The unlikely journey of James Durbin


Last week, when Fox’s “American Idol” ended its long audition phase for its new season with the performance of Santa Cruz’s James Durbin, “Idol” hosts Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson – not to mention the rest of the country tuned in to the hugely popular show – were astonished at Durbin’s powerful, passionate singing voice.

But a much smaller segment of the TV audience, those who’ve watched him mature over the course of the last several years, were astonished by the moments when the 21-year-old Durbin was not performing. In a way, his easy back-and-forth with the show’s celebrity judges marked as much of a victory as his singing.

Durbin’s back story is now a well-known part of the “Idol” drama. Diagnosed at a young age with both Tourette’s and Asperger’s syndromes, he has struggled with basic social skills most of his life. As a result, his path to “American Idol” has run along two bizarre parallel tracks – an amazingly fully developed talent at singing and dancing running alongside a frustrating and arduous attempt to master the basics of interpersonal communication.

He was adept at the rarefied abilities of a celebrated few, but was painfully ill-equipped to deal with the skills that most of us take for granted.

Durbin’s journey from his difficult early life to national prominence was made possible mostly, say those who witnessed his blossoming, by his passion and devotion for performance. But he benefited a great deal from at least two local entities that formed the rungs of the ladder that led him to “American Idol”: the Santa Cruz-based children’s theater group Kids on Broadway, and veteran rock musician and teacher Dale Ockerman.

In the fall of 2006, young James first performed with Kids on Broadway. Even at that point, his talents were so big that he was given the lead role in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” despite the fact that he had significant behavior problems.

“His talent was always very apparent,” said Robin Aronson who directed Durbin in “Beast” and, later, “Singin’ in the Rain.” “Once he was there, though, we knew this was going to be very challenging for everybody.”

The young man was not communicative to anyone around him. He made no real eye contact and was prone to temper tantrums. Often, when not performing, he would disappear and be found sitting quietly in the park near the Louden Nelson Center where the rehearsals were taking place.

“At one point, he got so frustrated,” remember KOB’s Mary Lundberg, the show’s producer, “that he ripped his script in two. And I remember, I supposed to take him home that day, and he was saying in the car, ‘Well, I guess I just got kicked out.’ And I said, ‘No, you’re not going to get kicked out.’ And he said, ‘But what about my script?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just print you another one.’ And he looked at me, and with the most amazing sweetness said, ‘You would do that for me?’”

James’s mother, Judy Settle-Durbin, was present at most of the rehearsals and her calming presence was a significant factor in keeping the boy focused during down time.
“She was so good with him,” said Lundberg, “coaching him, pep-talking him. She was always very strong on manners, which made James much easier to be around.”
But none of that mattered much when James began to sing. “That was when all his genius came out,” said Aronson.

“He was an absolute natural performer,” said Lundberg. “We didn’t have to teach him any of that stuff.”

Durbin, who suffers from a form of Tourette’s characterized by involuntary movements and facial tics, found himself on stage playing the role of the Beast, another passionate soul trying to express his longings despite a considerable affliction that had the whole world judging him.

Two years later, after another performance in All About Theatre’s “West Side Story,” Durbin signed on again with KOB, this time in a production of “Singin’ In the Rain.” His strong vocal talents had not changed much, but his personality had.

“He was transformed,” said Aronson. “He was warm, open, cooperative, calm. He had become a delightful young man.” He landed the lead role in “Singin’” as well. Durbin’s performances were astounding audiences all along the way.

But even from the beginning, Durbin was entertaining the idea of getting to “American Idol.”

“He was talking about it all the time,” said Leah Tutman, 18, who performed alongside Durbin in both “Beast” and “Singin’.” “Even then, I thought he had a real chance to do it.”

It was after “Singin’” that David and Mary Lundberg, the board president and executive director of Kids on Broadway, respectively, decided to sponsor James at Musicscool, the Santa Cruz-based musical program spearheaded by longtime rocker Dale Ockerman.
“Dale really became a mentor to him,” said Mary Lundberg, “and gave him a direction.”
That direction was rock ’n’ roll.

Ockerman had known Durbin’s father, the late Willy Durbin, a Santa Cruz bassist who played in a number of country and pop bands, but who nursed a deep love for jazz. Ockerman, who has played with a wide number of bands, including the Doobie Brothers, assessed James’s voice and turned him toward Led Zeppelin.

“You knew right away he had tremendous equipment,” said Ockerman of Durbin’s voice. “At first, he really reminded me of Steve Marriot.” Marriot was the frontman of the 1960s-era British band Humble Pie, known for the legendary power of his singing voice. He’s widely remembered today mostly by musicians, and was said to be an inspiration for Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant.

Ockerman rounded up several of his young guitar students, teamed them up with Durbin to form Guitarmy, a band that gave Durbin the chance to tackle the big rockers that he loved so much from Led Zeppelin’s most famous songs to Eric Clapton’s “Layla.”

“James hadn’t even heard ‘Layla’ before,” said Ockerman, “so somebody gives him an iPhone, and he’s listening to the iPhone and five minutes later, he had memorized the melody lines and nailed it.”

Meanwhile, Durbin began singing in a metal band called Hollywood Scars. And then Ockerman decided to bring him to performances the White Album Ensemble, the popular Beatles’ cover band in which Ockerman is a co-founding member. As part of the WAE’s “Across the Universe” shows, Durbin was one of several young performers who took the lead vocals on a specific song.

On his first WAE performance, Durbin took on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” pouring a lifetime of frustration and passion into the song. The audience erupted with a standing ovation.

“Every show that he did that song,” said Ockerman. “He got a standing ovation.”

Much of the talk about James Durbin has centered on his otherworldly talents, but Ockerman takes a different tack. “I tend to believe in the idea that talent doesn’t really exist. I’d call it more like extreme concentration and passion. James loves this stuff so much that he devours it. He brings this laser-like concentration to it. I gave him a (harmonica), and showed him some stuff on it. And in no time, he was bending notes and isolating single notes, which is hard to do. It’s not a gift as if he just falls out of bed and knows how to do something.”

James has been able to mitigate the symptoms of Tourette’s and Asperger’s as he gotten older and, now, with a young child of his own, friends say, he’s growing into a new maturity, while learning to deal with being on stage and interacting with others.

“He’s got great pipes, some of the best I’ve ever heard,” said Ockerman. “Plus, he has a love of the music that’s amazing. But, really, he’s got a deep humanity to him that’s ageless. He’s only 21, but his soul is old.”


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