In nine seasons as “American Idol’s” music director, Rickey Minor never snagged an Emmy nomination for his work on the show. Could that change this year for his successor, Ray Chew, who — because of the series’ format changes — has even more to do?
Music direction on “Idol” is more complicated this season, says exec producer Nigel Lythgoe, because the contestants are not only performing live on the Wednesday-Thursday Fox show, they’re also creating iTunes versions of their songs with producers that are part of inhouse mentor Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope Records team.
“Sometimes the actual track hasn’t worked for the television show,” Lythgoe says. “What sells as a record doesn’t necessary make great television, so we wipe the slate clean and Ray does it completely live.”
Chew is responsible for all of the show’s musical content, supervising a 30-person music team that includes arrangers, copyists, the six-piece onstage band and three background vocalists.
He’s one of the two keyboard players onstage during the Wednesday and Thursday performance nights.
“Sometimes I’ll have to say, politely, that (the iTunes version) isn’t going to work on the show, so I’ll put together an arrangement. It’s added some hours, but I’m fine with that. I’m a workhorse,” says Chew, who spent 18 years as music director of New York’s famed Apollo Theater and led the band for President Obama’s 2009 inaugural ball.
The process starts on Friday, when the contestants meet with Iovine and begin recording their new songs, on which Chew often performs. That continues all day Saturday. Sunday Chew starts to work on arrangements for the live shows. On Monday they listen to the weekend recording sessions and make decisions on what will work, musically speaking, for a national TV audience; and band rehearsals begin.
By Tuesday afternoon, final decisions are made, Chew says: “I’ll have a wonderful time navigating everyone’s opinion, but ultimately it’s (executive producers) Ken (Warwick) and Nigel (Lythgoe) and the contestants who decide what approach will occur on the stage.”
Wednesday and Thursday are consumed with rehearsals before the live telecasts, watched by 20-plus million viewers at home.
“When I go back and listen to the shows, it’s been very gratifying to hear these wonderful moments that you work so hard to make happen,” says Chew. “We don’t have a lot of time. It’s not like we can record all this stuff, sit back and listen. It’s bang-bang-go, you’re on live TV. I love the energy and immediacy of it.”
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