Thirteen years ago today, Billboard and American Idol were brought together for the first time.
It was the third Saturday in March 2003 when the Television Academy hosted an afternoon event featuring the producers and cast of Fox’s American Idol, now in its second season. The Academy’s theater held 500 people and there were 1,800 RSVPs. So the night before, the Academy sent out an email blast explaining to the members that most of them would be watching the event on a giant screen outside the theater.
I was one of those members who RSVPd and it didn’t sit well with me — I didn’t want to be outside. I wanted to be in the theater, able to experience the event in person. I made a late-night call to the Academy’s PR staff to see if I could cover the event for Billboard. I was assigned a spot on the red carpet, and when I was introduced to executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, within 30 seconds of meeting him, I said, “Nigel, I have an idea.” Lythgoe asked what it was, and that’s when I suggested a themed episode of Idol where the editors of Billboard would choose songs for the contestants. Lythgoe smiled and said, “Absolutely not. We learned a lesson in the U.K. If you choose the songs for the finalists, when they go home, it’s your fault. So they must choose their own songs.”
That was the end of the discussion as the event was about to begin. I took my seat inside the theater and for the next two hours tried to come up with another Idea that Lythgoe would like. After the event, attendees were standing outside the theater schmoozing, and I spotted Lythgoe and approached. “Nigel, I have another idea.” Lythgoe laughed but wanted to know more. Since I was the author of The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, I suggested the Idols sing No. 1s from the Billboard Hot 100. Lythgoe shouted out to Mike Darnell, president of alternative programming for Fox, “Hey, Mike, how about a show with Billboard No. 1 hits?” Darnell gave a thumbs-up.
“I promise you we’ll do it,” Lythgoe told me. “But we’re already booked up this season. We’ll do it next year.” Two weeks later, I received a phone call from the show’s music supervisor, Susan Slamer. “You might want to come to Idol next week. We’re doing Billboard No. 1 hits.” One of the planned themes had dropped out and the producers remembered the idea from the Academy event.
Hearing the news, I made another suggestion: If the show would bring the Idols to the Billboard office, I would give them a lesson in how the charts are compiled — the charts where some of the season 2 cast were likely to have their own No. 1 songs, just like season 1’s Kelly Clarkson. The voice on the other end of the line said, “That’s a great idea.”
So on April 4, 2003 — 13 years ago today — six finalists from season 2 arrived at the Billboard office with a production crew from Idol and were ushered into a conference room for a lesson in “Billboard 101″ with then-director of charts Geoff Mayfield and me.
Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Kimberley Locke, Josh Gracin, Carmen Rasmusen and Rickey Smith filed in. Two Idols were missing: Trenyce and Kimberly Caldwell. Both were ill and in quarantine, so as not to infect the other six singers in the top eight. We explained how the charts are compiled and took questions from the contestants.
Aiken wanted to know which songwriter had the most No. 1s (Paul McCartney with 32, a record that stands to this day). Locke asked how many times Aretha Franklin had been No. 1 (twice, first with “Respect” and again with “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,” her duet with George Michael). Smith wondered how many famous artists never reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 (many, including Bruce Springsteen, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Bob Dylan and James Brown).
Aiken had another question: Which artist had the most songs in the top 10 at the same time? I told him it was The Beatles, who did it 39 years ago on this very day (April 4, 1964) when they locked up the entire top five.
Then I posed a question to the Idols: While the show had produced one Hot 100 No. 1 at this point (Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This”), which TV series was responsible for the most chart-toppers? Smith got the answer right: The Monkees (with three).
With cameras still rolling, the session ended with a surprise for the six guests: super-size gift bags containing Billboard clothing, issues of the magazine and autographed copies of my books, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits and Billboard’s Hottest Hot 100 Hits. At this point in season 2, the Idols were used to receiving gifts everywhere they went, but Locke, flipping through the pages of the books, exclaimed, “Wow, something we can really use!”
Before they left the building, the Idols met the rest of the Billboard staff, including then-West Coast bureau chief Melinda Newman, who told Aiken they both hailed from the same hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina.
The “field trip” to Billboard was seen on the following week’s live broadcast, with Melinda and me in the audience. A story ran in Billboard detailing the office visit. It was the beginning of a long association between Billboard and American Idol, with many more shows themed to the charts and years of coverage from the beginning of the iconic series right through to the end.
P.S. Aiken did go on to top the Billboard Hot 100 with his first RCA single, “This Is the Night.” Studdard, Locke and Gracin all had multiple No. 1s on other Billboard charts.