By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
As gifted, chimerical rock creeps go, Leon Russell is bested only by Edgar Winter, who of course looks like a recently deposed Lord of the Ringswizard, and Roy Orbison, who my dad says already resembled a dispirited, porcelain-skinned ghost when he met him backstage 25 years ago. So I can only imagine who Russell was thinking about when he wrote "Superstar"probably Little Eva or somebody.
When American Idol Ruben Studdard performs the song, I like to imagine he's singing to gifted, chimerical r&b creep R. Kelly. The single comes out on a bed of luxurious pillow-talk strings, soft enough for a woman as frail as Karen Carpenter but plenty sturdy for Studdard, who slips out from between the sheets and into something more comfortable as the high-end keyboard whine uncoils and quiet-storm beats start to breathe; it's the uptown-downtown thing R. Kelly does more naturally than anyone, scaled to dimensions even more lucid than pop radio's: prime-time TV's.
Vocally, Studdard's all there, bending the melody into shades of blue, doing little trills to signify a studied spontaneity, elongating vowels like an impassioned TOEFL instructor. "Loooong agoooo," he croons, "and oh so far away." But not that far away, since the swan's-neck acoustic guitar, so sweet and clear, keeps re-enforcing the memory of Kelly's antediluvian majesty.
In the final verse Studdard reaches out to his hero, whose rap sheet ain't nothing but a blunder: "Loneliness is such a sad affair," he admits, for both of them, "and I can hardly wait to be with you again." It could be a while, but this volley of idolatry is perfect for the rainy days, Mondays, and arraignment hearings until then. And think: Ruben's only just begun.