MIAMI - When Jason Derulo was 7, he panicked backstage at Miami's James L. Knight Center. He had been hamming it up in relatives' living rooms from the time he was 5, but now he was about to sing on a real stage for the first time. The show marked the end of performing arts summer camp. Derulo considered it his first serious gig.
"I remember being backstage and saying, 'I'm not going out there. There are people out there!' This guy had to pick me up and literally place me on the stage. Then the music came on, and I started singing 'Ben' by Michael Jackson, and I was fine," he says.
On Jan. 20, the Haitian-American Derulo, now 20, will take the stage at Radio City Music Hall when he opens for Lady Gaga. And he'll sing his hit, the synth-heavy "Whatcha Say," which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. His second single, "In My Head," recently debuted among the top 20 singles on iTunes.
"Maybe I'll be a little nervous again when I open for Lady Gaga. But I think I won't have a problem getting on the stage this time," says Derulo, who attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. "When I was in New York, I came back literally every month. I was one of those kids who couldn't be far from home. I'm still like that," he says while kicking back in the living room of the house where he grew up.
His publicist had suggested he do interviews at the glitzy Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach. But he just wanted to hang out at home. "When I was 5, I saw Michael Jackson performing live on TV, and I told my mom that I wanted to be just like him. I never really doubted myself, even when people told me I was being crazy and that I needed a backup plan. My mom always supported me. She always said, 'If this is what you want to do, you do it.' "
At 8, Derulo wrote his first song. The house fills with his powerful vocals as he offers the first few lines: "24-7 days of the week, my mind is on you, and it's getting to me. I've got a crush on you, I've got a crush on you."
He began his professional songwriting career when he was 16, co-writing "Bossy" for hip-hop artist Birdman. Other songwriting credits include Pitbull's "My Life" and Iyaz's "Replay," which earlier this year hit No. 1 on the Top 40 chart.
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Derulo, who won the grand prize on the 2006 season finale of TV's "Showtime at the Apollo," has been locked in a recording studio with producer J.R. Rotem (Rihanna, Sean Kingston) putting together a debut album that is scheduled for release early next month.
"I actually wrote 300 songs for the album, and we started whittling down from there," Derulo says. "When 'Whatcha Say' hit No. 1, it was surreal. I don't even remember that day. I haven't really gotten a chance to let it all sink in. I'm just going a million miles a minute. But I'm not complaining. I'm more motivated than ever. This is what I've always wanted. Success is a feeling that you don't ever want to go away." Just the night before, he and his family had dined at a nearby Friday's.
"All these fans kept coming up to the table. My mom burst into tears. I've been working for this my whole life. To see it come together is amazing. I mean, this is just the beginning. But it's finally happening," says Derulo, whose name was Desrouleaux until record industry folks suggested a change.
SOME SONGS ARE CUSTOM-MADE FOR WBLI
Singers have always customized songs for their fans - Billy Idol would change the line in "Hot in the City" from "New York!" to "Cleveland!" or "Atlanta!" depending on where he was playing that night.
Long Island's WBLI / 106.1 FM has gone one better. The hit music station likes to ask artists to customize tunes for them - most recently Jason Derulo dropped a mention of the station into his "Watcha Say." It's in the hook, " 'Cause when the roof caved in and the truth came out / I just didn't know what to do / But when I become a star you'll hear my song on B-BLI." (The original version was No. 6 this week on Billboard's Hot 100 chart.)
"We did a remote [broadcast] in Babylon a few weeks ago," said program director Jeremy Rice. "And when we played the customized song, a couple hundred listeners sang along to it. Any station can play a song, but this makes us different, and it's cool."
Lady Gaga, Derulo's headliner in a couple of weeks at Radio City, also has customized a song - "Just Dance" - for the station. "She was very agreeable to do it," Rice said. --Kevin Amorim