“American Idol” winners Ruben Studdard, right, and Jordin Sparks performed a duet on the May 2, 2022, episode of the ABC reality series. They covered “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” as part of the “Great Idol Reunion,” an hourlong special celebrating the show’s 20th anniversary. (ABC/Christopher Willard)
Birmingham’s Ruben Studdard returned to “American Idol” on Monday night, performing on a special episode called the “Great Idol Reunion.”
The idea was to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the reality TV series with splashy performances by former winners and other high-profile contestants. Studdard certainly qualifies in that regard, as the enormously popular champ of Season Two in 2003.
His role on the hourlong show was to sing “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” with Jordin Sparks, the Season Six winner. Two entertainment powerhouses, Aretha Franklin and George Michael, released the song as a duet in 1987, but Studdard and Sparks were poised to do it justice.
As you’ll see in the clip, former “Idol” judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul were on hand to introduce the duo on Monday’s episode, and reminisce about their years on the show.
“He’s the 2003 winner from the 205 — that’s right — whose smooth vocals gave Paula chills and got us on our feet, week after week,” Jackson said of Studdard. (One of Studdard’s trademarks on “Idol” was to shout “205!” on the show, referencing the area code for Birmingham.)
After Studdard and Sparks performed, current “Idol” judge Lionel Richie recalled about his encounter with Studdard as a guest judge on the series in Season Two.
“Honestly, I was there at the beginning of this ride for you, Ruben,” said Richie, an Alabama native. “But all I can say to both of you: You are now pros, absolute pros in this business.”
Producers dug up a 2003 clip of Richie on “Idol,” evaluating Studdard’s performance in the Top 8. Studdard sang “Kiss and Say Goodbye” by The Manhattans” on the program, earning lavish kudos.
“You know, Ruben, from one Alabama brother to another Alabama brother — Tuskegee, Alabama; Birmingham, Alabama — you did a fantastic job,” Richie said in 2003. “Congratulations.”
Studdard made another appearance on “Idol” earlier in Season 20, mentoring the contestants during Hollywood Week.
Studdard, 43, was the first “American Idol” winner from Alabama, putting the state on the reality TV map making folks here proud. His smooth R&B stylings prompted guest judge Gladys Knight to call Studdard the “Velvet Teddy Bear,” and the nickname has been apt as he’s moved through his career.
RELATED: Blast from the past: Birmingham’s Ruben Studdard wins on ‘American Idol’
Studdard has seven studio albums to his credit, 2003 to date, and has continued to record and perform. He was nominated for a Grammy in 2004 for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, for his cover of “Superstar.” He’s won three Billboard Music Awards, a Teen Choice award and an NAACP Image Award, and has been nominated for other accolades in the music industry.
This year, Studdard signed on to teach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Starting this fall, he’ll teach two courses there, one on the commercial side of the music business and one on the performing side, according to a news release
Alabama has a rich history on “American Idol,” with two winners from the state — Studdard in 2003 and Taylor Hicks in 2006 — and six other singers who made the top 10 during the first 14 seasons, when the series aired on FOX. Another singer from Alabama, Walker Burroughs, made the top eight in 2019 during Season 17, after the show moved to ABC.
Four singers from Alabama have been competing on “Idol” this season: Kezia “Lady K” Istonia of Tuskegee, Tristen Gressett of Pell City, Cadence Baker of Florence and Tyler N. Allen of Mobile. Lady K was the most successful, making it to the Top 10. She was eliminated on May 1 after performing on Disney Night.
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