Soul music has always moved Taylor Hicks.
It offered comfort at age 8 when his parents divorced and later informed his musical approach.
"Anybody from the South -- they know about soul," says the Alabama native, who plays sold-out shows at Rams Head Live on Tuesday night and the Birchmere on Sunday and Monday. "My musical root was Ray Charles, and it grew from there. When I heard him -- I think it was the Modern Sounds in Country and Western album when I was 8 -- I caught the bug. It was over from there."
As the unlikely winner of the fifth season of American Idol, the hefty, prematurely gray-haired Hicks won over millions with his charged, invigorating singing style.
And his sound -- reminiscent of a young Joe Cocker, another Charles disciple -- is thoughtfully showcased on his self-titled, post-Idol debut.
"The record is great, I think," says Hicks, who last week was performing in Connecticut. "It's my take on modern soul."
Unlike other post-Idol debuts (namely Kelly Clarkson's Thankful and Fantasia's Free Yourself), Taylor Hicks feels more assured. Sure, the production, overseen by Matt Serletic, is dull and calculated in spots.
But Hicks' vocals glow with personality, retaining that slightly dogeared warmth that garnered him a majority of the 63.4 million votes cast during American Idol's 2006 finale. The best cuts on the CD -- "The Runaround," "Gonna Move" and the self-penned "Soul Thing" --energetically update '80s blue-eyed soul.
Although he had worked as a performer before Idol, Hicks says competing on the show sharpened his instincts. He says he will detail his experience in Heart Full of Soul, his memoir that Random House will release in July.
"The show helps you understand performing at the highest level," says the singer, 30. "You get better each week -- you hope. You have to compete at a high level, man, and you can't worry about expectations. You put your efforts in what suits you best."
Hicks' affable, quirky personality certainly didn't hurt his appeal on Idol. And it may also explain the regular sold-out dates on his current tour.
He seemingly has no problem filling venues, but his major-label debut hasn't generated the almost-instant multiplatinum sales that other Idol winners reached with their first albums. Carrie Underwood, who won the fourth season, sold 5 million copies of Some Hearts, her country-pop debut.
But Hicks' approach is decidedly more mature, appealing to the "Soul Patrol," the mostly adult fan base that feverishly supported the singer during his stint on American Idol. More than 700,000 of those fans have bought Taylor Hicks.
"You know, this album hasn't done bad at all," says the artist. "But what I bring -- that rawness -- is better in a live setting. People are so used to a computer-driven sound. That's not what I'm offering, man."
On stage is where the music comes alive, he says. And after losing more than 20 pounds since last season's Idol, Hicks says he's even more energetic.
"If you're out here performing night after night, you gotta be in good shape," he says. "I was 215 when I was on Idol, and I've gone to 190. There's no telling: I'll probably be 105 before this tour is done. Every night, I'm doing what I call high-impact soul aerobics. It's the music, man. I just feel it and go with it."
Taylor Hicks is at Rams Head Live 7 p.m. Tuesday and at the Birchmere at 7:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday. The shows are sold out.
Hear clips from Hicks' album at baltimoresun.com/listeningpost.