'Idol' singers agree that Mom knows best
American Idol contestants Todrick Hall, Casey James and Alex Lambert all have Tarrant County ties, but they don't appear to have that much in common musically. James has a blues-influenced style and has gigged around at Dallas-Fort Worth clubs. Lambert, who's still in his teens, has a less rough-hewn style and likes to play the ukulele while singing. Hall has a background in musical theater and got his professional start at Six Flags Over Texas.
One thing they do have in common, though: In separate phone interviews, the Tarrant contestants -- who perform live on Wednesday's Idol -- all credited their mothers for getting them where they are now.
Hall, a 24-year-old Arlington resident who's originally from Plainview, appeared in a production of The Color Purple with former Idol winner Fantasia Barrino. On the show, he said "an amazing mom" is what got him from a small Texas town to Broadway.
"Everyone expected me, as an African-American male, to play basketball and football," Hall says. "And when it became apparent that that wasn't my thing and I wanted to sing and act and things like that, my mom just ran with it. She devoted her whole life to making sure I was happy and able to pursue my dreams."
James, the only one of the three who auditioned outside of Texas, says he was at a gig in Florida when auditions took place last summer at Cowboys Stadium.
"When I got back, the only [audition] that was left was in Denver," says James, 27, who's originally from the Parker County town of Cool but calls Fort Worth home. "I was at a gig and my mom came, bought me a truck and said, 'Drive to Denver and do this.' And so I did."
Lambert, a 19-year-old from North Richland Hills who happens to be Hall's Idol roommate, says his mother had been pushing him to audition for the show since he was 16. "I didn't want to audition when I was 16, because I didn't feel like I was ready," Lambert says. "[But] I feel like my voice has gotten so much stronger and my range has gotten so much better, so when I turned 18, the auditions came around and she said 'You're auditioning this year! You're ready!'"
Here's a quick look at what, besides loving moms, is in the Tarrant Idol contestants' backgrounds, presented in alphabetical order by last name.
On www.americanidol.com, Hall says that he began singing in church when he was 10 or 11 and professionally at Six Flags Over Texas when he was 16. One of the people he performed with was Scott Michael Foster, who steals scenes as frat boy Cappie on ABC Family's Greek, and Hall says he and Foster remain good friends and they've hung out since Hall has been in Hollywood.
But that's just part of the talent pool in Hall's past.
"Kelly Clarkson worked at Six Flags, and I was in the season right after her, so I met her through Six Flags," Hall says. "It was cool to watch her go from that same theme park and win American Idol. [Fort Worth's] Joshua Allen, who won So You Think You Can Dance, also worked at Six Flags with me. And [Fort Worth's] Julia Anderson, who won True Beauty on ABC. Something must be in the water there at that park, because everybody makes it. Hopefully I can follow in the footsteps of those people."
Hall auditioned at Cowboys Stadium and later in Dallas in front of the Idol judges, who seemed tickled that Hall, instead of doing the usual cover version of a pop song, wrote an original song all about Idol for his tryout.
"A lot of amazing things happen in the shower," Hall says, "and I encourage people who are not very creative to maybe bathe more, because it really pays off -- I was in the shower one day, and I couldn't think of what to sing and then the light bulb went off. ... I was like, 'Wow -- I should write my own song.' And I started writing it, and I was hoping that they'd have a sense of humor."
Hall is such a fan of American Idol that he says he's never missed an episode. He has gone as far as to have his work schedule arranged so that he can have Idol nights off. And, as a fan, he knows that every Idol season brings some sort of controversy. This time it affects him directly.
Anti- Idol site Vote for the Worst (www.votefortheworst.com) reported shortly after Hall's first Idol appearance that some parents were upset because the producers of Oz: The Musical, a touring show that Hall wrote and directed, had charged their children to appear in the show -- and then didn't offer refunds when the production ran out of money. Hall's side of the story:
"I wrote that musical when I was 17," Hall says. "I put it on tons of times before last year, and a producer found me and decided to put on the musical, but he wasn't a theater person. It just got to be too much for him to handle. I was just the writer and director and choreographer of that show. I did not produce the show, and I think people can easily mistake the two. The director is not responsible if something financially happens to the show and it falls apart."
In Denver, James (who has played at such Fort Worth venues as Keys Lounge) auditioned with an a cappella version of John Mayer's Slow Dancing in a Burning Room that nicely displayed his soulful voice. But it's another display that most people remember -- the one that came at the behest of Idol judge Kara DioGuardi and guest judge Victoria Beckham, who encouraged James (much to the amusement of male Idol judges Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson) to take his blond hair out of a ponytail and let it fall free ... and then continued giving him an on-the-spot makeover that ended with him taking off his shirt.
"I think immediately I got a good feeling from the girls and a bad vibe from Simon, and I knew Randy was kind of on the fence," James says. "With the way things went down, it gave me a chance to get out of the tiny little box that I was in and kind of go crazy, and I think that may have been what put Randy on my side."
James has some rough patches in his past, including a motorcycle accident when he was 21 -- a driver veered in front of him as James was going 70 mph -- that put him in Harris Methodist Fort Worth, where he began a two-year-plus recovery process during which it sometimes appeared that he'd never play guitar again. He also talks freely about having a DWI arrest when he was 19.
"I was playing in my band at the time, and my options were to do probation ... and not traveling far away from your home," he says. "I couldn't do that because of being in a band ... so I just accepted jail time. Nothing can drive home a point to a 19-year-old kid than being sentenced to six months in jail. I didn't do all that time, but I think I did three, and it felt like 10 years. It made me a different person."
That gritty past might not sound like the typical contestant on a show that veers toward mainstream pop, even if it has had it share of rockers and a few contestants influenced by the blues. James agrees that he's an unlikely contestant, but not because of his musical style.
"I am a very low-tech guy," he says. "I've never had TV stations at my house. I don't have Internet, and so I'm really just kind of clueless when it comes to stuff like that. From what I knew of the show, it wasn't my style, but I know that the show has evolved."
That low-tech style comes from his mom. James thinks he was in first grade when lightning struck their house, blowing out the TV, and they never bothered to replace it. Till now.
"First thing when this happened, she went out and got channels," James says. "She's not gonna miss me being on the television. She's definitely a fan of anything that can get me to a better place."
A senior at Richland High School (Idol provides tutors for its younger contestants), Lambert says his favorite American Idol performance came a couple of years ago, when Rockwall's Jason Castro performed Somewhere Over the Rainbow while playing ukulele, a la Hawaiian artist Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. Perhaps that's because Lambert has a thing for the ukulele himself.
"I got started playing ukulele because this past summer, I went to Hawaii," Lambert says. "One of my mom's real good friends had a ukulele -- it's mine now -- and he showed me a couple of chords. I play guitar, so it was real easy to pick up, and I really liked the way it sounded with my voice."
Lambert played the uke twice during Hollywood week, where he had a bumpy ride. When he used it for Maroon 5's Sunday Morning, the judges seemed unimpressed. Then he was saddled with a dysfunctional bunch during "group night," in which the contestants sing together in small groups. Some of his group members went home, but Lambert advanced, and he believes his final audition, singing Jason Mraz's ukulele-friendly I'm Yours, redeemed him in the judges' eyes and got him to the top 24.
"Being in front of the judges is crazy," Lambert says. "It's like being starstruck times four. It's one of the most nerve-racking things, to sing your song that you've been preparing for them."
The second-oldest of seven brothers (he says the oldest is 21 and the youngest is a baby), Lambert says he likes hanging out with his siblings, playing video games with them or watching the mixed martial-arts Ultimate Fighting Championship.
"I jam a lot with my brothers, because my oldest brother plays guitar," Lambert says. "He shreds, man. I'm not just saying that because he's my brother. It gets real rowdy around the house sometimes."
ROBERT PHILPOT, 817-390-7872