Rickey Minor is one of the most sought-after producers in the music industry. A graduate of Jefferson High School, the 57-year-old Minor was a child prodigy, self-taught on a variety of musical instruments—specifically the electric bass—and for the past 30 years has been a coveted asset for many of the music industry’s biggest stars as well serving as musical director for numerous television shows and specials.
Late-night talk show fans, of course, recognize Minor as the former bandleader on the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” a position he maintained from 2010-2014. Prior to that, Minor was the bandleader for seasons four through nine on the mega-hit television show “American Idol.” As well, Minor over the years has served as musical director for a bevy of superstar tours, including Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera, Ray Charles, Alicia Keys and Beyonce. His television work includes involvement with the Grammy Awards, the NAACP Image Awards and the Super Bowl.
Minor actually had two stints on “American Idol.” When the “Tonight Show” left Burbank in 2014 and returned New York City, Minor was approached by “American Idol” producers Jesse Ignjatovic and Evan Prager who asked if he would be interested in returning as bandleader. It was an interesting proposition, Minor remembers, because he had great success in performing on the show and he enjoyed working with and helping to cultivate new talent.
“They asked if I would be interested in being part of the team again,” Minor said. “I was like ‘yeah’ because I really liked working with those guys. It was an opportunity to really elevate the show.” Minor explained that working on “American Idol” presented unique challenges—primarily because it was a live telecast—but the opportunity to play with young, up-and-coming artists “willing to learn,” he said, was a delightful experience.
Nurturing young artists
“I liked the fact that we could bring in a strong, live element and really make distinct arrangements based around the contestants,” Minor explained. “A great song is a great song, but we had the opportunity to make it contemporary and ‘original.’ Our objective was to help these young artists ‘find their voice’ and surround them with an arrangement that supported their voice and them as an artist. The key is to really nurture the artist … give them the guidance, because that’s what they need. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be on the show. I enjoyed my time there.”
What was it like to work on “The Tonight Show”? After all, music greats from Skitch Henderson, Doc Severenson, Branford Marsalis and Kevin Eubanks were seen each weeknight by an average of 20 million people. Minor said he’ll always have fond memories of “The Tonight Show.” “I’ll always be honored to have been a part of that legacy,” Minor said. “There are lots of things about working with Jay that I miss; being part of such a legendary television show was a privilege.”
On “American Idol,” Minor held many responsibilities, first and foremost conducting the musicians and backup vocalists as well as leading a phalanx of some 30 arrangers, orchestrators and copyists. Then he’d begin working with the finalists which in and of itself was a continual challenge because they were basically strangers to him, only providing one prior performance in the preliminary rounds. That responsibility, he said, can be daunting because it usually takes more than one or two attempts at a song to get the perfect sound.
‘I can do this’
Another executive producer on the show, Nigel Lythgoe, recalled an incident with a young singer in 2006. “Kellie Pickler started a chorus two bars before she should have, and Rickey kept it solid,” Lythgoe said. “The audience probably never knew.”
Minor’s path to fame began when his family moved from Louisiana to South Los Angeles in the late 1960s. He played bass in his high school music program, recalling later that the opportunity “enabled me to move forward in life—not just in a career—but in life.” Minor originally majored in math and computer science at UCLA, but decided to leave after his sophomore year to join Gladys Knight on tour in Europe. Having never flown before (let alone travel out of the United States) he remembered an initial trepidation—even stage fright—at the prospect of performing in front of huge audiences. His self confidence, however, quickly allayed those initial fears.
“I sat on the plane thinking ‘they’re paying for the plane and the hotel room, and they’re paying me to play this piece of wood and these metal strings. I can do this.”
With Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston
The first tour was a success, and almost immediately after returning home he found himself working in the orchestra pit of the musical “Dreamgirls,” when he received a career-changing call from John Simmons, then music director for singer Stephanie Mills. Simmons asked Minor to form a backing band for an up-and-coming singer from his church. It was Whitney Houston. Minor’s tenure as music director for the late pop diva led to more concert, recording, film and television work for him as a music director and co-producer. The TV credits soon followed, including “VH1 Divas Live,” the BET Awards and anniversary celebrations for Motown Records and the Apollo Theater. In 2005, Minor received an Emmy nomination for music direction for “Genius: A Night for Ray Charles,” a concert tribute featuring Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Norah Jones.
The late Natalie Cole worked extensively with Minor, once commenting, “He could be like a Quincy Jones. Rickey treats us like we’re all on the same team. Quincy is the same way. He leaves his ego outside the door, and it’s all about the music.”
To date, Minor has received four primetime Emmy Award nominations (2005, 2008, 2009, 2011). Among his television work are “A Hollywood Celebration at the Grove” (2011 and 2012), the 2012 Billboard Music Awards, Ninth Annual TV Land Awards (2011), “An Evening of Stars Tribute to Chaka Kahn” (2011), musical director for the 50th, 51st and 52nd annual Grammy Awards (2008-2010), “The Next Great American Band” (2007) and “America’s Got Talent” (2006-2007).
Minor’s book “There’s No Traffic on the Extra Mile” was released in 2009.