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Clay Aiken

With his hit CD, Aiken brings more to the table than on 'American Idol'

For a few select performers, "American Idol" has become a dream vehicle through which to enter the music business.

But the fact is, success on "American Idol" doesn't guarantee popular contestants a place in mainstream music once they finish their run on the show. Just consider Justin Guarini, who has quickly faded from the public eye since finishing second to Kelly Clarkson in the inaugural 2002 season of the hit show.

Clay Aiken, who finished second to Ruben Studdard in 2003 — and currently is co-headlining an arena tour with Clarkson — went into the making of his debut CD, "Measure of a Man," knowing he needed to bring more to the table musically than he showed on "American Idol."

"I think that with 'American Idol,' you perform a lot of classic standards stuff, and a lot of times people come out of there wondering: 'Will this person have the ability to compete in a mainstream market?"' Aiken said. "I think that's what we were really trying to show with the album. Yeah, I sang 'Build Me Up Buttercup' and 'Solitaire' and 'Mack the Knife' on that show, but that's not all I can do."

Whether fans see the songs on Aiken's debut CD, "Measure of a Man," as adding a new dimension to the musical personality he established on "American Idol" may be open to debate. But there's no arguing with the popularity Aiken continues to enjoy. "Measure of a Man" debuted last fall with first-week sales of 613,000, the second highest total ever behind Snoop Dogg's "Doggy Style" CD.

The record spent two weeks at No. 1 and now has topped 2 million in sales, while its lead single, "Invisible," still is top 10 on the adult contemporary chart.

Now his arena tour with Clarkson promises to keep Aiken in the spotlight through spring as sales of "Measure of a Man" continue to climb. It's all an amazing series of events for someone like Aiken, who never saw singing as anything other than a hobby.

"I was going to be a teacher," Aiken said. "That's what was my goal in life, to teach and to do that. I had my life planned out until I was 50 years old. I was going to be a teacher and maybe a principal at some point ... Music was not in my five,- 10-, 20-year plan. And so I would have never auditioned had it not been for someone who convinced me to do it."

That someone was a family friend, Diane Bubel, who had heard Aiken sing and convinced the 25-year-old native of Raleigh, N.C., to try out for "American Idol." Ironically, Aiken failed in his first audition for the Fox network affiliate in Charlotte. But Bubel convinced him to travel to Atlanta where national auditions were held. He made the show and emerged alongside Studdard as a leading contender to win "American Idol."

In the season finale, viewers voted Studdard the winner by a margin of less than 1 percent. But Aiken's showing easily was strong enough to earn him his deal with RCA Records.

Teaching went on hold, and singing became the priority as Aiken went to work on "Measure of a Man" with the help of label president and music industry legend Clive Davis and an impressive cast of songwriters/producers, including Desmond Child; Clif Magness, who was a major contributor to Avril Lavigne's debut CD; Rick Nowels, known for his work with Cher; and Steve Morales, familiar to many for his work with Christina Aguilera. Despite the considerable involvement of such heavyweight outside talent, Aiken said he retained a good deal of control over the material that comprises "Measure of a Man."

"I went in with standards that said I don't want to do this, I don't want to do that and I'm OK with doing this," Aiken said. "So they played me like 15, 16, 20 songs. I said: 'I don't like this one. I don't like this one. I do like this one. This is the kind of sound I like. This is what I'm interested in doing.' And we all bought into the same type of vision that I have."

Trying to describe exactly the kind of artist Aiken wants to be, though, is an elusive topic. Between his "American Idol" performances and the songs on "Measure of a Man," he has sung a variety of material, from classic pre-Beatles pop to adult contemporary fare. Aiken enjoys the fact that he has been hard to pin down stylistically.

"What's amazing about the show I was on, and the way that I came around is because I came around by allowing the public to pick from day one,'' he said. "And I think there's no need to put me in one of those niches, (to say) 'This is where he belongs.' It doesn't matter where he belongs. People like what he does and he doesn't have to fit into that. So maybe this radio station does play me, but the public will decide how long they like me, and when they stop liking me, they'll stop buying."

Clay Aiken co-headlines a March 21 show with Kelly Clarkson at the Savvis Center. Tickets for the 7 p.m. show, which also includes the Beau Sisters, cost $45 and $35.

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