Story by Terry Shropshire
Photos by Risasi Dais for Steed Media Service
NEW YORK – It was year one of the international television phenomenon “American Idol,” yet this spectacular ratings bonanza was about to erupt in scandal and intrigue. Something transpired that made Simon’s rectangular grill radiate disgust and outrage – looking as if someone had asked to borrow his underwear. Paleness from shock discolored Paula Abdul’s caramel-coated countenance. Arrows of indignation stabbed at Randy Jackson’s insides. All three of their bodies hummed with irritation, forming a silent chorus of righteous annoyance. The source of their bafflement was the unceremonious ouster of Tamyra Gray, the satin-voiced songstress from Georgia. The attractive ingénue was just voted off “Idol” even though the celebrated panelists believed Gray was arguably the most talented of the finalists – including eventual winner Kelly Clarkston.
Even though she was gracious in defeat, Gray’s eyes became blinking distress signals, searching for a detour around the pain of her sudden discharge. Her eyes dampened as disappointment and hope collided within her.
“You are a world-class singer,” Simon told Gray as she composed herself with stunning abruptness, as if his testimonial gave her sustenance. Or perhaps it was something else that made the clouds disappear from her visage and beam brightly again. Perhaps a vision descended upon her, one that soared down to her as if riding on angel’s wings, that informed her that the rest of her life had just begun.
RENT-ING SPACE ON BROADWAY
The vivacious and versatile vixen’s voice pours through the phone, like low-calorie syrup, from Manhattan, the most famous of the five boroughs that make up New York City. For Gray, 28, it doesn’t get much more world-class than the media and performing arts capital of the world. Unlike other “American Idol” contestants, who bloomed birightly onto the scene like fireworks lighting up the night but quickly fizzled back into obscurity, Gray is the meteor who continues to streak across the horizon of possibilities.
“I am doing everything that I’ve always wanted to do,” declares the Takoma Park, Md., native. One of those things is playing a starring role in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, Rent. She didn’t just get handed this role as a token or consolation prize in exchange for not winning on “American Idol.” It is the seventh-longest running play in Broadway history and has enabled Gray to showcase her acting and singing skills.
If anything, her starring role in Rent is the harmonious confluence of preparation and opportunity. For most of her life, Gray carefully cultivated her ambition and musical skills, then let them marinate in her mental closet like a bottle of fine French wine. Just beneath the surface of her soft exterior, aspirations of musical stardom simmered unendingly. As a prepubescent, Gray sang every song that came through the radio. The third-youngest of 12 brothers and sisters formed a singing group with her sister, the Silhouettes, after her parents encouraged them to explore the music industry. A high school music teacher discerned the sparks of musical passion shooting off Gray’s person and eagerly nurtured and sculpted the impressionable teenager into a compelling artistic force. Gray majored in law, business and sound music technology at Georgia State University in Atlanta, exhibiting a ravenous and unquenchable appetite to devour all information about the business of music, as well as the art form. By the time she became an adult, a microphone became a natural extension of her hands. A musical sheet became her primary language for communication with the world from the depths of her soul. Little could she have known that all this accumulated knowledge and experience would become the currency that could be transferred so soon.
THE “IDOL”-MAKER “The media didn’t make him a star. It revealed him,” Jesse Jackson once said about legendary lawyer Johnnie Cochran. The same could be said of the multidimensional Gray. By the time “American Idol” swept with brushfire ferocity through the country, Gray’s well-lubricated talents and preparation would serve as the repellent to prevent her from being scorched alive on national TV. She saw something like this materializing before her, she just didn’t know exactly what. She had played it over and over again in her head. Therefore, when the time came, Gray belted out delicious harmonies as easily as the rest of us tie our shoes or change channels on the remote. Her gifts obviously touched the sensibilities of that robotic Vulcan called Simon. Consistently, Gray performed well enough to melt the famously ornery Simon, that ego-slaying critic known to partially devour contestants and spit out their remains in front of millions of viewers. The spot in front of Simon is the place where many dreams have come to die a humiliating death. So when Simon unilaterally endorsed Gray, record execs took note. She was practically signed to a deal before she could walk off the set of the show.
Gray wasn’t just some neophyte underling quivering at the site of celebrities. She had played with both DMX and the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes in Coca-Cola commercials. To be sure, Gray is not the only one experiencing national, and international acclaim, as a singer-turned-thespian. Fantasia is starring in the critically acclaimed The Color Purple before sold-out audiences. Anthony Federov just joined the cast of the off-Broadway play The Fantastics. And, of course, there is Jennifer Hudson, the woman whom Simon bulleted with criticism before she went on to win an Academy Award for her rafter-rattling performance in Dreamgirls. Therefore, for the most part, “American Idol” has been a great barometer for the unveiling of legitimate unheralded, undiscovered gems.
There has been no cat-fighting between “American Idol” contestants. Gray’s appearance on “American Idol” also enabled her to exemplify her navigational skills around a studio. Gray used them to compose an original song for first-season winner Kelly Clarkston, and wrote the song “I Believe” for third-season winner Fantasia Barrino, which bulleted to the top of the Billboard charts with historic precision. In 2003, Gray wrote the songs to her debut album, The Dreamer, which yielded the No. 5 Billboard Hot Dance Music/Club Play hit, “Raindrops Will Fall.”
COLOR ME LUCKY
Things can’t go much better for Gray. Soon after laying down roots in New York, Gray met Sam Watters, another songwriter and former bandmate for the ’90s R&B act, Color Me Badd, whose biggest hit was “I Wanna Sex You Up.” The intersection of their talents, and lives, was inevitable. Watters has written and produced hits for artists ranging from Celine Dion and Jessica Simpson to Kelly Clarkston. Quite naturally, he co-wrote, produced and arranged several cuts on Gray’s album, The Dreamer. So theirs is the collision of happy hearts. After a two-year courtship, she exchanged nuptials with Watters, 37, in Italy on the cliff-side of a mountain that empties into the ocean.
Meanwhile, Gray’s career continues to sizzle like charred meat on the holiday grill. The post-“Idol” years have seen Gray star in several episodes on the hit show “Boston Public.” In 2005, Gray appeared in the indie favorite The Gospel, starring Boris Kodjoe and Clifton Davis. So, as you can easily discern, Gray is not “Rent”-ing space in the world of celebrity. Her meteor continues to soar.