His wily run included covers Maroon 5's "This Love," Bobby Brown's "Every Little Step," Panic! at the Disco's "Hey Look Ma, I Made It" and Foxx's "Blame It," which even had that song's collaborator, season 1 winner T-Pain, convinced it was his singing partner.
But like judge Ken Jeong almost all the time, they were wrong. This super talent who was eager to let the world finally get to know him for the thing he loves the most was none other than Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Let's Make a Deal star Wayne Brady.
Billboard caught up with Brady just before the confetti fell to talk about how the show rebooted his musical confidence and allowed him to wow viewers who thought they had him figured out with a vulpine display of musical strength that will perfectly tee up his upcoming long-awaited return to music in January.
You're so well-known for being fast on your feet. Did that ability to improvise and throw people off the scent help you on this show at all?
That's an interesting question, but I don't really think improvisation truly had anything to do with it. I'm an actor first and foremost and a singer first and foremost. I didn't make anything up and I was just me. I tried to come up with the best way of presenting who I was right in front of their faces knowing that the built-in biases were there. Like, no, I'm giving you all of the information in front of your face so they go, "Oh, that's cool, but that couldn't possibly be you." I think that's the coolest magic trick ever. I'm right in front of your face -- c'mon, Nicole! Nah, that's not you! If there was any showmanship to be had it was that magic trick.
Just giving them the obvious and daring them to think it was you?
Yeah, because in my mind I was just doing the stuff that I do: I sing and I dance and I was presenting it to them, but I think I was just not in that frame of mind for them, obviously. Which I think it was so cool that I was able to go the entire time until Robin [Thicke] started to put two-and-two together two weeks ago and that was awesome to watch.
You've starred on Broadway, released a Grammy-nominated album, but if I'm being honest I wasn't really aware how deep your music career went until I did some research. Do most fans think of you first and foremost as a singer? An actor? As an improv comedian? Was that part of it -- that "musician" may not be the thing people think of first?
Maybe so. And I've had a career that I feel is like the blind man and the elephant: people each have a certain thing they like, a box that they put me in. I'm not a stand-up comedian, so if the only thing you've seen me on is Whose Line? that's cool, and I'm glad that you love that. But you have to take a step back and ask, "Well, what did I laugh at on Whose Line?" Yes, I do all the physical stuff and the comedy stuff, but I also did the musical stuff not sounding like someone who is a singer, but because I am a singer. That's why the improvisation worked so well, because I am a songwriter and a singer. You can't get mad at an audience member for not thinking that way because it's show business and you like what you like. It's frustrating because a lot of people don't automatically go, "Yeah, Wayne's a Broadway star and Grammy-nominated musician who has played the Hollywood Bowl and with symphonies all around the world... I like when he did the fart song!" If that's what you like, cool. But it's not in me to let that be the thing that's on my tombstone.
What was interesting was the misdirection for so many weeks that it was Jamie Foxx, a clever false narrative that you seemed to lean into because Jamie is an actor who can definitely sing and has a decent voice... They latched onto that Jamie narrative very early on and it seemed like you leaned into it by performing "Blame It." Did you decide to grab that by performing that song and letting them think they figured it out?
Jamie Foxx has more than a decent voice. That's why it is such a compliment that that was one of the first things they brought up because when Jamie was on In Living Color -- he's a classically trained pianist and in his stand-up act he plays and he can sing anything -- he released his [1994 debut] record called Peep This, and no one was checking for that record. The view was, "Why would I buy this record by the guy who plays Wanda?" Even though he's the same dude singing the same songs with the same skills. The way that people are built, sometimes you don't change, the circumstances change. He's always been someone who has been, I don't want to say idol, but a template for having music as the bedrock of everything I do and having the problem of getting it out to the wider audience in the form of, "Hey, I just want to sing." Which is, ironically, what I did before anyone knew my name. All the friends and people who worked with me pre-Whose Line? were like, "Oh yeah, that's the guy who was in that band that was on our [cruise] ship. That's the guy who starred in that musical at our theater." They all knew me as that. When I got Whose Line? they were like, "You're on a TV show being funny? You? Get outta here!" You have to change the narrative... so I definitely leaned into that a little bit during one of the first weeks when Nicole [Scherzinger] would not get off the Jamie train and was like, "I know Jamie! I've been to parties with Jamie, that's how Jamie stands!" So I would, on purpose, stand a certain way with my hands in front of myself with the swagger that I've seen Jamie do. I'd listen to her whisper and say, "See? See, that's how Jamie stands!" I would watch Jamie at awards shows and watch his mannerisms and try to do them, just little sneaks of it week-after-week. Not vocally, just the physicality of it because the logic of it is they're going ot think it's Jamie trying to change his voice.
That's the sign of a trained actor... it's method reality TV! You saw what they were doing and decided to double-down on it so they definitely wouldn't know who you were. And like you said, because not everyone thinks of you as a singer first and your vocals were so tight, that threw them off even more, especially when you sang a Panic! at the Disco song or Chris Stapleton ("Blame it on the Whiskey"). Did you purposely mix up genres to flex a bit and show your range?
No, actually everything is in my wheelhouse. I don't say that with any type of cockiness or hubris. It's why you watched Whose Line? and they could say, "Hey, do a Scandinavian hip-hop number as James Brown and Tina Turner... now sing as Johnny Cash." Literally everything is in my wheelhouse. I grew up with country music and jazz and singing show tunes, so singing the Chris Stapleton was twofold: it was kind of a flex because those are dope songs. But it also was like, "Oh no, just like I don't like to be boxed in in real life, I don't want the Fox to be boxed in. Oh, he's gonna do another R&B tune and now he's gonna dance again." No, this is what I'm gonna do this week and you're just gonna take it and enjoy it! That's how I actually try to approach my career. I hate being boxed in and that's why I wanted to be the Fox, because a fox is a naturally underestimated animal in the wild. He's fast, he's cunning, he's overlooked sometimes, but is truly one of the best hunters in nature. I wanted to be that slept-on weapon and change it up each week.
In some of your clue packages, you talked about being a perfectionist and trying to showcase your singing skills and also taking a long time to find your joy again while busting preconceived notions. What was it about this show that made you think it might help you find your joy again?
Because there's a joy in singing and a joy in music, and that's why I love it. That's why you sing in the shower. I guarantee when you're driving to work and the song that you love comes up you're singing it because it moves you. That's why so many singing shows and competitions exist. It's the aspirational thing of not just being able to do the thing that brings you joy, but to have people judge you on the joy. I love music so much. There was a time in my life after my first record [2008's A Long Time Coming] when I was nominated for a Grammy and I thought, "this is my Jamie Foxx moment." Not only did I release a record, but I was recognized by the Academy for best R&B traditional vocals along with Al Green and Raphael Saadiq and Jazmine Sullivan. They did it. This is it, I'm off mama! Whooo!!! And no, it didn't happen that way and I got a very informative lesson about the music business and then shortly after that I lost my voice. There were two years where I had a polyp and I could barely speak and I hated music. I hated anyone singing around me. I didn't want to go to the studio, I stopped songwriting and you couldn't even play music in the car with me. I was so sad. I couldn't even sing with my daughter and I got so depressed... When I finally came out of that it was because I finally started working on music again. So to jump into a competition like this just brought me joy to be able to sing week-after-week. And I didn't give a crap if it was in a mask. I just knew I was happy to be singing. It made me the happiest I've been in a long time.
Did anyone figure it out? Who first suspected it was you?
The internet, which did me a huge solid and people don’t say that every day. I did this show based on the back back of my self-narrative that no one knows that I sing and they don't respect me for the stuff that I've done. Wah wah wah. Then the first episode aired and, yeah, there were guesses all over the place. But I got a couple hundred DMs on Instagram, or all these mentions on Twitter like, "c'mon man, you can't fool me. I watch Whose Line? all the time, that's Wayne! I watch Let's Make a Deal every day and me and my mom know that's Wayne." The ones I really loved were, "You can't fool me. I'm still playing 'Ordinary,' Wayne's single from 11 years ago -- listen to that, that's him, he's not foolin' anybody!" It just built week-after-week and I just got a shout-out on SNL where they said, "yeah, that's Wayne Brady." Which was amazing because when you think you're the ugliest boy in the cafeteria and nobody wants to sit with you, maybe folks were sitting with you but you were too preocuppied to look up.
And here you are, the champ, outlasting Michelle from Destiny's Child, someone named Patti LaBelle, Seal? That must be a sweet victory.
It feels amazing and it made it real. What I loved about this was that it's real. There were real singers, like singer-singers, like Ms. Patti LaBelle. I believe that I accomplished my mission because when I started I said I'm only going to do it if I really think I can win. It took a mixture of all my skill to win: it took me being able to sing -- but I'm not going to out-sing Patti LaBelle -- but I damn sure can out-perform most people. So it was a big pat on the back to go, I set out and did exactly what I wanted to, and not only did I do it, but I did it against legends and I'm so, so happy.