The Sunday Interview: Neal E. Boyd is raising his voice

Sunday, September 18, 2011
Neal E. Boyd

Neal E. Boyd is living a dream. Or as his mother puts it: He's always had delusions of grandeur, now he's just living out his delusions.

The Sikeston, Mo., native -- called by some "The voice of Missouri" -- wowed the world three years ago winning the NBC show "America's Got Talent."

However, Boyd is more than a classically trained opera singer. In a recent interview he spoke about his early years, business experience, singing career and now, a move toward politics.

AGT experience

Boyd's first performance on "America's Got Talent" in 2008 did far more than he anticipated, but before taking the stage he new this was his big opportunity to shine. The lyrics of Eminem kept spinning through his head.

"I was thinking to myself, ‘You've only got one shot. Do not miss your chance to blow, because opportunity comes once in a lifetime.' And that's all I kept thinking in my head. And in the meantime I've got to go out there and sing this aria I've never sung before live.

"I hadn't sung or really trained in six or seven years. And the question was, did I still have it? Was I still good? They go out there, they're expecting world-class. And you've got the nerves and the adrenaline going through you. And to be honest with you, it just kicked it up a notch."

Before his performance of the widely recognized tenor aria "Nessun Dorma," Boyd further analyzed what it would take to move on in the competition.

"I broke it down to the point where I was going to say ‘I just need two yeses to get to Las Vegas.' So I kind of marked Piers [Morgan] out of the equation, just in case. I'd seen him on Britain's Got Talent. He'd already heard Paul [Potts] sing this aria, and now here I am and I'm going to sing it. But it's two different voices. Now I don't think one voice is ever better than another voice, they're just different. Mine's just big ... because I sing in a very different style."

But as he began to sing the first few notes, Neal E. Boyd the performer took over.

"Once I started to sing and the nerves started to fade away -- I looked over and saw Simon Cowell ... I started to laugh, because it was like it wasn't real, it was television. And so you start to enjoy yourself. You're back on the stage. You were looking into the television cameras and the audience turns immediately from laughing at you to gasping. I just threw my arms back ... and started singing the interlude and it just suddenly took over."

Though the nerves had faded, Neal knew what he would have to do prove to himself, the judges and the audience that he had what it took to win the competition.

" ... I new I had to hit that high B with everything that I had in order to prove that not a lot of people can do that, and that there are only a few of us in the world who can do it consistently and go, go, go ... I needed to prove to myself that I was worthy to be a part of the next generation of classical singers, even though I grew up on my own style.

"As soon as I hit that B, there was no technique ... It rang. It was like a bell. I was dizzy, and the second I hit it it was so loud, and that's when Piers kind of pulled back and was like ‘wow.' And the judges were on their feet. And the audience was on their feet. And I finished the song and all I could say to myself was, ‘Stay humble. You proved it to yourself.'

"I didn't sing it for the audience. I didn't sing it for the judges. I sang it for my mom, and hopefully she could see how well I did on TV. I sang it for my family, my brother, my friends back home. Because at the end of the day, that's where you're coming back to, your roots. Never forget where home is."

The entrepreneur

Neal describes himself as "a very practical guy," and his newfound fame through winning "America's Got Talent" has not changed that mentality.

"After the win I wasn't going to leave Missouri. I wasn't going to leave my friends and family. I wasn't going off to Hollywood. It was supposed to be 15 minutes, in my opinion."

While most probably know Neal for his singing, he has had his share of business success as well. Having an undergraduate education in speech communications and political science, as well as music, and a graduate degree in business, Neal has used his business acumen and approachable personality to develop a successful insurance brokerage.

Before his big win, Neal had formed a successful brokerage with his friend, Justin Cox, in St. Louis, combining their Aflac and Allstate businesses and selling supplemental benefits.

While his singing career progressed, the insurance business was not something he wanted to give up.

"To be honest with you, if it was 15 minutes of fame, if it truly was going to be over in six months ... I wanted to stay in business."

A vice president in the brokerage, Neal now keeps an office in Sikeston in addition to pursuing his music career.

Political future

Earlier this week Boyd announced that in addition to his singing career and insurance business, he's now planning to fulfill a lifelong dream of entering politics. Once redistricting is complete, Boyd says he plans to enter the race for state representative of the 160th District.

"I thought it would be silly for myself or any candidate to announce anything before they knew what the district was going to look like and who they were going to represent. Now, maybe one of these days 20 years from now the whole state will let me represent them. But as of right now, I want to know where the lines are. And once they're drawn, I'm putting my hat in the ring and I'm going to do what I've told people I was going to do since I was 5 years old. And I'm going to protect the people and serve the people who ... helped me get to where I am. Those are the people I want to represent."

Boyd, a Republican, points to his time as a legislative intern for former representative Paula Carter, a Democrat, as well as serving as president of the Student Senate and chairman of College Republicans at Southeast Missouri State University as examples of his early interest in politics and ability to work on a bipartisan basis. More recently, he's served on two statewide workforce commissions.

"I don't try to be polarizing or threatening. I don't try to push my opinions down people's throats, but I have this amazing ability to bring people together. Even if it's just for a concert, I can still get people in a room. Whether they like each other or not, they like me."

"What did the tornado care what party the governor was when it ran through Joplin? And when the floods were happening, who cares if you're a Republican or Democrat? Who's going to help try to save the levees? What's going to happen to the farmland after the water goes away?"

Two big issues for Boyd are making sure individuals are educationally equipped for today's jobs and lowering taxes.

"You have to put the educational pieces in place. The Southeast Missouri State levels, the Three Rivers levels, in town to give people options to reset their skills. And you have to give people confidence and make it affordable so they can say, ‘This is feasible. This will work. I think I can go into another line of work.'

"You have to understand a very simple principle, conservative principle ... When taxes are low, people spend. When taxes are high, people save. Very simple. So if you raise taxes, you're choking the economy."

Mentoring and mom

What surprises Neal today? "That people still care after three years.

"Everybody in this business wants longevity. And in order to have longevity, you have to reinvent yourself. But what I learned in my life is one simple aspect that I didn't want to be at the top by myself. I wanted my friends on the show, I wanted my friends back home to all be successful in music, and I would do whatever I could to mentor the next generation of kid that wanted to be a singer."

Part of fulfilling that mission of mentoring is encouraging and giving advice to young Southeast Missouri singers he refers to as his "little protégés."

One of the central mentors in his life has been his mother, and Neal is quick to recognize her impact on his life.

"She was very wise to say, ‘Keep things very simple. Be good to people, regardless of their race or nationality or any of that stuff.' That was basic.

"She ended up raising two very strong men and deserves every ounce of respect. And I got my moment to do it on national TV."

Though having faced plenty of obstacles, Boyd knows he's been blessed.

"My voice has opened the doors to a lot of avenues that a normal little African-American, Southeast Missouri poor boy never would have gotten to see. It's a pretty great little American dream story."

Lucas Presson is the editorial page coordinator for the Southeast Missourian. The Sunday Interview is a bi-weekly feature which highlights top newsmakers.

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