Video: Ruben Studdard performs 'Sorry 2004'

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NBC News
updated 1/2/2004 4:22:11 PM ET 2004-01-02T21:22:11

Once again, the American people have shown a sharp eye and ear for talent. Just a few months after he was chosen as the next "American Idol," Ruben Studdard's first CD will debut at number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. But wherever fame and fortune might take this singer in the future, home is where his heart is. And that's where Ann Curry caught up with Ruben Studdard.

25-year-old Ruben Studdard needs no introduction in Birmingham, Ala., where the native son has returned home more than a little famous, performing for the first time in the place where it all began.

Ann Curry: "You're lying in bed. You're a little boy, you dream of being a star?"

Ruben Sutddard: "Yeah, I'd go sleep and I'd have my headphones on in my sleep. I would just always dream about being on stage and people cheering and screaming."

If you're like 38 million others, you might remember Ruben. Earlier this year, he won a little talent contest called "American Idol," and to say he's living his dream doesn't begin to describe it.

Curry: "How crazy has it been?"

Studdard: "The schedule is really crazy and the fans are sometimes kind of crazy, but other than that it's been--it's been cool."

Cool is not the word. Since his win in May, Ruben Studdard's been on fire. There was a 42-city "American Idol" tour, a Rolling Stone cover, a cameo in the new movie, "Scooby Doo 2," a new car for him and his mom, and a new single, "Flying Without Wings" that landed him on the top of the charts.

But the icing on the cake is that $1 million recording contract with music mogul Clive Davis. He's the man who turned Alicia Keys, Whitney Houston, and so many others into legends. Ruben's hoping his turn is next.

His first album is called "Soulful," and the pressure for success is big. Its success could decide whether the contest winner, who Gladys Knight dubbed "The Velvet Teddy Bear," is a fleeting fad or a talent with staying power in the music business.

Studdard: "I don't want to be a one-hit wonder. And I just pray that god gives me longevity in the music industry."

The album is also a personal one. It's filled with the kind of clean-cut, feel-good music Ruben grew up with, and contains a favorite song his idol, Donny Hathaway, made famous.

It's that soft, smooth voice and dimpled baby face that's made Ruben so popular with millions of fans, but it's also that 6-foot-4, 350-pound frame that's given fans a lot of Ruben to love. And they've showered him with all kinds of nicknames.

Curry: "You've been called "the sumo of soul" on Jay Leno."

Sutddard: "Oh yeah. Jay Leno called me that. I don't know if you've heard of the Jaded John list. He calls me mount saint smooth."

Curry: "Mount saint smooth, you laugh."

Studdard: "It's funny."

Curry: "But you know with mount saint smooth, velvet teddy bear, sumo of soul, they're all talking about your size in addition to your singing."

Studdard: "Yeah."

Curry: "That doesn’t' bother you?"

Studdard: "No, I'm a big dude."

Curry: "You don't ever want to be the lean, mean, soul machine?"

Studdard: "I mean, I'm healthy. I've never had any health problems and I'm Ruben, man, all the way through."

Curry: "But the idea of looking good. I mean, there's a lot of pressure on people who do what you do—"

Studdard: "Well, I think."

Curry: "To look a certain way."

Studdard: "I think I look good. I think I look real good."

The ever-confident Ruben loves his mom's southern home cooking, but he's started seeing a nutritionist and wants everyone to chill out about his weight.

Studdard: "I've never been insecure about who I was."

Curry: "What is it that your mom said that made it ok to be Ruben no matter what."

Studdard: "My mother always taught me, even my dad, just never let other people's opinions of you shape your opinion of yourself. And I never have and I never will."

Ruben says he's always been a big kid, but that didn't stop him from being one of the most popular kids in school.

Curry: "They didn't tease you?"

Studdard: "I was always the teaser."

Curry: "You were not. You didn't tease people, did you?"

Studdard: "All the time."

Curry: "No you didn't."

Studdard: "Yeah, I did." [laughs]

Ruben was also an athlete excelling in sports like baseball and football. Ruben even went to college on a football scholarship.

He also owes a lot of his confidence to the Rising Star Baptist Church. It's there in the Rising Star Cherub Choir where Ruben first learned about performing. Even then, his mother knew these church walls couldn't contain him.

Mother: "He was never ever afraid to get in front of a crowd and he would just volunteer to sing songs in church."

He's been singing ever since. For Ruben, music's been a constant all his life, soothing him through difficult times -- like his parents’ divorce when he was 17 and helping him to make peace with his dad.

Curry: "It hurt your relationship with him?"

Studdard: "It did for a while, but you know I can't -- you can't walk around with grudges on your shoulders, man. He's still my dad, I only get one dad and I make sure I keep a relationship with him."

Ruben calls on his family to keep him grounded. His brother, Kevin, is part of his inner circle. And he keeps coming home to Birmingham, a place he loves. The city, once the focal point of the civil rights movement, he says gets a negative reaction sometimes, even today.

Studdard: "I traveled a lot when I was growing up and I’ve been a lot of places and every time I tell somebody I’m from Birmingham, they're like, ‘oh Birmingham, Alabama.’ So I want to make sure that I used my success to show Birmingham in a positive light. And I’ve done that.

Curry: "You did that from the beginning with that shirt you wore."

Studdard: "Yeah."

That famous 205 shirt, a shout out to the Birmingham area code, became part of Ruben's trademark image on "American Idol." But already Ruben has gotten a taste of the complications of fame. He filed a $2 million lawsuit against 205 Flava, the makers of the jersey, claiming they used his image to sell their clothes without his permission.

Studdard: "People just take your kindness for weakness sometimes, and that's just the bottom line. And you know, I think we should just move on to another subject, Ms. Curry!"

But 205 Flava fired back with an accusation of their own. They say Ruben accepted money to wear the jersey on the show -- against the rules of "American Idol." Ruben denies he was paid and just recently the lawsuit was settled out of court. Moving onward, the loyal southern boy is concentrating on the next step: finding himself a new home in the country. The price tag on this possibility is almost $700,000.

Ruben Studdard sometimes wonders how he got to this place. The ‘American Idol’ winner, smiling back at the young boy who wore his headphones to sleep and dreamed of just this life as the record spun round and round.

Ruben may be adding another title to his belt. He's been nominated for a Grammy for best R&B male vocalist. Another nominee in that category is Luther Vandross, another idol of Ruben's. His album "Soulful" is in stores now.

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