Matson on Music
Former postman LeRoy Bell makes special delivery on 'X-Factor' UPDATED
Posted by Andrew Matson
Photo courtesy FOX
"Livin' It Up (Friday Night)" by Bell & James
"Can I Get Witcha" by Notorious B.I.G. feat. Lil Cease (warning: swearing)
*UPDATE: As of 10/07 Bell has advanced on "The X-Factor," passing the "boot camp" round.
Sitting outside a Starbucks on the border of Shoreline and Edmonds, dressed in tight fitting denim and a knitted hat, LeRoy Bell looks like a pop star who could win a TV singing competition.
"Except I'm old," he laughs in his smoky voice.
The former Tacoma postal worker is 60.
He's on the TV show "The X-Factor," which is similar to "American Idol" — but different, because it has no upper age limit. Judges are entertainer Paula Abdul, record-label executive L.A.Reid, former Pussycat Dolls singer and "Dancing with the Stars" winner Nicole Scherzinger and former "Idol" starmaker Simon Cowell.
"They just want 'the X-Factor,'" says Bell, "which is something that makes you unique or
"The X-Factor" airs Wednesdays and Thursdays on FOX (apart from a few dates rescheduled for the World Series) and is still in its early episodes of the season. This week, Bell was shown competing in the "boot camp" round, which weeded 162 contestants down to 32.
Assuming he makes it through any cuts tonight, he'll face reality-TV style challenges next week, singing and dancing while being mentored by one of the judges ("I don't dance," he notes). If he makes it through those, Bell might eventually fly back to Los Angeles for the first live episode, Tuesday, Oct. 25, when contestants will begin getting voted off regularly. The winner gets a $5 million recording contract with Syco/Sony Records.
Bell is an unusual contestant — not just because of his age but because he's already touched
Baby boomers might remember his funky 1979 hit single "Livin' It Up (Friday Night)," with Bell & James (James being Casey James, Bell's writing partner), or "Mama Can't Buy You Love," written for Elton John — popular around the same time and nominated for a Grammy.
"My hard-luck story is I had a record deal in the '70s on A&M Records, and we had a couple of records out, and we had a hit — and then we got dropped from the label."
More accurately, Bell & James negotiated out of the deal, on some bad advice from a lawyer who said they could get a better one, Bell says.
Bell spent the '80s and '90s gigging around the Seattle/Tacoma area as part of a cover band. Royalty checks supplemented his cover-band income, spiking when his songs were sampled for tracks by Notorious B.I.G. ("Can I Get Witcha"), Jennifer Lopez ("Still") and UK producer Fatboy Slim (remixing Elton John's "Are You Ready for Love"). The royalties eventually dwindled, though, and Bell grew tired of playing other peoples' music. So he went back to his original love — songwriting — and took a stable job with the U.S. Postal Service in Tacoma to help him start a solo career.
Today, music is a full-time, financially sustaining job.
Performing as LeRoy Bell and His Only Friends, Bell is popular in Seattle, with a healthy concert draw and a broadly appealing rock & soul sound comparable to Sheryl Crow.
"I've opened for Sheryl Crow, Joan Osborne, did a bunch of dates with B.B. King — but we just couldn't get past that level of being the opening act for these big names," says Bell. He hopes "The X-Factor" will bring visibility to his music now, and maybe shine a light on his back catalog.
"I wouldn't mind $5 million dollars, but I never thought I could win it. I would make sure my son has college stuff (if I won). Nothing spectacular. But it would make life easier. And to have a big label who would get your stuff everywhere, that would be nice."
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