RICHMOND, Va. — Growing up, Elliott Yamin used to sing along with the radio, his brother pounding on the wall telling him to turn the music down so he could do his homework or watch TV.
But his family never knew that muffled beneath the sounds of Stevie Wonder, Usher and Donny Hathaway, was the voice of the 27-year-old singer — who is 90 percent deaf in his right ear and has juvenile diabetes.
“I never knew Elliott could sing,” said his mother, Claudette Yamin. “About a year ago I went to karaoke. ... The noise level was very high and then Elliott came out. And when he opened his mouth and started singing, you could hear a pin drop and I thought, ‘Oh my God.”’
His karaoke performance at a local restaurant earned him $1,000 and the confidence needed to push himself to audition.
Before “American Idol” Yamin had never done much public singing outside of karaoke, and a few times with a band.
“He has no professional training. His singing is what he feels,” his mother said. “How he hears what he hears, enough to be able to sing on key and everything, is remarkable.”
Does he have the stage presence?
While some — including tough-to-please judge Simon Cowell — call Yamin the show’s best male singer, some question his stage persona and star quality. But his supporters say there’s more to being a performer than just looks.
“Whatever he may lack in stage presence, he has more than made up for that in his absolutely authentic, modest and humble personality,” said his cousin, Chuck Lessin, who went to see Yamin perform last month.
Virginia has embraced Yamin as its native “Idol.” Radio and TV airwaves stream with mentions and pictures of Yamin. Businesses have hosted viewing and voting parties and arranged space on a giant billboard along Interstate 95 encouraging everyone to vote for the hometown star.
At 10, Yamin moved from Los Angeles to Richmond with his recently divorced mother and brother. Until recently, Yamin hadn’t met his sister, whom his mother put up for adoption.
Although he wasn’t a problem child, his mother said, academics didn’t top his list of priorities.
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“He was not a student and in the 10th grade ... the school said, ‘You’re a nice kid, we like you, but get the hell out,”’ Claudette Yamin said. “So I went to court to petition to legally let Elliott quit school. Had I not, I would have been arrested for truancy.”
‘The kid can sing anything’
After Yamin left high school, he searched for jobs, and found a friend in the process.
Tony Klisiewicz offered Yamin a full-time job at Foot Locker and made a deal with the then 16-year-old Yamin — he could work there if he promised to earn his general equivalency diploma.
Yamin lived up to the deal.
“The school pretty much gave up on him,” said Klisiewicz. “He’s a great guy. He just needed some help along the way.”
And there, among the shoe boxes in the stockroom, Klisiewicz said, Yamin honed his talent.
“He used to sing in the back room constantly,” he said. “The kid can sing anything.”
Yamin went through the management training program, and later worked at a local pharmacy as well as an on-air disc jockey for a local R&B radio station, using the name “E-Dub.”
But Yamin wanted to do more than just play the songs of the artists he admired most — he wanted to sing them.
“I always said Elliott was my little lost boy because he never found anything that made him happy,” said Claudette Yamin. “He just never found his niche. And, I guess this is it. I guess this it what he’s been striving for all his life.”
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