Meet the judges of Step Sing 2022: why American Idol producer and celebrity vocalist love Birmingham talent

American Idol
Had to take a selfie, of course! (Olivia Moses / Bham Now)

Alabama is no stranger to local talent. From American Idol season two winner, Reuben Studdard, to season five winner, Taylor Hicks—we’ve proven that the music Magic of the Southeast isn’t just limited to our neighbors in Nashville.

We got the chance to sit down with this top talent to hear their thoughts about Birmingham and the incredible tradition that is Samford University’s Step Sing about how this encourages the Birmingham community.

The soundtrack of their lives

American Idol
A quick photo op before getting ready for the big show tonight. (Olivia Moses / Bham Now)

Simon Lythgoe and Jan Smith come from very different backgrounds and soared independently in their careers but were brought to this hillside in Alabama to judge one of Samford’s long-standing and most cherished traditions—Step Sing.

Both neutral observers, these judges are looking forward to judging the events taking place both January 28 and January 29. Hundreds of students will step on that stage in hopes to win it all—the coveted Step Sing trophy.

Simon, no stranger to the commercial music industry, was basically born on set. He got his start on ‘American Gladiators’ and ‘Pop Stars’ which in turn became American Idol. He brought it over to the United States where it became the hit it is today—although no networks wanted to pick it up, originally. His career then took off and he has been excited to work on his newest project on Disney Plus.

Jan “Mama Jan” Smith is a Grammy nominated, multi-platinum certified vocal coach/vocal producer with some of her clients including Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, The Band Perry and so many others.

I believe that it [music] is very powerful and it’s the soundtrack of our lives. So I hope that by them singing that they’ll have an experience on stage that inspires them to be better. But also that everybody has a song in their heart and music affects all of us.”

– “Mama Jan” Smith, Singer/Songwriter/Musician

Is Birmingham the next talent gold mine?


Simon made a profound statement during our interview—that “Without a doubt, we got more talent on American Idol from Birmingham, Alabama than any other state. All such lovely people.” Incredible news for American Idol hopefuls. While Step Sing is filled with Samford students who many not be gifted in areas of song and dance, the professionals can sense the talent coming from our state.

We’re honored that he thinks that, especially after he told us that Samford University was the best thing he’s seen in Birmingham so far, almost giving him a semblance of England. What a compliment, Samford!

This is Simon’s first trip to Birmingham in over 20 years for their 2002 auditions, and he’s amazed at the growth and revitalization the city has had since his last visit.

I’m told this city has changed a lot and restaurants are fantastic as well as the food here now. I like barbecue, so—”

-Simon Lythgoe, American Idol, producer

Don’t worry Birmingham—we pointed him in the right place with our guides.

Listen and learn…from the pros

American Idol
If you’ve never been to the Samford Art Gallery, you need to check it out. (Olivia Moses / Moses)

Step Sing is only half of what they’re here for. In addition to spending their nights in the Wright Center, Lythgoe and Smith will also be talking to students in Samford’s commercial music program and teaching them about their music and television businesses. Rueben Studdard will also be a guest on Saturday.

“We really want to engage in the community and let the community know that Samford is about this industry and in the 21st century in terms of engaging the music and entertainment industry. We want to be a resource for students who are looking at this business. Bringing in folks like this is really helpful. Not just for the students but for the legitimacy to the program and adding touch points for students.”

Stephen Potaczek M.S., Samford University School of the Arts, Commercial Music Program Director.

A program of this size is definite for the area. The Commercial Music Program focuses on four different areas: music business, performance, songwriting, and music production—perfect for up and coming entrepreneurial musicians.

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Olivia Moses
Olivia Moses
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