“That guitar did more than change my life,” Hollywood Anderson says. “It saved me.”
Anderson (his real name is Anderson Footman) is talking about the worn Fender Squier steel-string acoustic that lifted him this year off the streets of New York City and into the American Idol spotlight, where his high expressive voice and rich, fluid chords enchanted the judges and the popular TV show’s audience. Though Anderson was cut from Idol’s running in February, his enthusiasm and talent remain undimmed. In recent weeks, he’s recorded with funk bassist Bootsy Collins, and Anderson’s debut album, due soon, is slated to include contributions from rapper Timbaland.
But before the limelight found Anderson, the 22-year-old singer, songwriter, and guitarist was living on the streets of New York City. “Anywhere from 1.6 million to 2 million young people will experience an episode of homelessness in the United States this year,” says Norman Lotz, vice president of development and legacy-giving at Covenant House, a nonprofit charity that serves homeless youth and that gave Anderson his break.
The product of a troubled family in Florida, Anderson saved his money and staked his future on a musical career in New York. When expected support from friends fell through, he landed on the street. No one chooses that life, Anderson says, citing domestic violence, poverty, or the death of a parent as frequent causes of homelessness.
“[Some] see homeless people as another race, another nation . . . but we’re all part of the same society.”
Landing at Covenant House, Anderson found shelter and community—and a career.
“I met Norm [Lotz] because he plays a 215-year-old upright bass,” Anderson says. “He’d be plucking and jiving in his office, and I’d just sit and listen.”
Lotz, who also plays a Taylor steel-string acoustic, recognized Anderson’s talent as a vocalist, but he felt Hollywood’s development was hampered by relying on other musicians for accompaniment.
Lotz offered to teach Anderson guitar, gifting him the Fender Squier to get him started. It’s the first guitar Anderson has ever owned. “Norm tuned the guitar in open D, and showed how easy it is to change chords,” Hollywood says.
Adds Lotz, “I told Hollywood to come back for lesson two, but that was all he needed.”
Anderson went directly to the Bedford Avenue L train station—ground zero of Brooklyn’s fiercely competitive busking scene. His soaring vocals and emotionally direct playing made an impression.
Anderson says the drums—his first instrument—influence how he plays chords. “I’ll stop and play arpeggios—quick and strong. I’m mashing chords and single notes together.”
“I think of him as a modern acoustic-blues artist, like Robert Johnson for the 21st century,” Lotz says. “Being self taught, he plays what he feels, and that speaks to people.”
Soon, Hollywood’s music caught the ear of American Idol’s producers. At the New York audition in January, Anderson broke with the show’s tradition by singing his own composition, the haunting “My Best Friend,” rather than a popular cover.
By the time of the audition, Anderson’s Squier had been “messed up” by the wear and tear of subway busking, so Covenant House gave him a replacement—a Yamaha C40II classical model—that he used on the show.
Lotz accompanied Anderson to the Idol TV studio. “Most contestants are supported by their family—their ‘true believers’,” Lotz says. “Hollywood doesn’t have that, so [the producers] invited me to [attend the] audition. I’ll always be Hollywood’s first true believer.”
When Anderson was eliminated from Idol in February after a rendition of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” he broke down in tears. Speaking days after the event, he was thoughtful and thankful for the experience. “The beautiful thing is, I’ve learned so much about phrasing, melody, and arrangements from covering someone else’s song,” Anderson says.
“It’s taught me a lot as a songwriter.”
Anderson has also drawn inspiration from his sessions with Bootsy Collins, an experience he calls transformative. He’s recently augmented his guitar collection with a Córdoba C5-CEBK Iberia nylon-string guitar, which he used in later Idol episodes.
Though he no longer lives at the shelter, Anderson remains a spokesman for Covenant House’s music program, which now includes an on-site recording studio. He hopes the program that nurtured him will inspire and empower more homeless youth.
“My heart will always be with Covenant House and particularly Norm,” Anderson says. “With a single gift, he opened the door to my future.”
Excerpted from June 2015 (Issue No. 270)