LeRoy Bell may not have gotten the chance to play original material during his eighth-place run on Season 1 of The X Factor, but if you’ve ever taken an end-of-the-work-week road trip with the radio blasting, you may have heard his 1979 hit, “Livin’ It Up Friday Night.” We caught up with Bell to discuss the way X Factor obsessed over his status as the world’s hottest 60-year-old, what we didn’t see during his televised audition, and his tenuous connection to American Idol judge Jennifer Lopez.
TVLINE | Let’s talk about overall image that was projected of you on The X Factor. A lot of times it was like, “Oh my God, 59 or 60 years old, how can this guy still be performing?” They seemed to remind us of your age every time you were on screen. Did you roll your eyes? Did it make you laugh? Did it drive you crazy?
All of the above. [Laughs] It’s one of those things that I’ve downplayed in the past when I’ve been gigging, because when people found out [my age], it shocked them, and then it would always become about age instead of the music. After a while, though, I got used to [the way X Factor handled the subject]; I realized that that was one of the things they were using to lure people into watching.
TVLINE | I guess it would be less of a big deal if you actually looked your age.
Yeah. Exactly. I agree. And not feeling your age — that’s the main thing.
TVLINE | Tell me a little bit about your audition to “Lean on Me.” Did you have any hesitation about going on a reality singing competition at this point in your life and career?
Honestly, I never thought that I would do a reality show. In fact, I don’t watch much reality TV at all; I never even watched American Idol much, never a whole episode anyway. I did watch The Voice for a little while because I knew Vicci Martinez, but I only watched when she was on.
TVLINE | She’s fantastic.
Yeah. We’ve done a couple of gigs together over the years because she’s from [the Seattle] area. Anyway, my bass player mentioned X Factor to me, and I just dismissed it. “Oh yeah, that sounds great, but that’s not me. I don’t do that kind of stuff.” Then he mentioned it again, and said there was no age limit, and that it was going to be a huge show. So I looked it up and I thought it over for a couple of days and I thought “What the heck, I’ll go down and see what it’s like.”
TVLINE | How did you choose “Lean on Me”?
There were three screenings [with producers] before you even got to see the judges. Through all of those, I did original material, and they ended up making me an alternate [to perform in front of the judges and the live audience]. They could probably tell that I could sing, but I wasn’t singing anything they knew. So that night, I’d [planned to] sing one of my [original] songs, “A Change Is Coming,” but at the last minute, they wouldn’t let me use a track because it had a background vocal on it. So I did that song without a backup track, and it didn’t make quite as much sense. Then they asked me if I could do something else, because L.A. wasn’t convinced. The only other song that I could think of was the chorus to “Lean on Me”; I didn’t know the verse. I hoped that I would sing that chorus and hopefully I wouldn’t get to the verse, and that’s what happened.
TVLINE | It’s really interesting that you made it through the early audition process on original songs, but then we didn’t get to hear you perform any of them on air. Had you been hoping to bust out one of your own tracks once you made it past Judges’ Houses?
That was my whole idea when I initially committed to doing X Factor. I just thought, “This is perfect. I’ll get on the show, and I probably won’t be on long, but I’ll get on there and get to do my own songs. It’ll be great.” It didn’t take long to realize, though, that there was no way I was doing my own songs. They were going to pick the songs. Then I thought, “I just have to roll with it.” So I stayed in.
TVLINE | With a contestant like Chris Rene, you can see how he shines on his own material, like “Young Homie,” much more than he does with most cover songs. Does it frustrate you to not have had the same opportunity to live or die based on the material you’ve penned for yourself?
I understand why in some ways they don’t [always allow originals]. The rappers on the show are allowed a little more creativity in [writing their own lyrics], but sometimes they are at a disadvantage as well. It’s a singing competition. As far as doing my own material, at some point I was really trying to push toward it and then the producers — everybody has their own producers — they would say, “You’re up against songs that have sold millions of records, that millions of people have heard and loved. No matter how good your song is, it’s never been heard before.” They thought it was a big mistake to do my own stuff. And I saw the wisdom in the fact that if I was going to be the only person doing originals — up against standards that everybody can relate to — it might have been a disadvantage for me.
TVLINE | Out of all the songs that you sang during the live shows, is there one performance or one song in particular that you feel kind of captures what you hope to do with your post X Factor career?
I’m a singer/songwriter, so I do everything from acoustic rock to rock and soul. One of my favorite groups is U2, and that melody ["I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"] was real strong, and that was pretty close to my style of where I would write or sing, lyrically and emotionally. And I love the Sarah McLachlan song ["Angel"]. I never saw myself singing it., but I tried to make it as much my own as I could — without completely revamping it. When you only get a week between each performance, there’s not a lot of time.
TVLINE | Seeing that you felt the performance of “Angel” was close to your comfort zone, were you surprised to be in the bottom three that week, and then to get eliminated?
Yeah, I was a little bit. But I knew it was going to be pretty hardcore when they were going to eliminate two contestants [during Top 9 Week]. If it had been a regular elimination, I wasn’t the lowest [vote-getter]. But that week, I had a couple of things, in my mind, that went against me: One was that it was Thanksgiving week. My [voting] base is probably from 25 to 60, and I think that a lot of those people had family commitments. I don’t think they were sitting by the phone — especially with the [performance episode] airing on a Tuesday. Otherwise I might’ve gone further.
TVLINE | From what I’ve read about you on the Internet — and assuming it’s true — you’ve got a pretty extensive songwriting background. You’ve written for people as disparate as Elton John, Teddy Pendergrass, and Jennifer Lopez. Tell me a little bit about your pre-X Factor life. Were you making it solely as an artist and songwriter? Or did you have to juggle music with a day job? I’m just curious what your life looked before this.
A little bit of all of that is true. I started playing in bands when I was a kid. In my early 20s I hooked up with my uncle, Thom Bell, who was a big-time writer/producer for Philadelphia International Records, which was then run by Gamble, Huff and Bell. They had all kinds of people from Teddy Pendergrass and The OJs, Dionne Warwick. I went back to the east coast, hung with him for a long time, and lived at the studio. Eventually, I became a staff writer. Then I met my then writing partner, Casey James, and we co-wrote some songs for Elton John, and then we got signed [as Bell & James] to A&M Records. We had a top 20 hit called “Livin’ It Up Friday Night,” which still gets played on Friday nights on a lot of stations. We got dropped from that label when we didn’t have a second or third hit. When that happened, it was kind of a downhill spiral for a while, and then I started playing drums in a cover band for almost 20 years.
TVLINE | Has it been a frustrating run for you, to get close to the dream, but not breaking thorough to the big time? Or has it been satisfying to just be able to make a living doing what you love? Where doesThe X Factor fit into the whole scheme of things?
Looking back now, I felt good about some of the things that I accomplished, but at the same time, I’m not one of those people that settle with, “He used to be this, or he used to do that.” So about 10 years ago, when I got tired of just playing covers, I thought, “You know, I’m just going to write songs that I like, and sing them myself.” That’s when I started a band that I have now, Leroy Bell and His Only Friends. I just started writing all of the material for the band. We’ve got five CDs out. They did pretty well, and we toured with a lot of people — B.B. King, Etta James, Sheryl Crow. But we could never get past the opening act kind of thing. That’s why when this X Factor thing came along, I went for it. I didn’t get to write my own songs for the show, but I did get to perform in front of millions of people each week. So I’m happy with the choice that I made.
TVLINE | I loved that on the night you had to perform your save-me song, when Steve Jones actually asked you “how are you feeling?” you responded with, “Uh, scared.”
I couldn’t think of anything smart to say like “Uh, uncomfortable?” It just burst out. [Laughs.]
TVLINE | Steve really needs a better question for that situation. Nobody is about to say “I’m on top of the world!”
Yeah. “I feel great. Too bad I’m leaving tonight. It’s Thanksgiving!” [Laughs]
TVLINE | Anything else you want to say about your X Factor run or what the future holds?
Well, you mentioned that I had written for JLo, but I didn’t; she sampled some stuff I wrote.
TVLINE | Oh, what song of yours did she sample?
I can’t even remember the name of it; it was renamed “Still” on her CD. It was just a piece of one of the songs I wrote, but luckily it was on a double-platinum record. That was nice. [Laughs] And P. Diddy sampled “Livin’ It Up Friday Night” for the Notorious B.I.G.
TVLINE | So there you have it: You already had an American Idol connection prior to your X Factor run.
TVLINE | Well, JLo is a judge on Idol…
Oh yeah. I never thought of that!
TVLINE | Your brain is not even wired in that direction.
No, no it’s not. [Laughs] I was sitting here thinking “Huh?”
For all my X Factor news, reviews, and interviews, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!