Carrie Borzillo-Vrenna/Los Angeles
December 11, 2006 12:00 PM

Unexpected things can happen when you visit Ray Charles’s recording studio and office. For one, Joe Adams, the R&B legend’s longtime manager, seems to still communicate with his client, who physically left this earth in 2004. “I spoke to Ray today,” Adams says, handing a pair of sunglasses-shaped cuff links to [American Idol] winner Taylor Hicks, “and he wanted you to have these.” Perhaps almost as surprising is the assessment of Valerie Ervin, COO of Ray Charles Enterprises, after hearing songs from Hicks’s new album. “Taylor is Ray reincarnated,” she says. “He sits there moving and twitching just like Mr. C would do. To me, it’s like talking to Mr. C again. I’m like, ‘Okay, you’re supposed to be black and a little older.'”

Hicks, 30, knows that’s a compliment. “It’s just an honor—it’s so cool being here,” he says of the tour of the L.A. studio, another stop in a surreal life that began with his Idol win in May. He toys with the pinball machine that Charles played; sits at the 1964 Steinway piano where Charles recorded “America the Beautiful”; feels the edge of his desk, worn from the countless times Charles felt his way around it; ogles the wardrobe closet: “There are some killer threads in there. This is music history.”

As much as he idolizes Charles, though, Hicks is anxious to put his own stamp on the music world. His self-titled debut solo album, due Dec. 12, is “totally me,” he says. “It’s my take on modern soul music. My album takes pieces of what I learned from Ray and from what I hear in today’s music. I like some John Legend, Ambulance LTD. I like some of the modern beats of Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake…. My musical sensibility goes way beyond the two minutes of Idol.”

After the Idol finale and the end of the Idol tour in September, Hicks spent six “pressure cooker” weeks in L.A. recording his album. (Though he still maintains a home in Birmingham, Ala., where he was born and raised, he plans to be based in L.A. a few more months.) Now, faced with a nonstop two-month schedule of performing and promoting his record, the self-proclaimed comfort-food fan says, “I am getting healthier. Of course I’ll eat fried chicken sometimes—chicken and waffles at Roscoe’s. Every now and then I cheat. But I try to run 30 minutes a day now. Those 30 minutes are my 30 minutes. It allows me to think. As soon as you stop thinking and as soon as you stop running, somebody’s calling.”

And his status as PEOPLE’s reigning Bachelor No. 1 notwithstanding, the calls, unfortunately, mostly aren’t from the ladies. “I’m single,” he says with a sigh. Why? For one thing, “he’s a shy guy,” says Idol finalist Ace Young. But mostly, Hicks says, “right now my schedule is packed. Hopefully my love life will start to get going after the New Year. That’s when my eyes can start opening a little bit. But who knows? Maybe in New York I can go out and find someone.”

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