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Heartland star

Catch up with singer Neal E. Boyd, winner of America’s Got Talent

Neal E Boyd

Neal E. Boyd’s debut album, My American Dream, was released in June 2009. It debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s Classical Albums charts. At the end of the year, Billboard ranked the CD 29th among its Top Classical Albums of 2009 and ranked Boyd 20th for Top Classical Artists of 2009. You need Adobe Flash and javascript to hear this audio presentation.

Neal E. Boyd walks into a Columbia ice cream shop near campus to order a sundae, and the young woman behind the counter stares at him for a moment before asking, “Do you watch America’s Got Talent?” 

His cover blown, Boyd, BA ’01, laughs and says he is the MU singer who won the AGT competition. Boyd finishes his ice cream, waves to the smiling clerk and walks to Jesse Hall, where a maintenance worker stops sweeping the steps to ask Boyd’s companion: “Is that the opera singer?” 

Anonymity went by the wayside for Boyd when 12.5 million viewers watched him win the 2008 TV talent competition on the show’s finale. He’s now the recognizable big guy with the big voice and a changed life. 

When Boyd strolls down the sidewalks of New York City, people call him by name and wave. On vacation in Honolulu, his dinner went cold while he posed for snapshots. When in St. Louis, if he walks near the Arch, a trail of fans follows. 

“You’re always on,” he says.

Sometimes Boyd sincerely enjoys the attention because, “people are so happy to see you.” On those occasions, he may wear the familiar beret that became his signature look on AGT

Sometimes he just deals with it. To avoid being recognized, Boyd occasionally leaves the beret at home.  

He went hatless one evening in St. Louis as he and some friends walked into a Westport restaurant for dinner. He had hoped to blend in with the group, but barely made it through the door before being pointed out by musicians in the band, who then continually called attention to the table. 

“You just have to be as nice as you can be,” he says of such encounters. 

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It’s different with children, who offer Boyd the sweetest and most genuine interactions, which allow him to show his sense of humor. They often tell him they want to be like him when they grow up. “So you want to sing opera?” he teases, knowing they want to be famous, not operatic. 

Such childhood innocence reminds him of how clueless he was about preparing for the future. As a kid growing up in his native rural town of Sikeston, Mo., he dreamed of going to Mizzou but wasn’t sure it was possible. 

“I was thinking of football, not music,” he says. “I didn’t think you could go to school to be a singer. I didn’t fully understand college yet.” 

Boyd enrolled at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Mo., to study music, political science and communication, but three years later the lure of music was too strong. He realized that singing was his passion and he needed to try to make it a career. 

At vocal competitions, Boyd had heard Ann Harrell’s well-trained students and hoped he could work with the MU associate professor of voice. He transferred to Mizzou to study with her, and that, he says, was the starting point toward his professional career. 

Pressure-cooker contests

“There are days I’m so tired I can’t see straight and yearn to be on campus. I had an extraordinary experience at Mizzou. I wasn’t expecting what I got,” Boyd says. “It was an awesome time.”

What he “got” was a voice teacher who coached him to the top of a major national collegiate voice championship that is conducted annually by the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA). 

“Ms. Harrell changed my life,” Boyd says. “She taught me to embrace singing.” He credits her for solidifying his technique.

Boyd wanted to please Harrell. He needed a nurturing mentor, and she seemed to understand that. “Ann Harrell is the most wonderful professor when it comes to pulling out the best in her students,” he said in an interview after winning the 2000 National Collegiate Young Artist Voice Competition. 

Harrell thought Boyd’s college voice was beautiful, with a “sweet lyrical” quality. “His warmth and charisma set him apart. Watching him sing is fantastic because the love of it just pours out of him.” 

Boyd nearly skipped the young artist competition because of its cost. His mother couldn’t spare the $100, and for a student with few financial resources, spending that kind of money on an entry fee for a state contest is a big deal.  

The investment, of course, was worth the price. Boyd won the state title, the regional title and the national title. He admits to being petrified at the national competition, where he performed a 40-minute program of 12 arias and art songs in front of four judges.

It was a much more difficult experience than singing for the finale of America’s Got Talent, he says. 

“You just don’t completely understand what prepares you for those moments,” he says. “Had I not done MTNA or other competitions, I may not have been prepared for national exposure. 

“I felt so ready by the time the show [America’s Got Talent] came around; competing was familiar. The pressure was no greater than anything I had experienced.”

MU’s School of Music reacted to Boyd’s MTNA win with an unusual congratulatory gesture. The school booked a stage at Carnegie Hall so Boyd could perform his senior recital for an audience of New York alumni. 

“MTNA and Carnegie seemed like the culmination of a lifelong dream,” Boyd says. “I was so young then. I thought it couldn’t get any better.” 

The real story 

Few people know that Boyd auditioned first for American Idol but was eliminated before he could sing for the judges. He had to be talked into entering the America’s Got Talent audition.

Boyd traveled to Chicago for an AGT audition weekend in February 2008 and discovered he was one of 20,000 would-be contestants vying for a spot. The huge herd of wannabes waited seven deep in a line that he describes as stretching around Navy Pier for a mile and a half.  

Boyd waited in line for 10 hours and spent another 10 hours inside the building before his audition, which finished in a flash: five minutes of singing, two minutes with the executive producers, five more minutes of singing — and success. Boyd learned he would be traveling to Los Angeles in four days.

Only 27 contestants were chosen that day from the thousands of hopefuls in the audition line, Boyd says. Among those entertainers were two others who eventually made the top 10: singer-pianist Eli Mattson, who took second place, and country singer Jessica Price. 

At a celebration that night in Chicago, Boyd still wore the audition number on his shirt. He simply didn’t want to take it off. 

“I couldn’t get over it,” he says. 

And the winner is … 

A group of MU alumni gathered Oct. 1 at Mizzou Arena to watch the 2008 AGT finale on a big-screen TV. Just after the show ended, Chancellor Brady Deaton was one of the first people to congratulate the stunned Boyd by phone. 

What a night. Boyd won a million dollars, was thrilled with a televised message from his idol, opera tenor Placido Domingo, and stepped into the whirlwind of a professional career. 

Building a career in music is a full-time job, especially in a genre that’s not established. Boyd sings what he calls “popera” or pop-classical music — songs with “soaring melodies” and lush accompaniments that he interprets in a contemporary style. 

“I’ve grown to love these songs while studying music, and I want to bring them into the mainstream,” he says. 

Since the win, he has shared his singing style with the public as the headline performer, with other AGT contestants, at a sold-out MGM Grand on Oct. 17, 2008, in Las Vegas. Possibly more important, he signed a recording contract for his first album and, after the CD was released June 23, 2009, embarked on a 10-city concert tour with Paul Potts, winner of Britain’s Got Talent. 

Boyd sang a sold-out concert in February 2010 for 1,700 fans at the Las Vegas Hilton. Among other appearances, he completed a singing tour of several U.S. military bases and joined Kenny Rogers for a benefit concert in Sikeston, Mo. 

Sikeston’s favorite son

When Boyd’s mom, Esther, prepares a favorite home-cooked meal for him, she makes white beans and cornbread. It’s what she, a single parent, could afford when Boyd and his older brother, Michael, were young. Sometimes even beans and cornbread were out of reach for dinner.

Comfort food fuels the conversation as Boyd and Esther talk now about the way things were in the little house in Sikeston before all the craziness of national exposure. After dinner, he plays with Smokey, a Labrador-mix pup, until the dog plops onto Boyd, who soaks up the canine affection. 

Life for a new celebrity can be lonely even amid the bustle of a routine filled with people, such as daily conference calls with his manager and attorney. Recently, a FUJI TV film crew from Japan followed him around. 

“You constantly have this stuff going on,” he says. Esther, too, allowed the crew to shoot scenes of Boyd at her home. She puts up with it, but Boyd knows it’s an imposition.  

“My mom has always been a very private person, and she has a not-so-private son,” he says. “When my car is seen in the town, her privacy goes away.”

Boyd’s picture is in restaurants all over town. People are proud of his new fame, so when he goes out in public at home, he’s fair game. 

He attended a football game in October 2009 to watch the undefeated Sikeston Bulldogs from the booster club stands, where he used to watch games when he was in high school. This time, he was surrounded by kids more interested in talking with him than in watching the game. Boyd tried to hold off the youngsters with a promise to answer all their questions after the game, but it didn’t work. He never made it to his seat that night. 

That was OK with Boyd, who knows first-hand the importance of a role model or father figure in a kid’s life. Boyd’s father had left the family before he was born, but Boyd found nurturing through a stand-in dad. “Pop” — the father of Boyd’s best friend — raised him like a son.

Turning up the volume 

Some people call Boyd an overnight success because of the AGT win. He disagrees with that assessment. 

His “overnight success” took 20 years, starting as a kid when he sang gospel hymns in church and nearly ending in graduate school at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Partial paralysis of a vocal cord forced him to stop singing for months, which turned into six years. He returned to St. Louis to work, first for Enterprise Rent-A-Car and then for Aflac Insurance. It was the AGT competition that put him back on track with music.

My American Dream, Boyd’s debut album, features several selections from the show. Released in June 2009, it debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s Classical Albums charts. At the end of the year, Billboard ranked the CD 29th among its Top Classical Albums of 2009 and ranked Boyd 20th for Top Classical Artists of 2009. 

Two songs from the album draw the most comment: “Mama,” which Boyd sang on the show as a tribute to his mother and grandmother, who is deceased, and “Nessun Dorma,” the aria he chose for the opening and closing shows.  

The CD is being released gradually in other countries, Boyd says, and his agent expects it to do especially well in Asia and Europe. When released in Japan in November 2009, it debuted at No. 1 and sold 6,000 copies the first day. Boyd also knows that Japanese television already has broadcast two documentaries about his life. 

Other projects are unfolding: a second concert tour, another round of military bases and a potential concert at Carnegie Hall with opera-singer Donald Braswell, another AGT finalist. In a literary slant, Boyd and an assistant, Jarrett Medlin, BJ ’03, MA ’05, are writing Boyd’s autobiography, which is under contract with Fletcher and Co. of New York. The publishing firm will promote the book as an inspirational story of a poor, overweight, mixed-race kid from the country who fell in love with opera.   

Likely to be included in the book is one of Boyd’s favorite stories of his early interest in music and why he joined the Sikeston Junior High choir. After listening to a CD of the Three Tenors for the first time, Boyd was touched by the classically trained voices in a way he had never experienced. But he was a kid, and when he jokingly imitated tenor Luciano Pavarotti — at great volume in the school hallway — choir teacher Willie Grega knew he should change one talented eighth-grader’s dream from playing football to singing.

At age 34, Mizzou’s tenor is focused on his career and music. He’ll begin recording his second CD — a collection of holiday songs — in June, for December 2010 release.

“I dreamed of doing what I’m doing now, being a working singer. It’s completely fun!” says Boyd, who is single, unattached and enjoying life. “Put that in bold!”

Watch a behind-the-scene's video of MIZZOU Magazine's photoshoot with Boyd.


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