Sam Woolf: Beyond American Idol
Another star is born in Bradenton, Florida. Sam Woolf’s voice is haunting, has a perfect pitch, and his writing is far beyond what most teen-age boys could master, yet alone think about. His first five-song CD, Pretend, features his rock solid guitar playing, organic style, and the song’s lyrics reflect his closely-held emotions as he navigated his early years of heartache. The Grammy-award-winning producer Danny Blume commented, “Sam is a natural singer whose soul and passion are undeniable in every note he sings.”
Sam Woolf is 20 today, a top-five American Idol singer/songwriter/guitarist who now lives in Boston but was recently in his hometown of Bradenton visiting his grandparents “Papa” Roy and Grandma Jackie Woolf. His grandparents raised him as a teen as his father had mental health issues and his mother left him at age 13. He wrote about that, too. Troubled youth, unfortunately is not an uncommon story, but as many creatives can attest, the struggles are part of the fodder that make for good songwriting. Papa says Sam’s songs on Pretend definitely reflect those early years.
Today, Sam was off to a dentist appointment when I arrived to meet Papa at their lovely condo in east Bradenton. It was a fortunate mishap, Sam forgetting about the interview, because I got to spend some time with Papa and learn his take on what he calls “my amazing Grandson, who continues to amaze me everyday,” a phrase infamous from American Idol days.
I hadn’t sat down or opened my notebook and Papa, still in his pajamas, had started in about Sam’s young career, his character traits and more.
“Sam has been singing since he was three years old,” Papa said. The family used to have talent shows where Sam performed. It seems Sam comes from a long line of musicians and creative types, his grandmother Jackie an art teacher who also sings. Papa Roy’s father a band leader for 40 years.
“I’ve been with Sam his whole life and I’ve never heard him speak a bad word about anyone,” Papa said, as he started to cry softly, fighting back the tears, overtaken by his pride of his “amazing Grandson.” I waited until he regained his composure, sitting in his living room decorated with his wife’s art, quiet, reflective.
Sam was 17 when he auditioned for American Idol in Boston. Where he heard Keith Urban say, “Man, what an amazing pitch.” And Jennifer Lopez was touched by his shyness, but how he ‘blossomed like a flower” once he started playing his guitar and singing.
“His first audition, and he won out of 170,000 people,” Papa said. Amazing odds. “But he didn’t like all the girls fussing over him. He didn’t want to be known for his looks, it upset him.” Papa said it’s the teeny boppers and grandmas that love Sam. There’s even a website that was started “Grandma’s for Sam.”
As with all top American Idols, Sam’s days were filled with early rehearsals, fancy Beverly Hills and Hollywood hotels, professional commercial photo and video shoots and endless demands. “When he got kicked off the show when he was in the Top 5, he was thrilled,” Papa said. “Every kid that got kicked off had to see a psychiatrist…”
Papa continued, “Harry Connick took us outside and said, “I guarantee you Sam will be a success. He’s got everything it takes.”
Sam is now living in Boston with family, but he comes home regularly to visit his grandparents. “We keep his room here for him,” Papa said.
Sam finally arrived home and I met the “unassuming, no BS kind of kid” I’d learned about from Papa. Perfect features. So handsome and rosy cheeked with a quiet and polite demeanor. He invited me to sit on the lanai and gently tried to encourage Papa to go away, but Papa insisted on sitting in. He’s not his manager, but has served the role by default, and at 80 years old, gives all the credit to his wife Jackie for holding everything together. I see where Sam gets his humble nature.
Papa also gives a great deal of credit for Sam’s success to Del Couch, who is the originator of the Del Couch Foundation. Featuring a recording studio graced by some of the greats including Rick Derringer and Johnny Winter, the mission of this Bradenton foundation is to help kids with their music and to offer recording scholarships. “Sam has been an inspiration to the kids there,” Papa said.
Sam didn’t have any guitar lessons, and learned by ear, which he says is the best way. He doesn’t read music. He did take voice lessons from Bob Lischetti, an opera singer. But mostly relied on his God-given talent.
“You can’t teach anyone to write music I don’t think,” Sam said, finally getting a word in. “I think it has to come naturally. It’s something you’re born with.”
Sam talked about his days at American Idol as stressful. “They were trying to make me into a heart throb,” Sam said, “and Alex (his friend) into a folk singer troubadour.” Sam didn’t want to be a teeny bopper heart throb, and to this day doesn’t have a girlfriend. He’s all about his music.
But it wasn’t all stressful, Sam said. The fun truly began for him when he made the Top 5 instead of winning the number-one spot. “Sam was relieved and happy when he got ousted,” Papa said. And the top-five spot allowed him to do the American Idol tour in 42 cities, which he did enjoy.
Sam earned a scholarship to Berkley College of Music but said music theory and such wasn’t really for him. He did create a music video with two female Berkley students which is currently rocking the charts with his song entitled “Fast and Dirty.”
“I never thought I’d write a song like Fast and Dirty…it’s supposed to be a joke, so don’t take it too seriously,” Sam says. “This one is really gonna be a big hit,” Papa said. Sam wrote it intentionally as a ‘commercial’ song, as opposed to what he writes normally from the heart. Such as his songs on Pretend.
“I make up stories and pretend a lot when I write,” Sam said. “Sometimes I don’t even know what the song is about until it all comes out.”
“Tell her where you like to write,” Papa said. “I go to Jiggs Landing,” Sam said, which paints a picture of his love for nature and solitude.
He says his early influences were John Mayer, Ed Sheeran and David Grey. And that he’s playing with different genres, which he says is really important for a musician. But for today he is categorized as “Acoustic Pop.”
What’s next for Sam? He’s currently playing with his friend Orion who plays guitar and writes with Sam. He’s being booked in small venues and his publicist is working on getting him talk show appearances. Sam’s very content spending hours each day on writing, practicing his guitar and singing. He loves to travel both for his gigs and for fun. He knows he doesn’t want to get involved with a girl because relationships take too much time and he has a career to attend to before he settles down.
“Song writing is my focus…I want to make an album…and do some touring, opening acts,” Sam said. “I want to do the music thing as long as I can. I don’t have time to think about settling down or a family.”
Check out Sam’s song “Stop Thinking About It” and you’ll hear a very young man with an old soul, writing about things that you wouldn’t think would be part of a 20-year-old’s psyche. “I Tried,” which he performed for Idol, Sam wrote when his mother left him.
Sam will be performing at the Bradenton River Regatta on Feb. 4 on the Riverwalk at 4 p.m. but doesn’t know when he’ll play again in the area so be sure to catch him there. He is invited back to the Blue Rooster in Sarasota, for a fourth appearance soon, however. In the meantime, be sure to check out all of his videos and American Idol days on YouTube and visit his website www.samwoolfmusic.com for upcoming performances.
Photos by Patti Pearson, Sam Woolf and Vicky Sullivan / Rock The Lens Photography