At one point, it was easier for LeRoy Bell to lie about his age than to answer the banal questions that come when you appear 20 years younger than you actually are. The 60-year-old singer, who finished 8th overall on this season of Fox’s wildly popular talent competition The X Factor, is aware that he looks much younger than his years. What he wants you to know is that he has much more to offer the world than anti-aging tips. It was the Tacoma, Washington native’s feather-soft voice, not his wrinkle-free face, that took him deep into the high-profile competition. And having already flirted with music stardom once (Bell’s 1978 disco hit “Livin’ It Up” charted on the Billboard Top 40), the ageless wonder has no intentions of slowing down now. After being eliminated from The X Factor last month, Bell spoke with BET.com about how the music industry has evolved since Disco, what he has planned for 2012 and what it’s like to have the second most requested birth certificate in America behind our Commander-in-Chief. “Don’t count me out,” warns Bell, who has toured and worked with the likes of Etta James and Elton John, “don’t forget me because I am gonna be around.”
BET.com: You gave up on music after the success of your 1978 song “Livin’ It Up” and worked a 9 to 5 before deciding to try a comeback 11 years ago. How did you know The X Factor was the next step for your career in 2011?
LeRoy Bell: At first when it was suggested, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea because it’s competition and that’s not my cup of tea. But when I heard that there was no age limit and how big the show was potentially gonna be, I saw that it would be great to be seen in that many homes and let people outside of my circle see what I do. I wanted to take my artist status to another level.
You definitely did that. Were you surprised by how far you were able to go?
Yeah, I was. I got more and more comfortable as it went on. There was a learning curve. The music business has changed quite a bit since [my deal in 1978].
How is that?
Yeah, it’s totally different. It’s a complete flip-flop. The deals are different now. Before, even though I had a record deal and had a Top 15 record in the nation, I still didn’t have the same exposure that I have on this show. Everything wasn’t video-oriented then. Videos were just starting to come out. So, you heard the record, you danced to it, you liked it and you bought the record. Now it’s all about the way you look, what kind of image you have. Back then it was what you sounded like on vinyl and now it’s much more than just the sound. It’s the whole package.
Did your age help you or hurt you on The X Factor?
I’m not sure. At first going in, my intention was to just not tell my age or lie about it because I’ve been doing it for years. Because what happened was people were always shocked or it just became a curiosity thing where people asked questions and it was all about the age instead of the music. It was a distraction for me. I wanted it to be about the music. So I wanted to lie but when you audition, you have to prove your real age, show your birth certificate, so there was obviously no getting around it. At first it was a real curiosity, I think. People were like “Wow, he still walks and talks and sings and everything at age 59!” Like that’s a feat (Laughs). Then I think it helped in certain ways because a lot of people that are over the age of 25 or 30 connected with me.
Your coach on the show was former Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger. She was actually born the same year that “Livin’ It Up” it up came out.
[Laughs] I didn’t know that. That’s funny.
Were you still able to learn some things from her despite her young age difference?
Yeah, I actually did. She’s very knowledgeable for her age, which I thought was fascinating, because at first that was my concern. When I found out she was gonna be coaching the (older competitors) I thought, “Wow, she’s only 33 years old. How’s she gonna relate?” But she just crossed that bridge very easily. She’s extremely knowledgeable about things that happened way before her time musically. So she had a vast knowledge of the background, she’s way more experienced and knowledgeable than I thought she was, and the nice thing was that she was very accessible. Rehearsals were very organic. It wasn’t like, “You step over here and sing that, you go back here and do that. Sing it like this.” She didn’t do any of that. Basically, her whole outlook was being comfortable and being myself and letting that come through.
On the show you’re being judged immediately in front of everyone. Is it tough to take feedback in such a public environment?
Yeah, especially sometimes when you think you really sang the hell out of a song and then you have somebody go, “You didn’t really do that that well,” and they have some criticism that just comes out of nowhere. A couple times that happened, I don’t remember specifically, but when it did it just kind of threw me. I was like, “Woah, are we listening to the same song?” [Laughs]. But at the same time, I took everything to heart, within reason. There’s always some kernel of truth there and then they just blow it out of proportion. They made a big thing about confidence for a while, saying I lack confidence. I never felt that I lacked confidence, but I wasn’t totally comfortable without a guitar. Those are two different things. It wasn’t that I wasn’t confident in singing and doing it, it’s just that I wasn’t quite as at home as if I had been singing without a guitar for 10 years.
Of the last remaining performers on the show, who do you think will win?
People ask me that and I really have no idea. Because a lot of it boils down to the votes and that’s the crux that changes everything. After a while it almost becomes a popularity contest. Who’s the most popular? When you get down to 10 remaining artists, everyone is good in their own right for what they do. You don’t have really any slouches there. They’ve proven that. So, each week the dynamic can change. I wouldn’t put money on anybody because I think it’s anybody’s game.
For more on LeRoy Bell, go to leroybell.com. The next episode of The X Factor will air tonight at 8PM/7C on Fox.
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