“My friends kept saying I had nothing to lose,” says singer-songwriter Elliott Yamin of his decision to audition for “American Idol,” “and I really didn’t. I was at a point in my life where I had no direction. I was just scraping by at my job. I thought, I’m 27 years old and what do I have to show for it? I was lost. Deep down inside, I wondered if by trying out, I could somehow put myself on a path to something I’d always longed for but never admitted to anyone.”
The secret was on its way out well before Yamin finished third in the fifth season of “Idol” (in a historically close race behind Taylor Hicks and Katherine McPhee); early in the competition, the ever-prickly Simon Cowell deemed him “potentially the best male vocalist in the history of ‘American Idol.’” With the release of his debut album, Elliott Yamin (due March 20, 2007, on Sony/ATV Music Publishing’s Hickory Records), few will believe this accomplished vocalist was once too embarrassed to sing out in his middle-school choir class.
“I only took that class because there were a lot of cute girls in there,” he says with typical candor. “I pretty much just lip-synched my way through it.”
Perhaps even more compelling than Yamin’s status as an out-of-nowhere vocal powerhouse – he came to “AI” with no vocal training and no real performance experience – is his role as the underdog, who as a child had to cope with near-deafness in his right ear and at 16 was faced with Type 1 diabetes.
Asked how he’s coped with sudden fame, he points out: “A lot of young people with diabetes have said I’ve given them hope and made them believe in the power of music. They’ve told me how they’ve struggled and gone through difficult changes in their lives, and that seeing how I was able to achieve something through ‘Idol’ has inspired them to go for what they want. It’s amazing to me that I’ve played that role in someone’s life.”
The achievement represented by Elliott Yamin is all the more significant because the singer co-wrote the lion’s share of its songs. “I’m a baby in this game, and I’m not afraid to admit it,” he says. “Collaborating on the songs with these talented people who’ve been involved in music way longer than me and who share my passion for it has been an incredible experience. I’ve learned so much from them as an artist and as a person. The key to writing is to come from the heart. People relate to real feelings.”
Among the writer-producers who participated in the creation of Elliott Yamin are the duo known as Stargate (Beyoncé, Ne-Yo, Rihanna), Josh Abraham (Pink, Linkin Park, 30 Seconds to Mars), DJ Lethal (Evanescence, Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit), Michael Mangini (Joss Stone, Baha Men, David Byrne), and Derek Bramble (David Bowie, Vanessa Williams, Lalah Hathaway).
Yamin describes “Wait for You,” the first single off the disc, as “a ballad about a man losing the woman he loves but hoping she will come back someday and vowing to wait for her until she does.” The ability to convey the emotional essence of a love song is one of Yamin’s key strengths, as is his versatility. “The album is very eclectic,” he says, “with bluesy elements and some pop/R&B, club bangers with hip-hop beats and very heartfelt ballads.”
Fans of Yamin’s work on “American Idol” will be delighted to find his version of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” which Yamin’s own idol, Donny Hathaway, recorded in 1971. Viewers will recall that Yamin’s smoldering performance brought Paula Abdul to tears – she said he was an American idol – and moved Cowell to liken Yamin’s rendition to a vocal master class, judging it “superb.” Randy Jackson simply called the young man from Richmond, Va., “the bomb.”
Also making an appearance on Elliott Yamin is “Movin’ On,” which the singer co-wrote and which is likely to remind “AI” devotees of the time Abdul called him “one funky white boy.” The song was previewed on AOL’s First Listen Program, which landed it on AOL Music’s home page throughout Grammy weekend. Hundreds of thousands of visitors listened, many of whom posted rave reviews.
Yamin’s whiskey-soaked tenor – an instrument he characterizes as “raw” and “gritty,” more Wilson Pickett than Sam Cooke – unifies the disc’s disparate flavors. The record is also commendable for capturing the immediacy of Yamin’s live performances and his palpable joy in singing.
Listening to the album today, it’s hard to believe that Yamin kept his vocal gifts under wraps for most of his life.
His mother, on the other hand, did aspire to be a professional singer, moving to Los Angeles from Virginia to further that aim. Elliott was born in L.A. and lived there until the age of 10. He says music was always a presence at home, particularly what he calls “the golden oldies.” By the time he was eight years old, people began to notice his natural abilities, but, he confirms, “I was always shy about my singing.”
< He credits Whitney Houston as the first performer with whom he was “absolutely infatuated,” declaring, “Whitney was my girl.” “I’d put on her records and try to hit those notes – my voice was a lot higher then,” he continues. “She has definitely been an influence.” Huston is joined in that category by Stevie Wonder, about whom Yamin says, “He was the guy I tried to emulate vocally. Growing up, I was in love with Stevie Wonder, and I always will be.”
Still, unlike a lot of kids whose vocal skills are detected early on, Elliott did not take voice lessons, did not appear in school talent shows, did not practice his Grammy speech and was not stage-mothered. “My mom was always supportive, but she didn’t try to push me,” he notes. “She knew I hated to be the center of attention and she respected that.”
Shadowing the development of Elliott’s clandestine talent was his struggle with what he calls “bad tubes in my ears.” “That part of my childhood was very difficult,” he confides. “My ears always hurt, and I was the kid who always had to put drops in his ears. I was in and out of the hospital. When I was 13, my right eardrum burst and I had to have eardrum-replacement surgery. But I still can’t really hear in my right ear.” Doctors estimate that he has, in fact, suffered 90 percent hearing loss in that ear. “It’s always been a part of my life,” Yamin says matter-of-factly, having never allowed his hearing deficit to become a hindrance. “It’s just annoying to have to say ‘what?’ all the time.”
When Elliott was 10, his family moved to Richmond, because, as he explains, “My mother wanted to be near her family.” He reveals: “Moving to the South was such a culture shock for me; it felt like everything about it was different from what I was used to in L.A. It took me a while to adjust. But after that, I just loved Virginia. I’m so proud of where I come from. I miss Richmond every day [Yamin returned to L.A. after the 2006 “American Idol” tour to pursue his recording career]. I am most definitely a southern boy.”
He says his life in the Old Dominion State was “normal and boring,” but his parents divorced when he was 13, and at 16, he learned he had Type 1 diabetes. His mother and grandmother were both Type 2 diabetics, but Yamin was nonetheless traumatized when his condition was confirmed (his mother had made the initial diagnosis). He says he’s never been afraid of injections, having gone for weekly allergy shots for years, but nonetheless concedes: “It was very hard for me at first. I didn’t want to believe it. I went through a long period of denial; I kept thinking, this can’t be happening. I went from being your average 16-year-old knucklehead to having to confront this incurable, life-threatening disease. All the crazy, fun stuff you do when you’re a teenager had to take a back seat to watching what I ate and monitoring my insulin level. I didn’t want any part of it.”
Of course, Elliott long ago learned how to live with his diabetes and has for five years worn an insulin pump, which takes most of the guesswork out of self-treatment. But his vivid memories of those difficult early years have inspired him to visit children and teens at the American Diabetes Association’s summer camp in Pittsburgh. “Hanging out with those kids and sharing my story is really important to me,” he says. “It was always in my mind that if I actually made it far enough on ‘American Idol’ and the audience got familiar with me, I’d be able to let people know more about diabetes. I knew I could help bring it to the forefront and educate young people about this disease, which most people who don’t have it don’t really understand.”
Yamin has exceeded that goal, getting his fans involved in his efforts to raise funds for the Richmond chapter of the ADA and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. “I’ve donated the clothes I’ve worn on ‘Idol’ and onstage during the tour and anything I’ve been widely photographed wearing. I’ve also donated ‘AI’ memorabilia and autographs for fundraisers,” he informs. “But I don’t feel I’ve done enough yet – there’s just so much more to do.”
Diabetes certainly hasn’t kept Yamin from being a fully functioning member of society. Indeed, he’s been working since he was 17, holding what he estimates as “46 or 47” jobs, which have included a long stint at Foot Locker, working for a company that calibrates industrial scales, manning a pharmacy counter and serving as an on-air personality at Power 92.1, one of Richmond’s urban-format radio stations. But, as he relates, there was an aimlessness to his life. “I was wasting my days away,” he confesses.
Fortunately for his legion of fans, Elliott’s buddies were determined to put a stop to that. “My close friends knew I could sing. They got me into doing a little karaoke here and there,” he reports. “A couple of years ago, I won $1,000 in a karaoke contest. I sang ‘One Last Cry’ by Brian McKnight. They gave me the money in cash. I put a dent in it buying drinks for my friends at a club that night.”
He took a few tentative stabs at music thereafter, singing briefly with a jazz combo, mustering his courage at a handful of open-mic nights and helping out some friends in the studio. But, he says, “it was pretty much something I just did between jobs. I never took it seriously.”
Watching “American Idol,” however, was something he took seriously. “I was definitely a viewer and a fan,” he affirms. “I would call my friends during commercials and say, ‘Did you see that guy?!’ They were really into it, too, and they were always pushing me to try out. But as much as I loved the show, I really had no grasp of what it could do for me. I mean, obviously I knew that Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken and other finalists had gone on to big careers. But I never put it together that I could be one of them; it was just beyond imagining.” Then again, when his friends persisted in asking, “What have you got to lose?” Elliott knew there was only one answer: nothing.
Even after he made it onto the show and began climbing in the standings, it felt like a lark – until Stevie Wonder appeared as a guest vocal coach. He still shakes his head with incredulity as he relates what happened next: “When Stevie Wonder walked into the room and we found out we were going to work with him, I couldn’t believe it. I’m a very emotional person and I got tears in my eyes. At that point, I said to myself, okay, this could end for me right here, right now, and I’d be fine with that. I was real close with everyone on the show, including all the behind-the-scenes people. When the editors were cutting together the segment with Stevie, they said, ‘Hey, check this out.’ It was footage of him saying I should definitely pursue a career in music. I was stunned. To be validated by Steve Wonder … ”
That does tend to boost one’s confidence. Coupled with the fun Yamin was having onstage, Wonder’s encouragement made him think that maybe he should try to become a professional singer.
The ensuing “American Idol” tour – during which he heard thousands of hometown fans chanting his name before the curtain rose at the Richmond Coliseum – cemented his resolve. He says that like his “AI Rat Pack” crew (Taylor Hicks, Chris Daughtry, Bucky Covington and Ace Young; one music writer called Yamin the Sammy Davis, Jr., of the bunch), he craves the stage.
“When you look out into the audience and see people singing along and smiling and laughing and crying, you feel an incredible connection. The fact that you are able to move people that way is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever experienced. I thrive on it,” Yamin says. “When I’m onstage, I’m home – I have a sense of belonging I’ve never felt before. It feels like what I was born to do. It has put my whole life into perspective. It’s like I finally figured it out; I finally got it right: I’m a singer.”