Clay Aiken (born Clayton Holmes Grissom on Novembober 30, 1978) is an American popular music singer who rose to fame on the American Idol television program.
Aiken, who changed his last name from Grissom to his mother's maiden name, was born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. He attended Raleigh's Leesville Road High School before enrolling at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Although his American Idol activities temporarily delayed his academic pursuits, Aiken graduated with a bachelor's degree in special education in December of 2003. He found his interest in special education while directing YMCA childrens' camps as a teenager; at age 19 he served as a substitute teacher for a classroom of students with autism at Brentwood Elementary School. While attending college in Charlotte he took a part-time job as an assistant to a boy with autism, and it was this child's mother, Diane Bubel, who urged him to audition for American Idol.
The American Idol judges first saw Aiken as a nerdy type unlikely to be any kind of idol, but they were immediately impressed once he began singing Heatwave's "Always and Forever". The clip of the judges' surprise during this audition performance would be replayed many times over the course of the competition.
Aiken made it to the round-of-32, but was not voted to the final round on his first try, a performance of Journey's "Open Arms". He finished third in his semifinal group of eight behind eventual winner Ruben Studdard and eventual third-place finisher Kimberley Locke. However during the "wild card" round Aiken got a second chance, and a strong performance of Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" propelled him into the finals. From then on he and Studdard were the clear favorites of both the judges and the fans, and Aiken received a makeover from the show's producers to improve his visual image. Aiken was especially strong in performing ballads, such as the strikingly-staged rendition of Neil Sedaka's "Solitaire," but upbeat performances, including The Foundations' "Build Me Up Buttercup," were also met with considerable enthusiasm from the audience and voters.
In the end Aiken came in a close second in the contest, with Studdard winning by a narrow margin. (The result was somewhat controversial as Idol's voting system was swamped with calls, possibly yielding an essentially random result.) Though technically the show's "first runner-up," he has since gone on to be that season's most popular and successful star, even more so than Studdard himself.
The single "Bridge Over Troubled Water"/"This Is the Night", released June 10, 2003, has gone platinum. It was the fastest-selling single since Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" and the best-selling single of 2003. It was the first single to go platinum since 2002, when Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" did, after being out for over a year.
In October of 2003 Aiken released his first solo album, Measure of a Man, which debuted at #1 on the "Billboard 200" and was, with over 600,000 copies sold in its first week, the fastest-selling debut for a solo artist in 10 years. The album eventually went double platinum, and spawned the hit single "Invisible." The album also contained Aiken's first hit song, "This Is the Night," which had debuted at #1 on both the "Billboard Hot 100" and the Hot 100 Single Sales Chart. Later that year Aiken won the Fan's Choice Award at the American Music Awards ceremony, and his CD single "This Is the Night/Bridge Over Troubled Water" won the Billboard award for the Best-selling Single of 2003.
Aiken appeared in numerous television specials during the winter of 2003, including Disney's Christmas Day Parade and The Nick At Nite Holiday Special, where he sang a duet with Bing Crosby via special effects. The song was "Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth", which was originally sung by Crosby and David Bowie on a 1977 Christmas special.
Due to speculation within American popular culture that he is gay, Aiken has been the subject of gay jokes by Conan O'Brien, Kathy Griffin, Saturday Night Live, and Mad TV, among others. While there are a few communities among his many internet fan sites that speculate about his sexual orientation, the majority do not. Aiken denied he was gay in a Rolling Stone interview in June, 2003, and, in fact, he good-naturedly lampooned such speculation in the opening monologue featuring him as a member of a gay men's chorus when he appeared as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live's February 7, 2004 show.
From February to April 2004, Aiken embarked on the "Independent Tour" with Kelly Clarkson, winner of the first American Idol contest. He was also scheduled for a few summer tour dates, but high demand ultimately led to the booking of over 50 dates across the United States, culminating in what many fans called the "Not-a-Tour". Disney's Aladdin Special Edition 2-Disc DVD was the exclusive sponsor of Clay's Summer Concert Tour. Each concert previewed Aiken's moving rendition of "Proud of Your Boy". The song was originally intended for the film but was cut when the Aladdin storyline changed during production. The entire music video performed by Aiken is presented on the Aladdin Special Edition 2-Disc DVD.
In November 2004, Aiken embarked on his third tour of the year, choosing this time to focus on Christmas favorites. "The Joyful Noise Tour" featured a conductor and a 30-piece orchestra. In some cities, Aiken was supported by the local philharmonic or symphony, such as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Local choirs from high schools and elementary schools participated at each concert. "The Joyful Noise Tour" was well received by fans, with sellouts or near-sellouts at every venue. "The Joyful Noise Tour"'s official sponsor was Ronald McDonald House Charities.
That same month, Aiken also released a holiday album entitled Merry Christmas With Love, which set a new record for fastest-selling holiday album in the Soundscan era (since 1991) and tied CÚline Dion's record for the highest debut by a holiday album in the history of Billboard magazine. The album went platinum in 6 weeks and was the best-selling holiday album of 2004. At the same time Aiken made the New York Times Best Seller List, debuting at #2, with his "inspirational memoir" entitled Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life, written with Allison Glock, published by Random House. In December 2004, Aiken starred in his first TV special, titled "A Clay Aiken Christmas," with special guests Barry Manilow, Yolanda Adams, and Megan Mullally. He was also the executive producer for the Christmas special, which was released as a DVD later that month.