WE WERE supposed to be talking about his spotlight role in "Grease" (opening tomorrow at the Academy of Music), or maybe his current album, "The Distance," or maybe his tell-some memoir, "Heart Full of Soul," which recounts the guy's rise from a humble Alabama childhood to the Season Five winner on "American Idol."

But the morning I caught up with Taylor Hicks was a sad one. Michael Jackson had died the night before, and the shock hadn't worn off. First, we had to grieve.

"Of course I was a big fan," Hicks said on the cell phone from Detroit, where "Grease" was in residence and, ironically, where M.J. first got props as a member of the Jackson Five, recording for Motown.

Younger than his prematurely gray eminence suggests, the now 32-year-old Hicks first tuned in to Jackson during the age of "Thriller" - "at the height of his success and popularity. I think I wore a white glove to kindergarten. Yeah, I was a big fan. My generation was right there in the popular demographic, but the thing with Michael is that he didn't just reach us kids, he touched three or four different generations. There's very few that have done that."

Another Idol heard from

When I asked Hicks to describe whom he sees cheering when he makes his floating-from-the-clouds entrance as the Teen Angel in "Grease," he described them as "all over the board, people from 8 to 80.

"That's the great thing about a show like 'Idol.' It brings generations together and teaches a younger generation about music that has had an impact, and is why music is what it is today. How many 10-year-old children get to listen and explore the sounds of Tony Bennett in their own home? That's the amazing part of that show. I like to say it's a substitute for the decline of liberal-arts programs across the country. It's a kind of music class. Some of the liberal-arts programs in elementary schools have taken quite a hit in the past 10 years, and 'Idol' luckily has been able to substitute for some of that."

Doing it his (their) way

At that legendary "A.I." tryout in Las Vegas that he went to on a fluke "after getting a free ticket from an airline for being bounced from a flight out of hurricane-torn New Orleans," Simon Cowell told Taylor that he didn't have a chance. Still, the guy won over Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson with a down-home treatment of "Swanee River Rock" lifted whole from Ray Charles.

The first record Hicks ever owned - OK, stole - from a store, he tells in "Heart Full of Soul," was an Otis Redding album, "Shake."

And even in his high-school years, his heart belonged to vintage (and mostly southern-fried) rhythm-and-blues music. "When everyone else was listening to Blind Melon, I was listening to Solomon Burke." [Actually from Philly, but maybe the first talent to successfully merge soul and country.] "You know, Burke was also the first guy to use the cape and the red rose in his show, and James Brown kind of stole his act, so to speak. Then they'd say of Michael Jackson that the last guy who moved like him was James Brown. Funny how things go 'round like that."

Hicks believes he won on "A.I." by taking control of the situation, playing by his own rules and staying grounded. "I'd spent so many years trying to make it, that I like to think I had the focus, once the big movement started happening. My life experience" - which included years of roadhouse singing in Alabama, two indie albums and an erstwhile recording project in Nashville under the guidance of another soul legend, Percy Sledge - "gave me a boost up. I used the harmonica to my advantage on the show, even when told it might get me disqualified." (The next year, 'A.I.' candidates were officially allowed to play instruments on stage.)

And Hicks had "another pioneering thought" that he put into play. "I was the first to write the endings of my songs. They gave me two minutes to 'play that funky music,' and I made sure my endings were powerful and signature enough to move me along in the competition."

Grease is the word

Cut loose under "mutual agreement" from 19/Arista Records after his cheesily produced debut album, "Taylor Hicks," sold only a million copies - the lowest sales figure to date for a winning Idol - Hicks went off and made a clearly superior album for his own Modern Whomp Records label. "The Distance" takes a more organic, gritty approach (no generic backing singers, no syrupy strings) with thoughtful, soul-pop and country-style songs (9 authored/co-authored by Hicks) and excellent backing by the same guys who tour and record with Eric Clapton (among other notables.)

But without the big-bucks tour support that he might have gotten from a major label, going out and promoting this project across the nation seemed daunting.

Enter "Grease" - that much-loved, cartoon-ish musical homage to the early days of rock and roll, hot rods, teen hoodlums and high school romance which was back on Broadway last year in a new production featuring winners of a TV talent contest (!!!) called "Grease: You're the Won That I Want."

Hicks joined the show in New York last spring for what was supposed to be a three-month special guest appearance, cast as the "Teen Angel" (played in the movie by aging Philly pop idol Frankie Avalon). You know the part - the handsome charmer who urges the "Beauty School Dropout" to go back to high school. Hicks got to do the number his way, adding some wailing, bluesy harmonica work. The creative team also popped him into the "Megamix" at the show's end, wherein he reprises the title song - one of four hits from the 1978 movie version added to this stage production.

Clearly, Hicks' self proclaimed "babysteps . . . walk before you run" participation in the Broadway musical constituted just a "cameo." But his name recognition and presence spelled "star power" for the production - translating into an extra $150,000 a week in ticket sales, reported the New York Post.

Then, at year's end, Hicks got an offer he couldn't refuse to join the national touring production. Therein, he'd also get to plug/perform a single from his soon-coming-out album as another encore treat. The deal sounded so good, he signed up to travel with the show until June, 2010.

"This is a wonderful way to be able to let fans new and old see me in a part and also see me as an artist," Hicks explained. "Nowadays, you have to be creative in the way you get your music and voice heard. The way the road tour is structured, it's a really cool way to exercise that concept. It's very rare that an artist, an entertainer, gets to go into a city to perform and stay in that particular market for multiple days or weeks, to work a Broadway show and work a record."

In some cities - though not this one - Hicks flies in his touring band and does a late night showcase at a club. Here, he'll surely be popping up on local TV and radio shows to plug stuff. And Soul Patrolers will find him out in the lobby after every performance "to sign merchandise and CDs and shoot the breeze" just like the down-to-earth "idol" he is. *

"Grease" plays at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets, tomorrow through July 19. Performances Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 6:30 p.m., matinees Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m., $25-$100, 215-731-3333, www.kimmelcenter.org/broadway.

This whole alliance with "Grease" is another offbeat move that has left some scratching their heads, but which Hicks sees as a smart career strategy. Maybe the least likely "A.I." candidate to ever win the competition, Hicks' taste in music and performing style skew a lot more towards old Cocker (Joe) or McDonald (Mike), a lot less to Usher or Timberlake (Justin).

Ironically, the "blue-eyed soul"-styled Hicks is another singer who has won an unusually diverse fan base (dubbed the "Soul Patrol"), thanks to the inordinate reach of that TV talent contest which crowned him an idol - with 36.4 million viewers watching.