This time last year, Lee University student Jordan Smith was auditioning for "The Voice" — his second attempt to get on NBC's reality talent show.
On Thursday, he returned to the Cleveland, Tenn., campus as the Season 9 victor for a whirlwind homecoming that included a news conference, leading a morning chapel service and a free community concert.
"It's good to be home!" Smith said as he opened chapel in Conn Center. A capacity crowd of 1,900 students and staff welcomed their celebrity alumnus with cheers, applause and a standing ovation. In the audience were Clark Beckham, a Lee alumnus and last season's runner-up on "American Idol," and Kristen Denny, Smith's fiancee.
"It's been a while since we talked. A lot has changed with me, in case somehow you missed it," the singer quipped.
Students said they arrived as early as an hour in advance to get a seat in the auditorium for the program.
"Even before we knew Jordan was coming, we were excited he was on the show representing Lee," said Kirsten Tatum, a freshman music major who arrived half an hour before showtime to nab a floor-level seat. "I know especially everyone in the school of music is excited and proud of Jordan."
Smith was a music business major at Lee before auditioning for "The Voice." His time on the competition was significant not only for winning the title, but he claimed the record for top-selling artist in iTunes downloads throughout any of the show's nine seasons — twice unseating Adele's "Hello" from the No. 1 spot on the singles chart.
Smith's role as chapel worship leader was one he often filled while a student — and he took them to church again Thursday. He opened with three contemporary Christian numbers, followed later by his new single. To close the program, he was joined by the Lee Singers for "Somebody to Love," the Queen song that was his breakout moment on Season 9.
Between songs, Smith shared his testimony about how his time at Lee and God's timing prepared him for his successful run in Season 9.
"My experience over the past six months has been so incredible, it's insane," he told the audience. "For three years, I was here, I was in class every day (which drew big chuckles from the crowd), I was in Lee Singers, worship leader in chapel and working two jobs. But I felt deep in my heart that I wanted to be a part of 'The Voice.' I can see now how every one of those things prepared me for 'The Voice,'" he said.
He shared how despondent he felt after being rejected on his first "Voice" audition two years ago, when he had been so sure that was where he was supposed to be; then the surprise of having a talent agent call him last year with the request he audition again.
"'The Voice' was such a dream come true, a promise of God come true. God worked on me for a year, and I realize now that if I had made it the first year, I would have been so unprepared," Smith said.
In a press conference before chapel, Smith talked about his upcoming album, "Something Beautiful," coming March 18. Ironically, his CD will compete with "Voice" coach Gwen Stefani's new album, "This Is What The Truth Feels Like," which also will be released that day.
"There's something beautiful to me about each of the songs I chose for this album," Smith said, adding he co-wrote one of the tracks, "Settle."
He said David Foster, the legendary musician who produced a portion of his album, "pushed him hard."
"He never accepted anything less than my best. Throughout the rest of the project I knew I didn't want to put out anything less than excellence."
While at Lee Thursday, Smith was presented a key to the city by Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., presented him with a Certificate of Congressional Recognition.
Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6284.
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