Idol Worship

Rickey Smith Remembered by His 'American Idol' Family

Rickey Smith of American Idol
Chris Polk/Getty Images

Rickey Smith attends the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Activities Committee Presents 'American Idol Live' in North Hollywood, Calif.

Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Kimberley Locke and more all pay tribute to Smith, who died Friday.

Rickey Smith was the first American Idol contestant I ever met. It was a Saturday afternoon in March 2003 and the Television Academy was hosting an Q&A with the show's producers and talent. I was on the red carpet covering for Billboard and Rickey was the first of the top 12 contestants to stop and talk with me. He was tall, gregarious and after just a few seconds treated me as if he had known me all of his life.

Three weeks later, Rickey and his fellow season 2 contestants came by the Billboard office to get a lesson in "Charts 101" for a segment that was being taped for the show. When he walked in, he greeted me like an old friend. Maybe he was prescient, because when the season ended and he decided to live in Los Angeles, we did become friends. And that was in spite of the fact that he was sent home from Idol in eighth place after singing "Endless Love" on a Billboard No. 1 hits-themed week, which I had suggested. He never blamed me for that.

'American Idol' Season 2 Alum Rickey Smith Killed in Car Crash: Report

That's the kind of person Rickey was. Always happy, always smiling. He always had a good word for and about people. It wasn't that his life was perfect, but his attitude was. I never heard him say anything that was mean-spirited or disparaging. 

He moved into an apartment just a few minutes from my house. So it was easy to get together and go out to dinner. I had an extra ticket to see A Little Night Music at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Downtown L.A. and I thought Rickey would enjoy it. It was his first Stephen Sondheim musical and I was right -- he loved it.

Our friendship grew stronger and then Rickey decided it was time to return home to Texas. The money he had earned from the Idol summer tour was gone -- not because he had spent it, but because a trusted family member had siphoned it. 

When he moved home, Rickey left behind a rather large collection of DVDs (which I finally FedExed to him so he could watch movies again) and his large truck, which he parked in front of my house. For over a year, I moved the truck around so it wouldn't be towed as an abandoned car. Eventually, Rickey and his uncle flew back to L.A. to collect the vehicle and drive it home. I guess by this time I had stopped moving it around, because the battery was dead. Sorry, Rickey.

Once he drove away in that truck, I never saw him again, but we remained in touch by telephone. For many years, I made a point to call him every April 4 and ask him if he remembered where he was so many years ago on that date. The answer was always the same and he always remembered it was the anniversary of his visit to the Billboard office. On one recent phone call he shared his good news: he was a father to a newborn daughter.

Our last phone call took place a couple of weeks ago. I phoned and he was busy at work. He said he would call me back. He did but I couldn't pick up. It was my turn to call him back when I read the devastating news that he had been killed in a traffic accident, his 2015 Honda Accord struck head-on by a wrong-way driver on I-240 in Oklahoma. The driver has been arrested and is under suspicion of drunk driving. I had to read the report over and over -- it just didn't seem possible.

I always thought Rickey should have recorded a Motown tribute album, despite being eliminated from Idol after singing "Endless Love." I wanted to hear him sing the Temptations' "The Girl's Alright With Me" and I knew he would include his all-time favorite song, one which suddenly has an ironic title: Gladys Knight and the Pips' "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)."

[Editor's note: A memorial fund has been setup for Smith here.]

Billboard reached out to Rickey's American Idol family for remembrances of their friend. Here are their comments:

Ruben Studdard (winner, season 2):

"How can I even put into words how much Rickey will be missed? He was such a great person with such an amazing spirit. Every part of my American Idol experience has Rickey Smith in it. He was my friend and my brother and I love him. Rest in peace, brother."

Simon Lythgoe (producer, seasons 1-6):

"During the six seasons I produced American Idol, we auditioned hundreds of thousands of people. Without hesitation, I can say that Rickey Smith was the funniest, bubbliest and genuinely most hilarious contestant we ever had on the show. He had a huge heart and was always the life of the party. Looking back, Rickey had a great attitude toward life and believed it was his mission to make everyone smile -- and he did! In his casting audition, prior to performing in front of Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell, before he sung a note he was screaming "Hercules, Hercules" as he did his impression of Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor. I will miss my friend Rickey and the world won't smile as much without him."

Trenyce (finalist, season 2):

"I'm still finding the words. My mind is a blank and my heart has shattered into a million pieces. My friend. The sweetest angel of our season of Idol has transitioned. I'm in utter shock! We met on Idol and were instant friends and as the show, tour and life went on, we were more like siblings. 

"Who didn't love Rickey?! He was the sticky sweet glue that held us all together.

"I'm glad that we kept in touch and even recently texted each other sentiments of love and respect, so our final words were 'I love you.' He was more than just an Idol finalist, he was an earth angel! 

"I send my condolences to his family, friends and sweet baby, but knowing Rickey he will be just as much an angel now as he was in life. I can't believe I'm writing 'Rest in Sweet Peace my dear friend.'"

Michael Orland (associate musical director, seasons 1-15):

"I have the greatest memory of Rickey's first audition for the judges in Nashville. I remember being so impressed with Rickey's voice and his smile. As a 22-year old, he was dressed like a 50-year old man in his shirt and tie. The judges told him to dress his age.

"For years he would always text me to say how happy he was to see me when they showed me on Idol. And I was fortunate enough to get to work with him in all kinds of shows for years to come. That voice remained the exact same - just this effortless high voice that could sing anything. I had amazing times with him, doing shows in San Francisco and a couple of New Year's Eves in Cabo. He will be sorely missed. RIP Rickey Smith."

Kimberley Locke (finalist, season 2):

"I am terribly saddened today by the news of Rickey Smith's fatal car crash. Rickey was such a lovely spirit and always kept us laughing.... The American Idol family has suffered a great loss. I am smiling thinking about a night that we all went out to a club in Hollywood and Rickey wouldn't stop talking about it the next day. He had everyone cracking up -- we really let our hair down that night! We will miss you Rickey and we will not forget you. I send prayers to your family and your precious mother during this tremendously difficult time. Our hearts are heavy. We love you."

Carmen Rasmusen Herbert (finalist, season 2):

"'You are the American Idol.'

"Those were Rickey's last words to me when he left the show after being eliminated. I was barely 18 and Rickey wanted to make sure I knew that no matter what happened, being true to who I was was more important than winning. He told me to be an example. He told me to stay good. He told me he loved me.

"I have never met a man quite like Rickey Smith. He was truly a light, a unique voice of optimism and positivity in a world so darkened by negativity and criticism. This is no exaggeration -- he was always smiling. You couldn't be around Rickey and not feel good about yourself and about life in general. I always felt comfortable, secure, peaceful and protected when I was around him. He was one of my dearest friends who always stood up for me, who called me his 'Carmen baby' and who I will never, ever forget. Words cannot describe the loss I feel, especially for his sweetheart Candy and their baby girl, Ava. I am forever grateful I was part of his Idol family. We all love you, Rickey."

Kimberly Caldwell (finalist, season 2):

"My heart is just broken that Rickey was taken from us too soon. He was the brightest light and had the most contagious laughter. I will hold the memories we shared together with our Idol family close to my heart always. I will never forget his hugs and his funny impersonations. If you were lucky enough to have met Rickey, then you know he had a way of making you feel like you were really something special. I am praying for his family and his loved ones and sending them strength. I am grateful to have called him my brother and my friend." 

Melinda Doolittle (finalist, season 6):

"I have done multiple shows with Rickey and he has always been one of my favorite people to sing with. I even brought him up on stage when my Christmas tour went through Oklahoma City and the crowd went wild, as did my band. He has the voice of an angel and the spirit of one too. I pray that he and Michael Johns are singing up a storm already."

Nigel Lythgoe (executive producer on seasons 1-8, 10-12 and the series finale):

 

Clay Aiken (runner up, season 2):