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Gray on his head, soul in his heart, Alabama in his palm

Times Staff Writer

It was gettin’ kinda crazy at Buffalo Wild Wings. The mayor was seated, a long line of antsy office workers waited for booths. Lawyers nibbled boneless wings, mothers arranged diaper bags and everyone stared at five huge plasma screens.

“Soul Patrol!” whooped the gray-haired man on TV.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 26, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 26, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Lynyrd Skynyrd: An article in Tuesday’s Calendar about “American Idol” contestant Taylor Hicks included Lynyrd Skynyrd in a list of musicians from Alabama. Although the band wrote “Sweet Home Alabama,” the band members are from Jacksonville, Fla.

Flabby arms shot up in the cool, vinegar-scented air, and the crowd shrieked and stomped and clapped and hollered “Wahoooo!!”

This -- a chain restaurant wedged between a Pet Supermarket and Supercuts in a Wal-Mart shopping center -- has become the Official Soul Patrol Headquarters. As Taylor Hicks marches through “American Idol” -- he competes with fellow finalist Katharine McPhee tonight with the winner to be crowned Wednesday -- the 29-year-old Southern “soul man” with prematurely graying locks has built up a cult following based in his hometown, Hoover, one of Birmingham’s most prosperous suburbs.

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“Something about him is almost mystical,” declared Tony Petelos, the mayor of Hoover, who sat with his wife and two daughters watching the show last week, keeping a strict eye on a news camera.

Behind the mayor, Charnel Wright, a local Fox News reporter, chatted with Rhea Tilley, a perky 57-year-old whose long hair was scooped up into a high ponytail. “American Idol” runs in her blood; she is the first cousin of the mother of former “American Idol” runner-up Bo Bice.

“Taylor Hicks is like Elvis Presley or Bo Bice,” said Tilley, who had traveled 90 miles from her home in Somerville, Ala., to cheer for Hicks. “He soothes and pleases.”

Most of the people who came to Buffalo Wild Wings last Tuesday night were women.

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“It’s his quirkiness,” said Robyn Forrester, 26, a tax claims adjuster from Alabaster who perched on a bar stool sipping a tall glass of beer.

“He keeps getting cuter and cuter,” said Stephanie Hixon, 33, a speech language pathologist at a Hoover elementary school. “He’s got this sweet little Southern look. Those long eyelashes....”

“He was the first boy I ever kissed,” said Suzanne Newman, 31, another tax claims adjuster, who clutched photos of her former next-door neighbor -- who then had black hair -- in her swimming pool.

Former unknown

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When Hicks auditioned for “American Idol,” he was a weary blues nightclub singer who had struggled for more than a decade to make it in Alabama. This month, when he returned to his hometown, 12,000 fans flocked to Alabama’s largest mall to hear him sing, Gov. Bob Riley proclaimed it Taylor Hicks Day, and the mayors of Birmingham and Hoover handed him keys to their cities.

The owners of the Open Door Cafe, a shabby chic bar and restaurant in a strip mall in the nearby Mountain Brook neighborhood, seem put out.

“Now he’s gotten so big and famous, they all want to claim him,” said Ashley Brazelton, 30, who went to Auburn University with Hicks. “The mayor took over. For all of us, all of his good friends, it’s kind of a bummer.”

When the fifth season of “American Idol” began, the Open Door Cafe hosted regular Taylor Hicks watch parties, which the local Fox news outlet attended -- until a new Soul Patrol sprang up in Hoover.

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“How many gigs did Taylor ever play in Hoover?” Ashley’s husband, Terrill, shouted across the almost empty room.

There was silence.

Brooks Wallace, a 32-year-old regular who claimed to have come up with the Soul Patrol slogan, said he wouldn’t be seen dead at Buffalo Wild Wings.

“Everyone’s going buck wild at Buffalo Wild Wings,” he said, waving his hands and wiggling his flip-flops. “They just want to be on TV.”

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Alabama performers have done well on “American Idol” -- so well that many locals refer to the show as “Alabama Idol.” Ruben Studdard, the “velvet teddy bear” from Birmingham, won the contest in 2003, and Bice, the rocker from Helena, finished second in 2005.

Alabama also claims 2004 runner-up Diana DeGarmo, who was born in Birmingham but moved to Snellville, Ga., when she was 3. (DeGarmo just ended a popular run on Broadway as a costar of “Hairspray.”)

Tilley, Bice’s mother’s first cousin, who performed in a Southern gospel quartet, thinks Alabama’s “Idol” contestants draw on the state’s rich musical heritage. “We have bluegrass and gospel and we grow up in church singing. I’m thinking it’s just in our soul.”

While some believe Studdard, Bice and Hicks are following in the footsteps of other performers from Alabama -- Nat “King” Cole, Hank Williams, Emmylou Harris, Lynyrd Skynyrd -- others attribute their success to the fanaticism of their hometowns.

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“The buzz gets bigger and bigger, and by the final you have everyone -- even the macho sports buffs -- talking like it’s a football game,” said Wright, who has covered “American Idol” for WBRC-TV for the last four years. “With their past, people from Alabama get beaten up a lot. When something good comes out, it means a lot.”

Selling out?

Apparently, Hicks was quite sheepish about telling his friends he had auditioned for “American Idol.” According to Wallace, he told them one by one and made them promise not to tell anyone.

“It was the whole cheesiness, the young girl thing,” Wallace said. “He thought he was being a sellout.”

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Although Wallace insists he has absolute faith in Hicks’ character, he has noticed a few signs of interference from “American Idol’s” image-makers: first a smidgeon of hair gel, then “they put all those gay clothes on him,” he said. “You know: cheesy, tight, very metrosexual L.A.”

If Hicks’ friends at the Open Door Cafe are skeptical about “American Idol,” they seem to have faith that Hicks can transcend Simon Cowell and the marketing machines.

“This is all about marketability,” said Terrill Brazelton. “But Taylor isn’t soda pop, bubblegum pop. Taylor is introducing soul to a whole new generation.”

So is the harmonica-playing dentist’s son who grew up in Hoover -- an elite suburb that has a median household income of more than $60,000 -- really the savior of modern soul?

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“I don’t know about that,” said Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. “There’s a difference between performers coming out of the older South -- Johnny Cash or Al Green -- and those who are now coming out of the suburbs. I’m not sure that they are so authentic, so creative.”

When Hicks plays his harmonica and talks about his love of grits, Wilson said, he is invoking nostalgia for an older, romanticized South many miles away from Hoover.

“The cultural gene is in the Southern DNA, but it is changing,” Wilson said. “It’s becoming more toned down as the South becomes middle class. I think a lot of people feel they’ve lost something in the process.”

When the “American Idol” credits had rolled, the plasma screens at Buffalo Wild Wings instantly switched to basketball. As Hicks’ former bandmates, Brian Less and Zippy Dieterich, launched into a rousing rendition of “Great Balls of Fire,” the crowd watched the Miami Heat play the New Jersey Nets.

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Outside -- in front of a “Get Your Hicks Fix at Buffalo Wild Wings” sign -- Tina Parker, a 35-year-old lawyer, stood on the sidewalk with a cellphone in each hand, frantically attempting to call in 2,400 votes for Hicks in two hours.


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