‘I Have Nothing’

‘American Idol’ Bandleader Rickey Minor on His Favorite Performance and What It Takes to Win

Ahead of Wednesday’s American Idol finale, longtime bandleader Rickey Minor shares the secrets to a great contestant and the stories behind his favorite ‘Idol’ moments.

Have you ever watched an episode of American Idol and thought, after 13 seasons and over 400 episodes, you can’t possibly listen to another teenage girl attempt to sing yet another version of “I Have Nothing”?

Try being Rickey Minor.

When you think of the industry talents responsible for the lasting success of Idol, the elder statesman of reality TV singing competitions, you might think of Simon Cowell or longtime producer Nigel Lythgoe or even Paula Abdul. But Rickey Minor deserves just as much credit. Minor served as musical director and bandleader of American Idol for Seasons 4 through 9 of the series, before taking a break to lead Jay Leno’s Tonight Show band and returning to his old Idol duties this past season.

In other words, he’s had to arrange many, many versions of “I Have Nothing.”

He’s also, however, gotten to arrange the music for some of Idol’s most iconic moments and most popular contestants: Carrie Underwood, David Cook, Kris Allen, Adam Lambert, Chris Daughtry. And that’s not to mention the stacked roster of industry titans he’s worked with who those Idols, back when they first auditioned for the show, dreamed of one day being: Whitney Houston, Ray Charles, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, and scores more.

He’s arranged Super Bowl national anthems, Grammy Awards, Oscar telecasts, hit albums, and everything in between. In other words, Rickey Minor knows his stuff, Idol-related or otherwise. As such, we thought we’d give him a call on the eve of the series’ season 13 finale to get a sense of what he’s learned over the years about what makes a good Idol contestant and a good Idol performance, and what he thinks about the show’s place in the industry now and this year’s finalists’ chances at hitting it big. And just because we’re American Idol nerds, we couldn’t resist using the opportunity to get the story behind his picks for the best Idol performances of all time.

So this year’s Idol contestants have been recording singles at your new Red Lotus studio. Where did that name come from?

It started a couple years back when Whitney Houston died. We worked together for 30 years. So, when she died I started doing yoga, hiking, and really do some deeper look into me and my purpose and all of that. I was doing yoga and the lotus position, and I was trying to think of what would represent where I am now in my life. The lotus flower symbolized rebirth, and the red lotus is the lotus of compassion. So it was something that would symbolize some tranquility, peace—anything that would give it a good energy. The lotus flower has different properties. I also like red because it’s fiery.

So, in a way, it’s an homage to Whitney Houston?

Absolutely. For me, my connection changed my whole trajectory. I was playing with Gladys Knight and Lou Rawls, and I had done Dreamgirls. And when I met her, I was working with Gladys. She was 18 and I was 22. And then over the course of our working together, it’s really because of her that people Beyoncé at 15 wanted to work with me and Usher at 14 and Christina at 14. And Britney. Because they know of my work with her.

Oh my god. These artists were so young when you were working with them!

Miley was 15! I just did her Bangerz tour, putting together the music for it, but the first time I started working with her she was 15. Brandy was 12. And Taylor Swift. She was 15.

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Was there something that you saw in each of these kids when they were so young that hinted that they’d all end up becoming such huge stars?

The first thing I see in them is talent. They have the talent. But that’s not enough. They have the passion. That’s not enough. All of that has to line up. So many things have to go right. These are variables you can’t qualify. Otherwise, we’d have a world of superstars! You can’t number or quantify all these wonderful things that have to happen in order for you to have a successful career. It could be timing, material, your management team. But the biggest thing is your commitment to excellence. So people like Usher, Beyoncé, Christina, Mary J. Blige—there’s a commitment that is non-tangible. You can’t teach it. You can’t read it. You can’t drink it. You either have it or you don’t, that work ethic. That combined with the talent, you have a better chance.

Do you remember the Idol contestants from the past that you saw those things in them the second they arrived?

That’s an easy one for me: Adam Lambert, Chris Daughtry, David Cook. You know who else? Jordin Sparks.

What did you see in Jordin that set her apart?

There’s something that people don’t talk about, which is your ability to be personable. And that, again, you either have that or you don’t. Personable and approachable, Jordin was easy to give instruction to because she was present. It’s a hard thing. If you come from a background and an environment where that part of you isn’t developed, then it’s hard to take direction and criticism. Because this thing is really fast. The Idol process is a really intense boot camp.

After all these years doing the show, have you gotten good at predicting who is going to be the frontrunner from the start?

My percentage is high on predicting. I say this all the time: the job doesn’t necessarily go to the most talented. It goes to the one who is going to work the hardest. Because if they made it to the Top 10, they all have talent. So now who is going to work harder so the growth shows itself the quickest? So if there’s a talented singer who’s not willing to do the work, then the person who’s less talented will grow faster because they’re doing the work.

You brought up David Cook and Adam Lambert earlier. How did the show change when contestants like them came on, who were big into changing arrangements, so that the show seemed to no longer be about who’s the best at singing a karaoke version of Celine Dion songs?

There’s the artistry. Those guys learned to tap into their own artistry, what kind of artist they’d be if they got record deals. I’m not even talking about the competition anymore. I’m talking about a career as a recording artist. Those guys took the challenge when the show allowed them to play instruments and do those other things. So a guy like Phillip Phillips wouldn’t have won in the earlier days if he couldn’t have his guitar. Like John Mayer, he’s not a stand-up singer. He’s a singer-songwriter, but he’s a musician. So his comfort is to play.

It’s funny that around the same time the Adam Lamberts and the David Cooks started doing well on the show was right around the same time you could sense a fatigue from viewers: Can we really hear another girl sing another version of “I Have Nothing”?

They’re still singing that song! Some of them still do—on this show and on those other vocal competition shows. It’s funny; they always go to these big torch songs when they’re not the best choice. The songs are overdone. So we’re trying to promote more things. This year we’ve done more indie things. Or we’ve done popular songs but encouraged contestants to make them their own. There’s a risk in that, because you don’t want to change it so much that people are like, “What song was that?”

As a platform for launching careers, do you think Idol still has the same value it once had?

Absolutely. With Idol, these contestants go on to have great careers. And not all necessarily in front of the microphone singer, but theater. As we know, Fantasia has been in a couple of plays. Ace (Young) has been on Broadway. So has Constantine Maroulis. Not to mention Jennifer Hudson with the movies. So I think that even people who might not even be household names, but are big in their markets, like Kellie Pickler, have carved out great careers. Kimberley Locke is another one. So the contestants go on. Clay Aiken is running for Senate! So they have the notoriety and become a relevant superstar in their world, and grow from that.

Is there a big star that will come from this season, do you think?

Yes. If you look at who made the Top 3 this year. Actually, this year’s Top 10 should all be looking very hard at how to build their careers. But the Top 3 especially, there’s a place in the business for all three of those contestants. They’re all strong and completely different. As a musician, I look at them and I’m proud.

I’m proud of Jena Irene, with her piano and singing. Alex Preston always manages to find a way to be present in any song that he sings. And Caleb Johnson is just a good time! He’s just a good time. He’s the kind of guy that you could hang out with and know it’s going to be a good time. So he came into the competition loose, and he managed to remain loose, which is a big feat based on these kinds of hours of doing things they’ve never had to do before.

Every day—all day—these kids are learning new songs, going to photo shoots, doing wardrobe. And then the stress of “I’m good, but was I good enough this week?” Because people forget. You could have five great performances in a row, and it doesn’t matter. It’s like sports: win or go home. It doesn’t matter that you had 50 wins in the season. You lose four games in a row in the playoffs, you go home. So it’s “Am I good enough today?” So with that kind of pressure, I think that this group managed to deal with it in a really productive way.

Rickey Minor’s Favorite American Idol Performances

Adam Lambert—“Mad World”

That vocal was just really beautiful. Adam would always email me. I would open up my computer and there were three or four emails from Adam between the time I left rehearsal and the time I got home. He was so wanting to communicate. Now, they all had my email and they all used it. But he used it. So he had ideas, and that made me come with more ideas. So if he had one idea, I would come with three, just to push him.

David Cook—“Billie Jean”

From when we started, the amount of information that’s on the internet is unlimited now. You can go online and find 50 versions of “Eleanor Rigby.” And he always tried to listen to different versions of different songs, and that’s how he found this version of “Billie Jean” to do.

Katharine McPhee—“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”

She was really involved in how this should feel. She was another one who was present and really—she had the background, she was personable, and she wanted to learn. She worked really hard. She was an outstanding singer, but it was the fact that she worked so, so hard and wanted to learn so much that set her apart. Because sometimes you can drink the Kool-Aid. The judges tell you that you were great, so you’re like, “Great. I don’t have to practice.” But she wasn’t like that.

Elliott Yamin—“I Believe to My Soul”

That was fun for him. At the time, a woman who’s a vocal coach on the show now, Kenya Hathaway, was a background singer. To know that he was singing her father’s song on the show was really emotional for him. He didn’t know at first. And when they said, “Oh, Donny Hathaway is her father,” so the emotion for him, after growing up all these years listening to Donny Hathaway, to meet his daughter and to know that he’s been singing with her this whole season made the performance really stressful for him. I saw him really dig in deep.