American singer Ruben Studdard broke into the mainstream in the early 2000s as the winner of the second season of American Idol, later pursuing a solo career focused on classic R&B and gospel music. The son of two teachers, Studdard was born in Frankfurt, Germany on September 12, 1978 and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. He sang at his parents' Baptist church as a child, but it wasn't until college that he seriously pursued music. Abandoning a promising career in football that would lead to an athletic scholarship at Alabama A&M University, he decided to switch his major and study voice at the school, eventually graduating with a degree in 2000. He then launched his professional career as a singer for Just a Few Cats, a Birmingham-based jazz and soul band. During 2002, Studdard joined one of the group's backup singers at an audition for the second season of American Idol, making the first round of cuts at his local audition, then winning himself a slot on the national television program.
Studdard made a big impression from the start. Where most of his competitors were hopeful pop stars hungry to win the competition, Studdard was quiet and laid-back, impressing audiences and judges alike with his large voice and easy confidence. Partway through the competition, guest judge Gladys Knight christened him a "velvet teddy bear," a nod to his smooth, Luther Vandross-styled voice, warm stage presence, and imposing six-foot bearing. The nickname stuck and Studdard's popularity grew. By that point, the competition had turned into a horse race between Studdard and Clay Aiken. Like many horse races, this one ended in a photo finish, with Studdard beating Aiken by a few thousand votes in May 2003.
Crowned the latest American Idol, Studdard kicked off his solo career with his first single, the triple-platinum "Flying Without Wings," which was released concurrently with Aiken's "This Is the Night," a clever release scheme designed to keep the competition alive. Aiken beat Studdard to the top of the charts, and shortly afterward, it was announced that the proposed joint release of their debut albums would be delayed, with each album released separately instead. As Aiken rode an initial wave of popularity that eclipsed Studdard's, the soulful crooner worked frenetically: recording his debut, touring with his American Idol cohorts, and filming a cameo for Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. As Studdard continued working in the studio, his album's release date kept getting pushed back; originally slated for an August release, the album was first rescheduled for October, and then postponed to November.
Studdard's recording sessions boasted a variety of producers and collaborators, including Fat Joe, Missy Elliott, and R. Kelly, whose names were leaked to the press during the studio process in an effort to shore up Studdard's hip-hop and R&B credentials. When the finished product, Soulful, was finally released on December 9, 2003, it didn't boast either the highly touted Missy or Kelly tracks (though Fat Joe made the cut), but it did display a distinct hip-hop-flavored R&B bent, which stood in contrast to the pop-oriented efforts by such American Idol contestants as Aiken, Kelly Clarkson, and Justin Guarini. Sporting two Top Ten hits -- including "Sorry 2004" -- the album quickly went platinum. It also garnered Studdard a Grammy nomination for Favorite Male R&B Vocal Performance for his cover of the Bonnie Bramlett/Leon Russell classic "Superstar."
The gospel album I Need an Angel followed one year later, featuring collaborations with contemporary gospel icons such as Bill Gaither and Walter Hawkins. Although the album sales failed to approach those of Studdard's debut, I Need an Angel fared well on the gospel charts. Even so, Studdard returned to his R&B roots in 2006 with an aptly named third album, The Return, which featured such contributors as Scott Storch and Ne-Yo. Leadoff single "Change Me" topped the urban contemporary chart that same year, but The Return proved to be the slowest-selling album of the singer's career, prompting J Records to cancel his contract in 2007.
In 2008, Studdard took a well-received foray into theater by portraying Fats Waller in a revival tour of Ain't Misbehavin', which received a Grammy nomination for its soundtrack. Following the show's completion in May 2009, he returned to his studio career with another album, Love Is (Hickory Records), whose subject matter honored the singer's then-recent marriage (though the two would divorce in late 2011). Featuring production by Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Teddy Riley, Ne-Yo, and Stargate, the set peaked inside the Billboard Top 40 and included the singles "Together" and "Don't Make 'Em Like U No More," as well as covers of Extreme's "More Than Words," the Beatles' "The Long and Winding Road," and Michael Jackson's "I Can't Help It." To promote the album, Studdard and Aiken teamed up for a North American tour that they dubbed "Timeless."
In 2012, Studdard released Letters from Birmingham, his first album for the Shanachie label. In addition to covers of Bobby Brown's "Rock Wit'cha" and the Willy Wonka classic "Pure Imagination," Letters also included "June 28th (I'm Single)." The following year, he took another step outside of the music world and competed on the 2013 season of the reality TV show The Biggest Loser. After successfully shedding 120 pounds, Studdard capped his stint on the show with the release of his sixth album, Unconditional Love, which was released on Verve in February 2014. Produced by David Foster, it was highlighted by a duet with Lalah Hathaway on an update of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's 1967 Top 30 R&B single "If This World Were Mine." The next year, he received an honorary Master of Arts degree from his alma mater, Alabama A&M.
In 2018, Studdard paid homage to his idol, the late Luther Vandross, with Ruben Sings Luther. The album featured Studdard's handpicked Vandross favorites, including songs like "Here and Now," "Always and Forever," and "A House Is Not a Home." ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Neil Z. Yeung