From Saint Louis to Hollywood to Southern Illinois
by Jeff Hale
American Idol season four finalist Nikko Smith will bring his soul and pop music Saturday, July 3 to Walker's Bluff, as part of the Bluff's Independence Day weekend celebration. Smith's performance begins at 6 p.m., weather permitting.
Fans of American Idol will no doubt remember Smith, who endeared himself to Idol watchers in 2005. Dubbed "the comeback kid" by Idol judge Paula Abdul, Smith's warm and easy charm caused him, after being eliminated once, to be brought back for a second time as a replacement for fellow contestant Mario Vasquez, who departed the competition for personal reasons. Smith's espresso-smooth vocals wrapped themselves around some of pop and soul music's most enduring classics with a gospel quality that even made Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" and Stevie Wonder's "Part Time Lover" sound like a trip to a church service. Eventually Smith finished the competition in ninth place.
In 2006, the rhythm and blues singer/songwriter launched his own record label, Show Me Entertainment, named after his home state of Missouri, and in 2008 he released his debut CD, Revolution.
Born in Saint Louis Missouri in 1982, Smith is the son of Saint Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith. Born during the same year as his father's World Series win with the Cardinals, the young Smith would soon make his own mark, with his voice, which listeners can hear at .
Last week Nightlife caught up with Smith, who talked about his roots, his music, and the positive and negative impacts that international television exposure can have on a budding music career.
How did you first get into music, and how did you decide that it was going to be your career?
Well, I've always been really interested in entertainment. But I think that the music came with my mom [Denise] getting me into going to church and singing. I was probably about seven when I found out about this movie, Purple Rain with Prince. After I saw that movie, it was pretty much a done deal. I knew I wanted to be a singer and performer from that point on. After I saw it, I was always walking around the house with my plastic purple guitar, singing. I couldn't play real guitar then. I used to pretend I was Prince [laughing].
In all of your performances on American Idol, even "Georgia on My Mind," there was a real gospel vibe to your vocals. Is that something that just naturally comes through in your voice, or was it cultivated by your background of singing in church?
I think it was a little bit of all of that. My mom is also a singer, and has spent her whole life singing in the church. I listened to her all the time coming up. She grew up in Texas, so she has the whole gospel feel when she sings. And most of the people whose records I listened to as a kid got their start singing in church. That plays a huge part in how my vocals come across and in my style of singing.
Who were your other musical influences, who have you learned the most from, and who have you looked to for inspiration?
First it was Prince, when I was little. Then a little later, I discovered the movie Moonwalker. After I discovered Michael Jackson, my eyes were opened to a whole new spectrum and new feelings. My whole attitude toward music changed, and I started branching out and listening to different stuff, like the Police. My auntie always used to listen to the Police and Sting.
When I got a little bit older, I remember one of my favorite groups of all time being Dru Hill, that R and B group from the nineties. They had that gospel feel, but it was a new-age R and B version of gospel. When I turned fifteen, I started really getting into the vocal aspect of music, and Dru Hill had amazing vocals. That's when the whole singing thing really started to mold for me. I started getting into R. Kelly, and after that, I was branching out all over the place, with groups like Led Zeppelin and Stone Temple Pilots. Anything I thought was good, I started listening to.
What was the American Idol audition process like, and how did you end up singing for Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, and Randy Jackson?
American Idol had been on for three seasons, and each time my mom would always say, "You should audition for American Idol". I would always tell her, "Ma, I'm not going to a strange city and sleeping out on the ground waiting to get in, and standing in line for hours and hours." I always thought it was kind of cheesy when I was watching it.
But finally, American Idol was having auditions here in Saint Louis. Once again, my mom said, "You have no excuse not to go now; it's in your own city." And when your mom tells you to go do something, you gotta go do it. I didn't want to, but my girlfriend at the time was also an amazing singer, and she wanted to go down and audition. Originally I was just going down to show her support and help her with her audition.
We slept out on the street that night, outside of the dome. You get to meet so many different people, and people were singing all night. A lot of people think you just get right in and sing for Paula, Randy, and Simon. But there are two or three auditions before you even get to meet them. Me and my [girlfriend] sang for a bunch of different people who worked for the show, then we sang for the producers. Then, finally we got to sing for Paula, Randy, and Simon.
Those three are known for being the heartbeat of American Idol. When you got into the actual competition, how much personal one-on-one contact did you have with them, as far as getting to know them?
They always tried to restrict contact. We saw them as little as possible when it wasn't necessary. After we finished shooting, we didn't stand around on the sidelines shooting the breeze-- it wasn't like that at all. After we did get finished with auditions, Paula came up and gave us some words of inspiration. All of them, Simon too, were just super-cool when we did get to talk to them. But Paula was very, very nice. That was at the same time that the scandal with her came out in the media, so unfortunately they restricted our contact even more after that. We basically only got to see them when we performed.
During your time on American Idol, what was your favorite performance?
I don't know. I was really, really lucky. Everything I sang, I was a fan of. I had seen previous seasons where people ended up having to pick something they'd never heard or sang before. But everything I got to sing was something I grew up hearing or something I'd always wanted to sing. I don't know if I could pick a favorite. I'd probably say "Part Time Lover," because I'm a Stevie [Wonder] fan.
How much would you say the recognition generated by your time on American Idol has helped your career since that time?
Man, it's had a humongous, gigantic impact. Just the exposure that you get every week with being on there is phenomenal. I was blessed enough to be on there, leave, and then get to come back.
People recognize you everywhere you go once you've been on there. However, that's a double-edged sword. Yes, people recognize you, but after being on that show, where you spend the entire competition singing other people's music, a lot of people look at you like, "That's not a real artist." The exposure was great, but you have to work even that much harder after being on American Idol and singing other people's stuff. You have to work to prove yourself as an artist. There's definitely pros and cons about it, but I wouldn't trade it.
As long as we're on the subject of your own music, what can people expect to see and hear at Walker's Bluff on Saturday?
I do a little bit of everything. These past couple of years I've been expanding my musical horizons and tastes, and incorporating more and more into the show. We do our own stuff, but we also do Michael Jackson to Carrie Underwood to Journey, and then back to Prince. We've got the rock 'n' roll and the R and B. It's all over the place when we do shows. We like to party, and we have all the up-tempo and old-school funky songs. But I also love to slow it down with stuff like "Sarah Smile" by Hall and Oates.
who: Nikko Smith
what: singer / songwriter
where: Walker's Bluff
when: Saturday, July 3