Something strange has happened to Ruben Studdard since he won the second "American Idol."
"I had an album that came out in 2004 that is almost about to go platinum, my first album went double platinum, I had a #1 single on Christian radio for a long time, and everywhere I went people were asking me where I was," Studdard said from his home in Birmingham, Alabama. "I was like, 'Have you not seen my video on BET or MTV?' Like, my video was on heavy rotation on both stations, and everybody just kept asking me, 'Where are you?' So I thought maybe I just need to name this album something that will catch their attention."
Hence The Return of the Velvet Teddy Bear, a reference to Studdard's "Idol" nickname, given to him by guest judge Gladys Knight. Studdard's been working on the album since last spring (see "Ruben Studdard Enlists Mario Winans For Third LP") and plans to release it in August after sessions with Ne-Yo and Scott Storch.
"I really wanted to do a duet with Fantasia, but I don't know if that's gonna happen or not," he said. "We're just looking for one or two more records, then we're gonna close it down."
Studdard described the direction as more grown-up. "I really got a chance to relax and sing, not like my first album when I was on the road the whole album," he said. "I just really think I'm gonna get a chance to do my thing, and I'm really excited about it."
The album will also feature R&B girl group Mocha and rapper Gutter, both on Studdard's RCS Music Group. For the former, Studdard actually held "American Idol"-style auditions back in November.
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"I know how it feels to stand on the other side of the table, so even though a lot of it was funny — I can't lie, it was extremely funny — I did my best not to laugh at people," Studdard said. "Some girls came from as far away as Tennessee."
Along with his own music career, Studdard is dedicating his time to making stars out of underprivileged kids in Alabama. In the coming months, he'll launch the Music Alternative Project — an after-school program based in a recording studio in Birmingham.
"I always feel like it's good to give back to the community," Studdard said. "My city gave me so much, not only when I was on the show, but I went to a public school and I learned a lot and people really poured a lot into me, and I feel like it's necessary for me to pour back into the kids."
Studdard is starting the program with Dr. Henry Panion, the director of music technology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and a popular orchestrator in hip-hop and R&B.
"I have the Ruben Studdard Foundation and it's a scholarship foundation primarily, but in the last two or three years now we've noticed a certain disparity in the schools, like if you took a poll from kids in my area, most of them would say when they grow up they want to be an athlete or a star," Studdard said. "But none of them know about the business for real. ... So we got together and started brainstorming about how we could keep the kids interested and off the streets, and we thought of this program."
Together, Studdard and Panion developed a four-quarter program to be taught by themselves as well as seniors in Panion's UAB program.
"The first quarter is basically learning the ins and outs," Studdard said. "The second quarter is the technology end. The third quarter will be more detail-oriented as far as, like, they'll be able to pick the artist they want to work with, pick the single. And then the fourth quarter will be showing them how to promote the album."
The Music Alternative Project will start with 25 students and enlist 25 more each quarter, so there will eventually be 100 a year.
"Hopefully we can motivate some of these kids to go on and do big things, maybe not being the big-time rapper, but we're gonna show them the ins and outs, royalties, how to run their own label, how to do it all," Studdard said. "I think it's gonna be something great and hopefully we'll get it where we can have it in more areas. I know that I have a busy schedule, but so does Dr. Panion, and I feel like if he can devote as much time as he does to this, I can as well."
That said, Studdard admits he's had no time to watch this season's "Idol," but he's endorsing Birmingham native Taylor Hicks regardless.
"Bo Bice was from Birmingham," he said. "Diana DeGarmo was actually born in Birmingham. So we've been doing pretty well."
Studdard also wasn't aware that "Idol" castoff Mandisa had a crush on him (see "Mandisa Defends Outspoken Spirituality, Waits For Ruben's Call"). "I'm flattered," he said. "Thanks, Mandisa."