NEW YORK — “American Idol” winner Taylor Hicks needs his Soul Patrol to step up.
They were certainly there for him around this time last year, when he was building up a feverish fan base, named the “Soul Patrol.” The things about him that irked Simon Cowell — that mop of gray hair and the herky-jerky dance moves that conjured up images of dorky dads loose at a wedding reception — were instead embraced by millions, who later handed him the “Idol” title over the likes of talented hotties Katharine McPhee and Chris Daughtry.
It was like a made-for-primetime fairy tale, starring the soulful-voiced Hicks. But as the all that hoopla died down, Hicks faced a tougher task: making the transition from reality TV star to established soul singer.
So far, not so good — well, not Carrie Underwood “good.”
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His self-titled, post-“Idol” album, released in December, debuted at No. 2 on the charts. While it has sold a solid 640,000 copies, it has slid significantly to a more dismal rank: 136 this week. Discs by previous winners Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia and Ruben Studdard performed a lot better in the weeks after they were issued. And finalist Chris Daughtry is near the top of the charts with the self-titled debut of his band Daughtry — they have sold over 1 million records.
Geoff Mayfield, a senior analyst at Billboard, said he’s got “a strong suspicion that [Hicks] might be the first winner who falls shy of a million units.”
Work in progress
There’s a reason for that, said Tom Corson, executive vice president of J Records, a label within Sony-BMG, which signs the show’s singers. Hicks took a little longer than some of the other Idols to complete the album, he said, and his first single, “Just To Feel That Way,” debuted on radio’s airwaves only three weeks ago.
“It’s a work in progress, and, would we have liked to sell a little bit more? Yeah. But (the album is) still gold and on its way to platinum,” Corson told The Associated Press this week. “And, if the single performs, we’ll turn it around, so we’re quite — we’re quite optimistic about things as it stands right now.”
The power ballad “Just To Feel That Way,” in which he urges a lover to try to make the relationship work, sits at No. 26 on the adult contemporary radio charts, Mayfield said.
“With Taylor, you’re going into an adult format,” Corson said. “We hope it translates younger, but the music right now is much more adult. It’s a longer burn, a longer process.”
Hicks’ target audience is a bit more passive, said Corson, who noted that “it just takes a little longer to get those people to buy.”
And Hicks, who is out on a nationwide tour in support of the album, has a plan to boost sales.
“It’s slow and steady wins the race,” he said Tuesday in a phone conversation with the AP. “You know, to have overnight record success, you know, it’s tough to do. You have to massage the record buying audience as much as you have to massage the live performing audience, you know?”
So he’s going to take a grassroots approach.
“I think the best thing for me as an artist is to get out and be with the people and tour the record,” he said. “And go to the radio stations and be personable.”
Is the Soul Patrol, whose members proudly brandished “Pick Hicks” signs on “Idol” last year, still going strong?
“I mean, it’s been a packed house every night,” said Hicks. “It’s a very musical show and it’s very real and very raw. And that’s who I am as an artist.”
Hicks, who has studied the stage moves of passionate, soulful performers like James Brown and Sly Stone, could have a better shot at success in front of a live audience than on the radio, said Mayfield.
“I think he could have at least some legs as a live performer,” he said. “The one thing I can tell you is I’m sure that a lot of thought was given to this album, and it just doesn’t appear to be a particularly friendly radio climate for whatever niche you would assign to what he does. And I’m not even really sure how to classify him.”
That could be the problem, said Barry James, a program director at the Chicago-based radio station 100.3, which plays a boomer-friendly mix of classic dance and R&B hits.
“Taylor is a terrific club, local band singer,” James said in an e-mail to the AP. “He is, however, so narrowly imaged that he’ll never break out of it. He’s Michael McDonald’s little brother (for lack of a better term).”
James said he HAS an image, “but it’s not one with broad appeal. Is he sweet? The bad boy? The sexy chick magnet? The whacked out artist? The ‘dark’ one? The answer is none of the above.”
One thing, though, is certain: The guy needs a radio hit if he wants to make on impact on major markets, said Sharon Dastur, a program director at the New York-based radio station Z100, which plays Top 40 songs. His chances for that are hampered by the album’s classic rock feel, she said.
“I think that if he just made it more of a current pop sound, but still he could showcase his soulful vocals in a more current way, that it would still be true to the way he writes and the way he performs,” Dastur said.
It’s too early to tell how things might end up, said Hicks, but, in the meantime, he’s happy to be onstage. And he’s very thankful for that moment on “American Idol,” an undeniably successful launching pad.
And he knows his “Idol” win was no fluke.
“I think you have to set yourself apart,” Hicks said. “And, you know, you really can’t pull the wool over 34 million people live. That’s just tough to do, you know?”
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