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An ‘Idol’ life: John Stevens looks back on the show that shaped his youth

When 2004 started, John Stevens of East Amherst had the typical life of a junior at Williamsville East High School.

When it ended, he had one of the most recognizable names, faces and voices in the country.

That was the power of “American Idol” at its peak and Stevens was without question the most well-known local contestant in the show’s 15-year history.

With that epic run coming to an end Thursday, Stevens, the smooth Sinatra-style crooner millions of people heard as a teenager, reflected on the huge impact the cultural juggernaut had on his life, both then and now, the lives of thousands of other singers and on the television landscape.

“Before ‘American Idol,’ there was no reality TV singing competition,” said Stevens, 28, from his home in Boston. “Now you’re got ‘The Voice,’ you’ve got ‘America’s Got Talent,’ all the ‘Dancing’ audition shows; it’s blown up as its own genre.”

Stevens, who was 16 when he competed, then the youngest competitors could be, signed on just as “Idol” was attaining its top-rated status. According to TV Guide, from the 2003-04 season through the 2010-11 season, either the “Idol” performance or results show ranked No. 1. For years, the two weekly shows occupied the top two spots.

In 2007, when “American Idol” was drawing an average of 33.5 million viewers, Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC Universal, said, “I think ‘Idol’ is the most impactful show in the history of television.”

During those years when millions of people watched the show, avidly discussing their favorites in online forums, thousands of singers age 16 to 24 (and later 15 to 28) got a chance at stardom. Even those who were on screen for only a few minutes could benefit. Stevens said he knows a singer who competed on “Idol” but did not make it into the top 50 but “was able to springboard that presence on TV” into a varied vocal career that includes voiceover work and music for Disney. “So it doesn’t matter whether you win, or even make the top 12,” he said. “It was an amazing platform for a lot of young people, like myself, who would have never had a chance to be in the spotlight or get their music out there in front of everyone.”

Reaching sixth place in the competition that named Fantasia Barrino that year’s “Idol,” Stevens’ face, name and voice became famous across the country. Buoyed by local support and the combination of his fresh-faced youthful appeal and his smooth turn with the American songbook, he had grandmothers, mothers and teen girls burning up the phone lines to vote for him, a gender demographic he still draws.

“I do get a lot of World War II veterans, men from that era, but other than that my audience is going to be mostly female,” he said. “I am perfectly happy having women as my main audience.”

Without “Idol,” he said, “It would have been the tough road. Opportunities would not have opened up as easily for me. I probably would have attempted to go to Berklee, I don’t know whether I would have succeeded at that. I probably would have ended up doing music education, as opposed to doing performance. I didn’t think when I was a junior in high school that people wanted to listen to Sinatra, even given Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Buble’s careers. I didn’t have the confidence that I’d be able to make a living at it. I’d be teaching music somewhere without ‘American Idol.’ ”

After graduating magna cum laude in 2009 from Berklee College of Music with a degree in professional music, Stevens stayed in Boston, where he continues to perform in high-profile settings. He sang “My Way” at the 2014 funeral of Thomas Merino, a beloved former Boston mayor, and sang with the Boston Pops on New Year’s Eve.

He is the vocalist for the Beantown Swing Orchestra and heads the John Stevens Group, with which he just released his first vinyl album, “Mr. Nice Guy,” following the CDs “Red” and “Home for Christmas.” Releasing an album on vinyl, he said, “was a bucket list kind of thing; being able to say that my album is on vinyl is an incredible achievement for me.”

He also has what he calls “a real job,” working full-time as a concierge in a downtown Boston hotel, sharing his love and knowledge of his adopted city with visitors.

Despite his identification with Boston, Stevens said his Western New York roots are strong. “When I come home I get excited for Bocce’s pizza, Anderson’s roast beef, all the food and the people,” he said.

Stevens, who stopped watching “Idol” soon after his season, said he thinks the show “has run its course. I do talk to a lot of people about it, and everyone either used to watch it and have jumped ship to watch ‘The Voice’ or doesn’t watch any singing competition shows anymore.”

“The Voice,” in which judges evaluate singers without seeing them, refined and perfected the vocal competition setup, Stevens said, in contrast to Simon Cowell’s criticisms of would-be competitors’ dress or even their physical appearance. In 2007, Cowell drew a backlash when he told one young man, “You look a little odd, your dancing is terrible, the singing was horrendous, and you look like one of those creatures that live in the jungle with the massive eyes. What do they call those? Bush babies.” Cowell later made a halfhearted apology for the remark, saying, “If he’s offended, then I apologize.”

On “The Voice,” said Stevens, “They are not paying attention to what the person looks like, and they don’t have any preconceptions about what the person is going to sound like, what they are going to sing or how they are going to do it. It’s all based on the voice.”

Speaking of appearances, with his height, baby face and shock of red hair, Stevens still gets recognized by people, including his co-workers at his job. “It’s pretty crazy when they do recognize me,” he said. “People do ask, ‘Do I know you from TV?’ ”


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