On today’s ever changing musical landscape, the definition of R&B fluctuates as much as the rolling hills from the steep pitches and flat meadows of Birmingham’s Red Mountains. Generation Y looks to rhythm-driven artists Ne-Yo, Trey Songz and Usher as the personification of soul while many Baby Boomers insist that only the raw, melodious sounds of soul men like Luther Vandross and Marvin Gaye are the real deal. Ruben Studdard is the uniquely perfect combination of both schools of music and he brings both exciting dimensions to Letters From Birmingham (Shanachie-March 13, 2012). This alluring concept album about the ups and downs of modern romance is the project Studdard has longed to make his entire career. With it, he surely sets the standard for modern day soul troubadours and boasts stunning performances that range from an angelic falsetto on love songs like “Today” to hard-hitting dance floor grooves like “Turn You Out” that show off a raw vocal edge.
It’s been almost a decade since Fox Television’s “American Idol” television talent competition crowned Studdard its 2003 winner after he pulled 24 million votes and became a household name. In the years since, the Velvet Teddy Bear (as Gladys Knight nicknamed him for his smoothly soothing vocal style) has produced a string of gold and platinum albums, toured as Fats Waller in a national stage tour of “Ain’t Misbehavin’, appeared on various television shows, toured in the comedy drama “Heaven I Need A Hug” with Robin Givens and played a pastor in the Trace Adkins film, “Lifted.” Along the way, he’s also picked up Grammy and American Music Award nominations and turned out now classic urban radio hits like “Sorry 2004,” “Superstar,” “Make Ya Feel Beautiful” and “Change Me.” He also scored a #1 Gospel hit with “I Need An Angel.” Letters From Birmingham is Ruben’s most personal set of music yet and he’s hoping his vast fan base will enjoy and be surprised by the album’s twists and turns.
The eleven-song set was produced by Elvis “Blac Elvis” Williams (Beyoncé, Fergie, T.I., Ludacris, Ciara) and Studdard’s longtime collaborator, Harold Lilly (who co-wrote Alicia Keys’ classic “You Don’t Know My Name” and who has collaborated with Luther Vandross, Fantasia and Angie Stone among others). “Even before I signed with Shanachie we started working on songs together,” Studdard says of he and Lilly. “Martin Luther King Jr. had this famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail and being from Birmingham, I’ve read it so many times. We were going through the Atlanta airport one day and they have this display for Martin Luther King Jr. and it just struck me to do the album as letters. Harold said he thought that it would be a tight concept. So after that we kind of made all of the songs into a letter concept. ”
This sack of musical letters tells the whirlwind tale of a 21st century courtship. The sultry “Love Skies” is a chivalrous pick-up track in which Studdard serenades with a romantic forecast calling for “love skies.” It’s love at first sight on “Sexy Mother,” a saucy echo of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” era music. Studdard teases on the surprisingly funkified and horn-driven “Turn You Out.” This straight forward promise of satisfaction guaranteed highlights Ruben singing, “When I give it to ya, you gonna want to shout.” A life long movie buff, Ruben transforms the Gene Wilder tune “Pure Imagination” from the 1971 children’s film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” into a love song. “People don’t write songs like that anymore,” he adds. “They just don’t. If you listen to songs that were written anywhere between the 1920s and 1970s, people talked to each other differently than they do now so the songs sound differently. I was always a fan of that song as a kid. That song was a highlight from the movie for me. I was almost afraid to do it because I wanted to be able to do it so it would sound like it fit with the rest of the album but we worked it out.”
“My whole thing about this album was to just put the people together that I thought were the best in the business at writing records,” he explains. “Not just the best at writing radio songs but writing great songs because above anything else I want the album to be around longer than the regular album cycle.” Aside from two cover songs and one other track, Blac Elvis and Lilly either wrote or co-wrote the remaining songs.
“We’ve been friends for so long,” Studdard says of Lilly “He was the first songwriter I worked with after American Idol. We had so much in common and became great friends. He knows me better than anybody that’s ever worked with me before. ”
R&B ingénue Chrisette Michelle shows up on the pulsating “Tonight,” an epistle about resisting the temptation to hit the sheets too early in the relationship. “I’m a huge fan of Chrisette since her first album,” Studdard says. “When I heard that song I instantly said her name because it has that jazzy feel to it and I knew she would do it justice.” However, the chastity belt eventually drops. In another letter Studdard dares his girl to “wear me like Gucci… girl take me home and take it off just to put me on,” on the mid-tempo dancer, “Wear Me.” In a bow to the `80s groove of Gregory Abbott’s “Shake You Down” it’s all-physical on the sensual “Twisted Love” where they are “entwined all night.”
Eventually, a marriage takes place on “Today” where Studdard sings in his upper register against a soft acoustic guitar and violins. He also reprises Bobby Brown’s “Rock Wit’Cha,” a 1989 Top Ten hit. “I’m getting comparisons to Luther Vandross all the time,” he explains. “So if I’m going to remotely stand in that lane that he was in, I thought it was better to do what he did. He always found songs that were popular when he was growing up. Like `If This World Was Mine’ was on a Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell album. For me, I was probably one of the biggest New Edition fans in the world. When I was in the 7th grade, Bobby Brown was R&B to me. It was a hit. Hits are always hits. Its hard to make a hit not a hit so that’s why I chose that song.”
Soon, there’s trouble in paradise though. On the plaintive melody “Leave Her For You” Studdard sings, “I’m texting you while she’s right next to me.” The songs are direct and packed with emotion. “I find it easier as an artist allowing other people to construct the story,” he explains of his decision to let others compose most of the tunes. “I write for other people so I understand the importance of having someone on the outside of your situation to write for you… Then you can concentrate on bringing the passion to the singing. When you look at all the greats like Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley, you’d be hard pressed to find 7-8 songs that they wrote.”
While making Letters From Birmingham, Ruben went into the studio and recorded a song with Heavy D., which happens to be the rap legends final recording. Mike City, who has produced Rhianna and Usher, sent Studdard the track. “They asked who I’d like to have rap on it,” he recalls. “In passing, I said Heavy D. Next thing I knew they were calling him on the phone. I was such a huge fan of his growing up. To get the opportunity to work with him was a blessing and I hate that he had to leave us so soon but it was a blessing.”
One of the two songs Studdard penned with Lilly is arguably the album’s most personal. It’s entitled “June 28th (I’m Single)” and it happens to be the day in 2008 that he married Surata Zuri McCants whom he had met at a Wal Mart in-store appearance in autumn 2006. Against a `50s era piano pounding melody, Studdard sings, “June 28th I was saying I do to my bride and two years later in October we said goodbye.” In it, he explains how he sought to make the marriage work in spite of her conflicting actions and although “I’ll miss you,” he announces that he’s single and available: “So, if you see me on the street don’t be afraid to speak.” In talking of the song while avoiding details, he chuckles and says, “It’s pretty much what it is. That song speaks for itself. It’s what we call the declaration of independence.”
Always one to give back, Ruben created “The Ruben Studdard Foundation for the Advancement of Children in the Music Arts.” Through his foundation, Ruben strives to promote the essential role of the arts in education through learning initiatives for the development of students in the Greater Birmingham Area.
He is also an official spokesperson for “Be Sickle Smart,” a nationwide grassroots health-education program aimed at increasing awareness of iron overload among people living with sickle-cell disease.
Studdard also created and recently held The Ruben Studdard Celebration Weekend in his home state of Alabama, in which he participated in a half marathon! The former football athlete (he received a scholarship to Alabama A&M University where he studied music) also recently became a vegan. A true musician, Ruben is equally at home in the world of R&B, Gospel, Jazz and Rock. He even has his own rock band called ‘Just a Few Cats.’
The set of song and aural letters showcased on Letters From Birmingham, represents Ruben Studdard’s independence as an artist and showcases his R&B with a greater marriage of catchy hooks and sophisticated prose than his previous work. “I hope people will hear it and say gosh these are great songs,” he says. “I wanted to make an album that you could put in and not take off and it be on from start to finish… I think we did that. I hope in the next 5 years people will still be asking me to sing Love Skies.”