LOS ANGELES — “American Idol” fans know Paula, Simon, Randy and Ryan. But there’s a fifth star who’s rarely seen: Rickey Minor, the man behind the music.
Minor made a major change in the show when he took over as its musical director in 2005, ditching the karaoke-style canned tunes in favor of a live band. Each week he oversees a staff of 45 musicians, arrangers and copyists. He also was instrumental in bringing certified superstars to the “Idol” stage, including Prince, Mary J. Blige and Al Jarreau.
As a teenager, Minor walked away from a scholarship at University of California at Los Angeles for a chance to tour with Gladys Knight and the Pips. Next came a gig with Lou Rawls, then a chance to build a band for an aspiring singer named Whitney Houston.
Now 47, Minor has earned some serious industry clout. He’s worked with heavy hitters including Christina Aguilera and Stevie Wonder. Since the millennium began, music mogul Clive Davis has tapped Minor to handle the music each year at his famous pre-Grammy party.
Minor also brought his skills to music’s biggest night, serving as musical director for the Grammys in February.
He will be “Idol”-focused until the show’s finale May 23, but he’ll still find time to take on two other big tasks in April: handling musical duties at the TV Land Awards and producing a weekend-long concert festival in Tobago featuring Elton John, Al Green, Diana Ross and Blige.
Minor talked with The Associated Press about piano lessons, gardening and why “American Idol” resonates with so many fans.
Q: Why does live music make a difference on “Idol”?
A: The ability to change on a dime is priceless. You can’t do that (on tape). And the credibility. We have people like Chris Daughtry who could have never come on this show and been impactful doing rock. It’s karaoke. Still, some of the kids sound karaoke, but at least with the live band, it gives them what the top professionals in the world not only expect but get when they work with me. They’re getting what Stevie Wonder gets. They’re getting what Whitney and Beyonce get. This is what Aretha Franklin sings to. It’s like a high school basketball team getting Phil Jackson to coach them, and Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are all on your team.
Q: How does working on “American Idol” compare to the Grammys?
A: Working on “Idol,” we have the kids, and the experience varies. Some are musicians, like Taylor Hicks had his own band already, so he had experience working with a band. Kelly Pickler had never sang with a band in her life. Carrie Underwood lived on a farm, so she just sang at home walking around with the cows. As far as the musicians, I have a core rhythm section, and I change the strings and horns every week, just to spread the work around and let other musicians experience the show. Having that kind of energy around you is great, and hopefully it’s contagious to the kids. The pros get the same thing. So (I) get people like Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera on top of their game. I can go on the awards shows with them, and they want to go on with me because they know that I’m going to raise the level. They want to bring in some heavy hitters, and I’ll bring in the best arrangers, the best musicians that are available.
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Q: What is it about “Idol” that connects with so many people?
A: It’s taking an average, ordinary person and changing the course of their life. It shows that whatever you want out of your life, you can actually do it. People become entrenched in the stories, and they’re pulling for these people — it’s personal now, it’s not even about the singing. And it’s one of the few shows on television that the whole family can sit and watch. The grandmothers love it because Tony Bennett is going to be on the show, or they’re going to sing “Moon River.” So it sparks conversation with the family.
Q: With all this work, how do you unwind?
A: My wife (of 22 years, Karen) and I walk most mornings, a few miles every morning. The thing that I love to do is garden, mostly flowers and trees, cutting hedges and pulling weeds. I just love being outdoors. On weekends I unplug.
Q: What’s on your iPod?
A: Everything that I work on. In my car I listen to satellite, and I listen to pretty much jazz because I’m a jazz head. I’m a jazzer. It’s the thing I love because there are no boundaries. You can play one note a million times and approach it differently every time, and no two solos are the same. It’s cerebral for me, yet I can enjoy it. People send me demos, but I don’t listen to them. There’s only so much you can listen to. It’s like smelling perfume: How much can you smell before you’re numb?
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