In the 10 years since he brightened the world of pop music with his American Idol-winning romantic balladry, Ruben Studdard has warmed the hearts of his huge fan base with five albums and touring with the varied likes of Peabo Bryson, Melissa Manchester, CeCe Winans and David Foster.
But with his new album Unconditional Love, which was helmed by Foster in his role as chairman of Studdard’s new label Verve Records, he has delivered the recording that he himself states is “the record I should have made after I won American Idol.”
“It’s my most romantic album yet—and most mature,” says Studdard. “It shows my growth as a vocalist, and is also the most heartfelt album I’ve ever recorded and includes many of my favorite songs from all different eras.”
Indeed, Unconditional Love brings together timeless classics and new compositions sure to qualify, including “Meant To Be,” the first single, which Studdard introduced on the finale of The Biggest Loser, and co-wrote with Foster.
“It’s an inspirational song that we wrote while I was on the show, and it has a lot of meaning in my life,” says Studdard, a popular celebrity contestant on last year’s edition of the weight-loss challenge. “It has to do with moving toward the place where you’re meant to be—which really applies to this album: This is the record that everybody has been waiting for from me.”
It all started with an astute observation from Foster, whom Studdard met seven years ago at a Muhammad Ali’s Celebrity Fight Night event, then accompanied on various “Foster & Friends” tours.
“He said that whenever he saw me perform a romantic ballad in concert, there was a standing ovation, and wondered why I hadn’t done an album like that. So that’s what we tried to do here.”
Whereas Studdard may well have had to conform to certain expectations immediately following his American Idol win (with 24 million votes!), Foster notes that on Unconditional Love, “he’s pouring it out in every note he sings.”
“A lot of singers can deliver, but Ruben is very exposed–and you’ve got to be able to sing your ass off to do this kind of an album,” continues Foster, “and he did that.”
Besides a voice that has earned Studdard the nickname “the Velvet Teddy Bear” (from Gladys Knight, no less), Unconditional Love is marked by a song selection, chosen jointly by Studdard, Foster and Foster’s sister and fellow producer Jaymes Foster, to play to Studdard’s strengths as a romantic balladeer.
For starters, there’s The Carpenters’ Burt Bacharach-Hal David masterwork “They Long To Be (Close To You),” graced on Unconditional Love by Stevie Wonder’s harmonica. Then there’s Paul McCartney’s unforgettable “My Love,” one of several album tracks produced by John Jackson, who’s worked with Studdard throughout his career (as has Warryn Campbell, who produced “Unconditional,” which was written specially for Unconditional Love).
“I’m always looking at old videos, and ran across Paul McCartney & Wings singing ‘My Love’ and fell in love with the words,” explains Studdard. “It’s something that all performers feel and hope to have: the kind of love where there’s someone there for you as soon as you come off the road.” Likewise, the Hoagy Carmichael standard “The Nearness Of You” (also produced by Jackson), expresses for Studdard “the kind of love we all want,” while his breathtaking version of Boz Scaggs’ hit “Look What You’ve Done To Me,” which Eric Benet produced, relates “the vulnerable side most men normally don’t show, and says what every woman wants to hear: that their love has changed a man.”
Even Bonnie Raitt’s poignant “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which actually is a breakup song, is given Studdard’s star romantic treatment: “David and I were cautious about it because of the content, but the way we put it together, you don’t even notice it’s about breaking up with somebody!”
With Studdard’s steamy Benet-produced version of Teddy Pendergrass’ Gamble & Huff-penned hit “Close The Door,” however, Studdard takes his place among the kings of romantic music.
“Oh, man! I was most afraid to cover this song!” he admits. “Teddy Pendergrass did such a classic vocal, and some songs you feel should be left alone. But Jaymes was very adamant, because it’s one of her favorite songs, and David knew I was nervous and told me to just sing my heart out, and I think it’s one of the shining stars of the album.”
Studdard also evokes the memory of the great Donny Hathaway by way of his hit “Love, Love, Love.”
“I grew up listening to him, and he’s one of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard. But not a lot of people are familiar with him now, and I love the opportunity to introduce people to songs by artists they’re not familiar with. And ‘Love, Love, Love’ is not only a great love song, but one with a tempo to get people dancing!”
Hathaway’s daughter Lalah Hathaway joins him on “If This World Were Mine,” originally the Marvin Gaye-written duet for Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and famously covered by Luther Vandross and Cheryl Lynn.
“It’s one of my momma’s favorite Luther Vandross songs, and she’d play it over and over again,” says Studdard. “But it’s another opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the people I admire, like Marvin and Tammi—and of course Luther.
Luther Vandross, then, has special significance for Studdard.
“From the beginning of my career, people have said, ‘Why don’t you make an album featuring ‘the Luther Vandross sound?’ But I was so young, and it’s hard for anybody to tell you at 23-years-old that you’re the next Luther Vandross—even though I’m probably his biggest fan! But the older I get, the more honest and transparent I am about the way I feel about things—and I’ve never felt this strongly about anything I’ve done in my career.”
Studdard is now set to tour in support of Unconditional Love, and is bringing Lalah Hathaway along as his opening act.
“I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with the core audience that’s stuck with me from the beginning,” he concludes, adding, “It’s been a wonderful journey so far.”