Idol Worship

'American Idol' Alum John Stevens: Putting Crooner Pride on Display with Vinyl Release

John Stevens
Courtesy of John Stevens

John Stevens

He was the 16-year-old red-haired Rat Pack crooner who auditioned with Dean Martin's "That's Amore" and became a top 10 finalist on season three of American Idol. Now, John Stevens is launching a new phase of his career. After singing vocals with the Beantown Swing Orchestra for several years, the Boston-based vocalist is releasing his first album as The John Stevens Band. He spoke with Billboard about Mr. Nice Guy.

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You've been associated with the Beantown Swing Orchestra for a few years. Why is this new album by the John Stevens Band?

I formed the John Stevens Band as a way to perform more of my original material. A lot of my original songs weren't suitable for a big band or the events we were playing, so I needed a group of my own. There were also many standards and more modern tunes that I wanted to perform in certain ways that wouldn't work with a full big band. By choosing the most talented musicians that I liked working with from Beantown Swing Orchestra and other bands I have worked with in the past and working with Danny Fratina, Beantown Swing's arranger, I was able to create a group of eight people, including myself. We are all alumni of either Berklee College of Music or New England Conservatory. With this new band, I'm able to control what songs and styles we perform.

Are you touring to promote the album?

We are performing an album release show at the famous jazz club, Regattabar, in Cambridge, Mass. (on April 7) and will be following that with a tour of the northeast and midwest this summer.

You chose to release the record on vinyl...

Yes, this is the first time I'll be able to listen to myself on my own record player. Being a huge fan of music from the 1920s through the 1960s when vinyl was the format for music, I'm extremely excited for July 28, my birthday, when we will be releasing them to the public. Because vinyl was the format regularly used for music back then and my music is rooted in jazz standards with influences from The Beatles and singer-songwriters of the '50s and '60s, I believe that Mr. Nice Guy was meant to be heard on vinyl. We are only producing a short run of the vinyl, making them very special and I will be signing each one and including a free download card of the album. We've already had many preorders which makes me very happy that others are as excited as I am! It seems that vinyl is coming back and there is more interest in it now. We know that everyone isn't going to run out and purchase our album on vinyl but we know that collectors and others who enjoy this format will truly appreciate it.

Tell me about selecting the songs for this album. How many covers? How many originals?

We have 10 original songs and three covers.  

I have been writing since before Idol. Some of these 10 songs have been written and rewritten, lyrically and melodically, multiple times since then. I wanted the album to be thematic. It was going to be about my love life over the past 10 years since Idol -- the ups and downs. The first seven were mostly the downs -- for some reason it's easier for me to write sad songs than happy ones. Danny Fratina and I work really well together and he is the only arranger I truly trust with my original songs. The last three originals were among the songs I've written in the past two years. They balance the other originals in tone, humor and energy.

As for the covers, they are: The Beatles' "I'll Be Back," originally from A Hard Day's Night. I grew up listening to the Beatles. My dad is a huge fan and, in turn, made me one. On my first album with Maverick Records I did "Here, There and Everywhere," [but] "I'll Be Back" is a forgotten track. It also lends itself to a slower tempo and a jazzy rendition.

Dave Clark Five's "Because" is a gorgeous song and the original is one of my favorites of all time -- one of those songs you can listen to over and over again. The organ solo is perfect and it's from a band that is little known nowadays. Back then they had a short period where they could've beaten out the Beatles for best British Invasion band but it never happened. They never had the popular appeal that the Beatles had. Still, they did some great songs. We took this tune and turned it into a true ballad and I'm extremely happy with the result.

Then there's a mashup of Sammy Cahn & Jule Styne's "I Fall in Love Too Easily" and George and Ira Gershwin's "But Not for Me." This has been an idea of mine for many years. Every jazz musician under the sun has played at least one, if not both, of these tunes. So how do you make them different from everyone else's interpretations? Doing a mashup isn't a new idea, Mel Torme had been doing this for years and I love some of the combinations he came up with. This one felt right to me. Both of these are about love lost and giving up on love. Even the lyrics are similar -- so similar that it fit thematically to put these two together. Together they add to and complete each other's stories. Melodically they work off each other as well and Danny [on trumpet] and I play off each other with the different melodies showing how they fit. 

Music is constantly changing -- from urban to rock to pop. Why is crooning always in style? Do you think it always will be?

I think crooning is always in style because it's not a genre in itself. It's how someone sings a melody. Michael Bublé and Harry Connick, Jr. have been on the pop charts and jazz charts. You could characterize Billy Joel's singing on "Just the Way You Are" or Elton John's performance on "Your Song" as crooning, when they would be in the pop or rock category. Barry Manilow could be considered a crooner as well as many country artists. I think it will always be in style because there will always be people who listen to these artists or other artists like Frank Sinatra or artists that haven't even been born yet and find inspiration in their sound and emotional performance.

You were on Idol 11 seasons ago. Do people still remember you from the show?

It's hard to forget a 6-foot-2 redhead -- I get recognized all of the time. People can't always remember my name but they stare and stare and then approach me, followed by "You look like that guy who was on American Idol -- does anyone ever tell you that?" I cannot believe it was 11 years ago. But I'm always surprised to see who recognizes me. Sometimes it's people you wouldn't even think. Always makes my day!

Are you watching the current season of Idol?

To be perfectly honest, I haven't watched since the week after I was voted off. I can't sit and hear the theme song, it just brings me back and unsettles my stomach -- ha! I did catch a couple videos of Harry Connick Jr. mentoring before he became a full time judge, and I thought his constructive criticism was right on point. I haven't watched it since he became a full time judge, but I'm sure he continues to be a class act. Typical that I'd respect the crooner on the show, right?