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 Rings wizard, 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.