Taylor Hicks no longer has to hide his Wayne Newton worship.
Back when he was 17 or 18, "I veered off-track in my apprenticeship, so to speak, with music and I happened upon Wayne Newton. Especially his stuff as a kid," says the famously gray singer.
This was not well-known to his friends. "I definitely kept quiet my connoisseurship," he says, deadpan. But that did not change his appreciation.
"I was completely enamored of how he could sell a song. I don't think there's been one child performer who actually knew how to be able to sell a song as early as he did. That in and of itself is worthy of a study."
Hicks was studied enough in Mr. Las Vegas that it paid off in his big pop-culture moment, winning the fifth season of "American Idol" in 2006.
That was the last season in which contestants could only sing. No guitar, organ or harmonica for the guy who had barnstormed clubs in the South and self-released a couple of albums before the national spotlight.
"I totally channeled his vibe," Hicks says of the Midnight Idol. "And Elvis' and Sinatra's. Now all of that gets to cross-pollinate."
On Tuesday, Hicks launched a summer residency at Bally's, in a city he never visited until his "Idol" audition. Hicks and his five-piece band will do their "soul patrol" through Aug. 20 in the Indigo lounge, which has been enclosed and remodeled into a small showroom.
"I think when you think about a Vegas show, for me and as many entertainers as I've really studied over the years here, it's all about the people and what they want to hear," he says. "And how much fun you can have when you interact with them.
"I think musically, it's easy for me to do that. I've got to find some good jokes though."
The summer job stemmed from Hicks meeting Bally's president David Hoenemeyer at January's Bowl Championship Series title game in New Orleans. Talks led to the idea of a summer residency in a low-stakes situation.
"I think it's a smart move for me to start small and get bigger," Hicks says. "I just love small, intimate venues anyway."
He has played them enough to know. The 35-year-old singer says he was working honky-tonks at age 15, wearing "a big-brim blues hat" to conceal his youth.
His band never made it as far West as Las Vegas, less for the lack of ambition - "Couch-surfing as a musician in Alabama and the panhandle of Florida is a lot less attractive" - than viable transportation.
"Our engine probably would've blew up in El Paso and I would have been working the counter at the Days Inn and the local club at night. Nothing against El Paso. I just think that's where my engine would have blown up. And probably my patience."
Instead, the fifth season of "Idol" was memorable for the number of finalists still in the public eye: Chris Doughtry, Katharine McPhee, Bucky Covington and Kellie Pickler are still successful enough in varying degrees to make people ask who the winner was.
And the winner? "I've spent six years in the public eye," Hicks says, including two years performing in "Grease" on Broadway and on tour.
"Everybody has their peaks and valleys in the business," he says. "The key is staying on the road between the peaks and valleys. If you can sustain a career, you can hit two or three different highs. That's the thing, is sustainability."
He's now at work on a country album, because country is the only place in the music business not overly subdivided. "If Jackson Browne and J.J. Cale and Elvis (Presley) had a baby, that's probably what would be my set list. (If) those artists would be pigeonholed into today's musical landscape, I think it would be country."
Hicks returned to "American Idol" to announce the Bally's gig and more recently went on Fox's goofy summer dating contest "The Choice" - the mention of which causes him to blush a bit.
"When Fox calls and you're single and they give you the format of this dating show and ask if you'd like to be on it, you say, 'Yes,' " he explains.
"I think the more people can see truly who you are as a personality, the closer they become to you," he adds.
Talk veers back to "Idol" and the inevitable question of whether he thinks it has reached the point of diminishing returns. "I'm a fan of the show. It changed my life," he says.
But he chooses his words carefully noting the change between 2006, when all eyes were on "Idol," and the current glut of competing competitions.
"It was their biggest season to date and it was the only game in town," he says.
Talk drifts back to that last year of just singing, no instruments, and Hicks decides it wasn't a bad thing.
"Lateral movement on television is the most important movement there is to stimulate a viewer," he says. "When you're just handed a microphone and a hundred yards of stage, the more lateral movement you have, the more you keep people's attention."
The rootsiness of the live set and Hicks playing instruments can still be a surprise if they come see him.
"It's great for me to see the reinforcement in people's minds on why they voted for me. Does that make sense?" he asks.
On TV, "I was just handed a microphone and had to create a personality, and also entertain people without all these things I grew up using. (But) there is a true organic place that I come from musically."
That place where country, blues, rock and soul all flow into the same river, "and it's in the South," he says. "I think Elvis was baptized in that river. I come from that place."
But he never forgets to say "Danke Schoen."
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at email@example.com or 702-383-0288.