serious musician and entertainer I am. When I was on Idol in 2006, it was strictly a singing competition. It was the last season they did not allow contestants to play any instruments, which was frustrating because I’d spent years perfecting my craft. Here I finally got the opportunity to show America what I could do, and I wasn’t allowed to play the guitar or the harmonica, so I had to create a bigger than life personality and imprint it upon the minds of the millions of viewers.
MR: What was it like when you won and you went from years of struggling to becoming a household name?
TH: Unbelievable, life-changing. The night of the finale music Prince was there. I thought about the first time I really tried to sing as a kid. I was in the car with my mom driving down the highway screaming along to Prince’s “When Doves Cry” never dreaming that one day I’d share the stage with him. I sang a duet with Toni Braxton at the finale. Backstage she gave me a money clip and said, ‘You’re going to have a lot of money to fill this.’ I was too embarrassed to tell her that all I had were a few five and ten dollar bills.
LIFE LESSON: Dreams do come true, but it takes hard work and persistence. Since winning “Idol” Taylor has put out a self-titled album that features guest artists Bryan Adams, Diane Warren, and Rob Thomas, and a second album called The Distance. He has appeared on Broadway and on national tour in Grease. He has written a book Heart Full of Soul: An Inspirational Memoir About Finding Your Voice and Finding Your Way. He just signed an contract to appear at Bally’s Hotel in Las Vegas and he has a new record coming out. None of that would have happened if he’d given up.
One of the things I value most about American Idol is that contestants get to sing great songs from the past. With such massive cutbacks in music education in the schools, the show provides a little prime time music education. I feel proud when a kid asks me about Otis Redding because I sang “Try a Little Tenderness” or about Sam Cooke because I performed “You Send Me.”
MR: What five people would you invite to a dinner party?
TH: First would be Einstein. From what I’ve gathered his ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) might have been as bad as mine. I think Einstein’s short attention span had something to do with his creative process. Maybe my short attention span will help with my creativity.
Second is Elvis Presley. One of the most poignant moments of my budding career was when Katharine McPhee, Chris Daughtry, Elliott Yamin and I went to Graceland, and I held an umbrella for Priscilla while we stood over Elvis’ grave. That week I sang “Jailhouse Rock,” and “In the Ghetto,” which is one of my favorite Elvis songs.
Third is the Dali Lama. If there is anyone in the Universe that portrays selflessness it’s him.
Fourth is Martin Luther King Jr. I think the most blatant example of premonition was the speech he made in Memphis before he died. There had been threats against him and he said he didn’t know what would happen, but it didn’t matter because he’d been to the mountaintop and he’d seen the other side. I think he said, ‘I might not get there, but we as a people will get to the Promised Land.’ I’m so thankful that he lived and is respected because he is a big part of why this world has evolved.
And Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird about racial prejudice. She’s from Alabama and in her eighties. I hear it’s tough to get her out of the house, but maybe with this crowd she’ll accept the invitation.
MR: How does it feel to know that your hometown of Birmingham was a hot spot in the civil rights movement in the 1960s?
TH: Soul music, which is in my heart, taught me loud and clear that racism is nothing but pure ignorance. It’s a shame the epicenter of such hatred and violence was in my hometown and that to some degree my state still has that residual stigma, because we’re light years away from what that was.
MR: Could you please share some last words of wisdom.
TH: There are some great songs that offer pearls of wisdom like the Rolling Stones “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” but you might get what you need.
Life can throw us “Take the Long Way Home,” was the first song I played on the harmonica. Home was a bit elusive growing up. It can take a long time to find your way especially when home has been pretty broken. I feel most at home onstage connecting with a room full of people. My advice is to make your home wherever you find the most happiness.some tough breaks, but that’s what builds character.
The lyrics to “Fortunate Son” by John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival are tough and painful. When he sings ‘I ain’t no senator’s son,’ he sounds pissed off, but proud of who he is. Well I ain’t no senator’s son either. I’m a dentist’s son. We are who we are. We can feel sorry for ourselves or we can use whatever circumstances we were born into to drive us toward our goals.
I love Bob Seger’s “Hollywood Nights.” It reminds me not to be too distracted by material things or people who are insincere and only interested in what you have or what you can do for them. It’s important to surround yourself with folks who have your back and are willing to call you on your stuff.
I love “Tell It Like It Is,” by Aaron Neville. I’m a big believer in telling the truth even when the truth hurts.
“Instant Karma” by John Lennon is another great one. I believe in karma and payback which can be a blessing or a bitch. That doesn’t mean you have to be a saint. Some of the greatest singers like Johnny Cash, Sam Cook and Al Green walked the line between the roadhouse and church, the sacred and the profane, the sin of Saturday night and the salvation of Sunday morning.
Willie Nelson once said that we create our own unhappiness and the purpose of our suffering is to help us understand that we are the ones who cause it.
And Ray Charles’ “I Believe To My Soul.” It’s all about believing in yourself deep down to your core, to your very soul. If you do, then when good, bad, or really ugly things happen you won’t be knocked too far off track. Sometimes that belief is the only thing that will carry you through. It’s not easy to silence the doubt. For most of us there are a million breaks that don’t go our way, but I’m a great example that it can happen. Don’t wait for success to come knocking on your door. It comes with hard work, dedication, a little hustle, and a whole lot of belief in yourself.
Taylor Hicks will be performing at The Indigo Lounge at Bally’s in Las Vegas. Check out the schedule.
Note: I talked with Taylor for about two hours and found him to be open, real, and honest. Among the many things we talked about was his book Heart Full of Soul, and his recollection of stories in it. With his permission some of his quotes were taken from there. Thank you Taylor.