Jesse Campbell: My 'A' Game Is on 'The Voice'

The show's breakout star dishes about hardship, triumph and who he'd like to battle in the final round.

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NBC

If Jesse Campbell, the breakout star from the current season of NBC's The Voice, looks and sounds familiar, it's not just because his voice is reminiscent of Luther Vandross, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye and other soulful greats before him.

In 1994 he signed with Capitol Records and released his first album, Never Let You Go. He followed that up with a memorable cover of the Hathaway-and-Roberta Flack classic "Where Is the Love" for the sound track of the 1995 film Dead Presidents, which went certified gold. He was let go from his recording contract with Capitol that same year.

Now Campbell, 42, says that he's more ready for mainstream success than ever before. And many who saw his performance on April 2 -- when he more than wowed the celebrity judges (Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton) with his performance of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" -- are inclined to agree. He garnered enough votes from the public to move to the next round of the vocal competition. The winner of The Voice will receive $100,000 and a recording contract with Universal Republic Records.

Each of the judges coaches his or her own team of competitors, and Green has said that if someone from his team doesn't win, he's looking for Campbell to take the victory. Campbell's coach, Aguilera, said that he could sing the alphabet and make it sound good. And Levine ended his comments with a warning to his own team: "Here's the dude you got to beat," he said after Campbell's performance.

Grace Under Pressure

"It's a little bit of pressure," Campbell told The Root as he spent his day off with his daughter in an amusement park, pausing several times to say hello to passersby, intent on acknowledging everyone who recognized him. "But it just helps me to be more focused. I am only as good as my last performance, so I have to be on my 'A' game and just bring it the best I can every time."

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That's what he brought to his first performance in the blind-audition round, during which the judges' backs are to the contestants while they perform. Campbell's powerful rendition of Leon Russell's "A Song for You" (also famously sung by Hathaway) prompted three of the four judges -- Green, Aguilera and Levine -- to turn around their chairs and face him less than 10 seconds into his performance (an action that is equivalent to a "yes" or a "You're going to Hollywood" response in other vocal competition shows). Ten seconds later the last judge, Shelton, did the same. Getting all four judges -- a pop rocker, a country singer, a big-voice diva and a rapper-soul singer -- to want to recruit you for their own teams is no small feat.

"At that point I was just focusing on really being my best," Campbell recalled. "When Blake turned his chair, I got a little emotional and my voice got a little shaky. And that's when I said, 'Wow, I am actually living my dream.' Then I got into my head and starting trying to figure out who I was going to pick, but had to remind myself to stay focused and finish the song before I forgot the words," he joked.