On Friday, the Season 2 American Idol winner released Ruben Sings Luther, a tribute album to Vandross, the R&B legend the 39-year-old singer has been listening to since he was a boy growing up in Birmingham, Alabama.
“It’s been a really fun ride doing this album,” he tells PEOPLE. “We recorded great material. I think people are really going to enjoy it.”
That’s not all. He’s also taking his homage to his musical hero on the road with the 22-city “Always and Forever” tour, starting April 8 in Sacramento, California, which he says aims to come as close as possible to the shows the always tuxedo-clad Vandross put on during his heyday – from costumes to choreography. “We wanted to do it the correct way,” he says.
Known for his smooth R&B sound and his genial personality, “the Velvet Teddy Bear,” as Studdard became known, has been compared to Vandross ever since he set foot on the Idol stage.
“I don’t think people were only focused on the fact that I sounded like or looked like Luther but rather, ‘Oh this guy reminds me of Luther because he interprets songs well,” he says.
Dubbed “the next Luther,” Studdard had included some of Vandross’s monster hits on the six studio albums he has released since 2003, when he scored the Idol crown and a Grammy nomination best male R&B vocal performance for “Superstar,” Leon Russell’s hit song that Studdard remade in his own inimitable way.
But Ruben Sings Luther is his first album dedicated solely to the soulful singer. Why now?
“I think that this album for me was just a long time coming,” Studdard tells PEOPLE.
“Since I won American Idol, people have been asking for me to sing Luther songs for a long time. I thought, ‘OK. You want to hear it? I might as well do it. I thought it was the perfect time to pay homage to one of the greatest song interpreters of all time.”
The album features 10 of Vandross’s classic hits – handpicked by Studdard himself – including “Here and Now,” “Always and Forever,” and “A House Is Not a Home” – with his unique spin on it, he says.
“I’m just trying my best to get as close as I possibly can without trying to copy him verbatim,” he says. “My interpretation.”
It’s no surprise that Vandross influenced Studdard’s career: He grew up on the singer’s music because his mother, Emily Studdard, was – and is still – “the world’s greatest Luther fan,” he says.
“She had all his records,” Studdard says. “All his 45’s.”
She played his songs all the time, especially during the holidays, when he says he heard “Every Year, Every Christmas,” over and over.
“That Christmas song is just her favorite Christmas song,” he says. “That’s how I always knew it was Christmastime.”
Studdard says he never met his idol – but came close in 2003.
“I never got the chance to meet him,” he says. “Actually, from my understanding, they were considering him to be one of the guest judges on Idol before he got sick.”
Vandross suffered a massive stroke on April 16, 2003 and died in 2005.
Studdard says he is excited for the new American Idol reboot – and that he keeps in touch with “pretty much everybody from my season,” he says.
In the meantime, he is gearing up for the album drop and the tour. “I’m excited for the opportunity to sing for my fans,” Studdard says.
Ruben Sings Luther is available now.