The 15th and final bittersweet season of American Idol kicks off this Wednesday, Jan. 6, and all season long, Yahoo Music’s Reality Rocks will be inviting alumni from the series to share their stories. And who better to kick off this special essay series than Season 6 runner-up and beatbox wonder Blake Lewis, one of the most game-changing and groundbreaking contestants to ever appear on the show? Here, he recalls when he stood up to nasty Nigel Lythgoe and, as a result, got to relish his time of Season 6.
It was David vs. Goliath. The time of my season.
So there I was, top 11 week of American Idol Season 6. How did I get this far? This was insanity. It was British Invasion Week on Idol, and I thought I had the perfect song to wow audiences nationwide. The night before, I did my usual preparations. I set up a little studio in the small apartment bedroom I was sharing with Chris Richardson, Chris Sligh, and Phil Stacey – two studio monitors, a computer, a keyboard midi controller, a guitar, and an idea.
To me, American Idol was more of a remix contest – at least that’s how I viewed it. I was there to do my best version of other people’s music, so every week I would load the original music into Ableton Live, beatbox, rearrange, add new instrumentation to make a new song out of a classic. The next day I would take my little piece of something and work on it with Debra Byrd and Matt Rohde, the show’s arrangers and vocal coaches.
I grew up listening to the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” on KBSG in Seattle, the oldies station. I loved this song! Every time the beat would start I was in love, and it still instantly takes me back to good times. And the vocal melody is pure sex. The melodic chord structure at the end of the chorus, from minor to major, makes me smile every time. I knew that if I did this right, America would be smiling right there with me.
The next day when I met with Debra and Matt, we solidified the arrangement, and I knew it was going to be a great moment for me onstage. But just then, the Wizard of Oz entered the room (aka Nigel Lythgoe). Oh no! What was it this time?“
On my very short amount of time on the show so far, Nigel and I, you could say, weren’t on the same page – to put it nicely. He was Goliath, and I was David. Every time he walked in the room, I knew I was up for some kind of debate about the show. I just didn’t know this was going to be my biggest battle with him to date.
British Invasion Week was Nigel’s favorite week on the show, mainly because he’s British. So in his mind, he had the whole episode already worked out and was going around telling people what he wanted them to sing. Since day one, he’d always interjected on people’s choices. Considering the fact that he was producing one of the largest TV shows of all time and he wanted it to run smoothly and be entertaining, I totally respected that. From my point of view as an entertainer and artist, I wanted the same things. I just looked at things from a different viewpoint than he did.
Nigel asked for my song choice, and that’s when he went off. He told me it was all wrong. "The Zombies weren’t big enough. It won’t impact the audience. No one knows it,” he argued. “I want you to sing ‘Tobacco Road’ by the Who.” [Editor’s note: Lythgoe was likely referring to the Animals’ version of the 1960 John D. Loudermilk/Nashville Teens standard.]
Me: “NO WAY!!!” I didn’t really know it, and I didn’t think it was that great of a song. Plus, it just was not sexy like “Time of the Season.”
We went back and forth for almost an hour – Nigel trying to convince me that “America” wouldn’t get what I was trying to do. I snapped back with: “I’m American, and I get it. How do you not get this?”
I continued, “Look, the audience doesn’t know what song I sing until I perform it. If it sucks, I don’t get the votes, and I’m off the show. My track record for doing the unexpected and being true to my instincts is working for me, I’m not going to sing a song I’m not 100 percent sure will connect. And 'Tobacco Road’ is a s— song for me. I’m doing my arrangement of 'Time of the Season’ that I spent all night working on, and that’s that.”
Nigel stormed out of the room, pissed. I really had to put my foot down with him, and he was never the kind of guy to let it go. If you pissed him off, he’d put you in the middle or second-to-last in the show’s lineup, when you really wanted to be first or last.
The next day was rehearsals with the band, and Nigel was of course there to say his piece and help direct where the cameramen should shoot. When my turn came, there he was, arms folded across his chest, just staring, thinking of what to say when I finished. I was just smiling and singing a song I loved. The band sounded so good! Playing with all these amazing singers and musicians every week was just the greatest. As soon as we wrapped, Nigel walked up to the stage. Oh boy, I thought, here it comes…
“Blake, I’m sorry. You were right and I was wrong. This is going to be one of your greatest songs, and I’m putting you last tomorrow night.” [Editor’s note: Melinda Doolittle ended up singing last that week, while Phil Stacey ended up performing “Tobacco Road” instead.]
I was in shock. “THANK YOU!”
And that was it. The rest is television and YouTube history. From then on out, I didn’t hear much from Nigel when choosing my songs. I had gained his respect.
Jon Bon Jovi was another story, of course. He he.
What a journey American Idol was. I stayed true to myself, and made it to the finale. What an incredible feeling and feat for a guy who’d never seen the show before and never considered himself much of a competitor. I still get asked to this day, “What was Idol like?” And every time without hesitation I just say one word: “Amazing.”