Reality-show vocal competitions are thought to be designed for newcomers just starting their careers.
For West Hartford's Javier Colon, who wowed the judges on NBC's "The Voice" last week, it was a return to the arena for someone whose first job out of Hartt School of Music was as singer for the Derek Trucks Band, a national touring gig he left after two years, when he landed a solo recording contract with Capitol Records.
His solo debut reached the Top 20 on the R&B charts, accompanied by appearances on VH1 and MTV. But when his follow-up fizzled, the label dropped him.
College tours and an EP Colon released on his own followed, but an attempt to secure another record deal earlier this year failed. So his lauded audition last week on "The Voice," where he sang a soulful acoustic version of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," was pretty much a new start, he says.
"I had a little thing going where I thought was going to be the next thing, and unfortunately, while there were some great moments and some really cool things I did, it was definitely not the silver lining I was hoping for," he says of the first chapter of his career.
Among those "cool things" was singing in concert with Darius Rucker, the Indigo Girls and Joss Stone, among others.
Because he had done so much in music, "I thought at first I wasn't going to be eligible for the show," Colon says.
"Once I did the first audition, and I got to the next phase, I realized there were other people like me there who had had record deals, had been out touring and been out there doing music, trying to break out and get to next level," he says of his fellow contestants on the show, which is one of NBC's biggest hits in years.
Among them was Frenchie Davis, who parlayed a dismissal from "American Idol" to Broadway performances and a recording career.
Born in Bridgeport and raised in Stamford, Colon grew up steeped in music. His father was a DJ on a Spanish-language station in Hartford and bought a station in Stamford in the late '80s.
"It previously had been an oldies station, but they played a lot of Motown, a lot of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder," Colon says.
Not yet a teenager, Colon had the job of taking the tape carts full of oldies and erasing them for reuse at the new Spanish station. But because his mother loved the old songs, he had to first copy the songs onto cassettes for her.
"I spent a whole summer listening to the great music, and that's when all this great music got into my blood," says Colon, who turned 34 Friday. "That really molded my love for the old-school R&B sound."
He got an ear for pop and rock songs from his older siblings.
"What stayed with me was actually when I got into college was to get more into singer-songwriters, more of the James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Harry Chapin."
Thus was born his personal style. "I had taken the old soul stuff I was singing before that and putting that with the singer-songwriter stuff," he says.
It was that blend — acoustic guitar with soulful voice — that wowed the celebrity judges on "The Voice" in its premiere week. As part of the show's format, the judges listen to a song without seeing the performer and then declare whether they would like to work with the contestant on their team.
All four judges — Cee Lo Green, Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine of Maroon 5 — got on board with Colon, one of two times that happened on the two-hour premiere.
"It was perfect," said Green, who was one of the first to ring in and show support.
"It was so perfect, and it was so tasteful, too," said Levine, who almost begged Colon to let him coach him. Expressing his need to win, Levine told him, "I really, really, really need you to pick me."
When more than one judge expresses interest, it's up to the contestant to make the choice.
"I'm a fan of yours already," Blake Shelton said.
And Christina Aguilera said, "I personally love, love, love that song. You stripped it down so much and really showed your vocal ability."
"I was open to be swayed, and Adam said all the right things," Colon says. "He was very into what I did, and the most vocal out f everyone. I thought: You know what, that is the guy I'm going to go with."
There were a couple of other considerations, one of which was to escape the orthodox R&B category that had stifled Colon as a major-label recording artist.
"I don't want to be cast as an R&B guy again," he says, one reason he chose not to be on the team of the panel's soul guy, Green.
It was down to Levine or maybe even the country representative, Shelton, though, Colon adds, "I knew if I had picked Blake, people really wouldn't have seen that coming."
But there was some strategy involved.
"Basically, the way this show is done, whoever you choose is the one who is going to keep you in the competition or let you go," Colon says. "You're competing against people on your team because of the way it's formatted, and each coach has just one person at the end. You don't compete against other teams until it's the final. So If I have to pick one, I'm going to go with someone who thinks I'm a heavyweight, who is most excited about what I did up there, who is going to have my back, who is going to believe in me."
Colon doesn't know yet the full roster of his competition within Levine's team; each judge will fill eight slots in the next couple of episodes. But so far on the team with him are country singer Jeff Jenkins and folk-pop singer Rebecca Loebe.
While Colon has quietly been amassing a fan base through his touring (largely on college campuses), trying to earn a living to help support his wife and two daughters, things changed from the moment he was on the first ad for "The Voice."
"I remember I was doing something in the studio, and I came out, and I turned my phone on, and there were 50 texts from people saying there was a commercial with you in it. But it really changed on Tuesday," he says, once the premiere aired.
"That's when things really happened, Facebook blew up, my phone was in a constant state of vibrate, with all the messages, texts and e-mails coming in."
The single of his audition performance went to No. 14 on iTunes; the EP he had released on his own last year, "The Truth - Acoustic," which features a cover of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You," cracked the Top 100 after the show.
And now, the performer who hasn't played locally since a solo gig at the Starbucks on Bishops Corner, and who used to front the funk band EmcQ at the Arch Street Tavern, is getting some recognition nationwide.
"Things have definitely changed," Colon says. "I'm trying to be as ahead of the curve as I can and prepare for the potential things to come. I'm trying to be as reactive as possible — because, with the background I've had, I know what can happen."
"The Voice" airs tonight at 9 on NBC, locally on WVIT, Channel 30.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun