Before “The Voice,” Laith Al-Saadi was a beloved local guitarist. Now he is nationally known for his love of classic rock and soulful blues.
Last Spring, fans across the country discovered the rock, blues, and soul music of Laith Al-Saadi, ’03, the fourth-place winner of NBC’s hit reality talent show “The Voice.” But in Ann Arbor, the powerful sounds of the 38-year-old guitarist have been reverberating for decades. Al-Saadi, a native Ann Arborite, performed in local theater productions as a child and has played music professionally in the area since he was a teenager, sometimes as many as 300 shows a year when he hits the road. Michigan Alumnus was fortunate to catch up with the newly minted star, who is now in even greater demand, upon his return home from Los Angeles. What follows are some little-known facts and insights he shared shortly after performing a sold-out show at the Michigan Theater in July.
LAITH MEANS “LION” IN ARABIC. Al-Saadi has no idea why his parents chose the name, but his seemingly effortless growl was the first thing “The Voice” judge Christina Aguilera mentioned after Al-Saadi’s initial performance. Maybe it has something to do with Al-Saadi leading the Detroit Lions Pep Band in the early 2000s on Ford Field.
AL-SAADI TOOK PIANO LESSONS AS A CHILD BUT RARELY PRACTICED. So when he was given a guitar at age 13, his mother refused to pay for lessons. Desperate to learn, he taught himself, practicing six to eight hours a day.
BLUE VINYL WAS THE NAME OF AL-SAADI’S FIRST BAND IN HIGH SCHOOL. The name derives from a conversation with his best friend at age 15 about cool special record releases, including one released on blue vinyl.
AL-SAADI’S LAST NON-MUSIC-RELATED JOB WAS WORKING AT A PIZZA RESTAURANT AT AGE 16. “I didn’t hate it. I just liked playing music better,” he said, explaining that the minute he got his license, he purchased a car and started driving to gigs. “I thought, ‘If I can make money playing music, why work?’ Fortunately, it worked out well for me.”
BEFORE DOUBLE MAJORING IN GUITAR AND BASS AT U-M, Al-Saadi studied voice and guitar for two years at Western Michigan University. In between, he took a couple of years off, performing in Northern Michigan bars and restaurants during the summers and at a ski resort in the winter. “It gave me more confidence before I went back to college.”
“VOICE” COACH ADAM LEVINE PUSHED AL-SAADI VOCALLY. “There were times when I tried to make things easier on myself,” said Al-Saadi about competing on the show. “Like I would put a song in a lower key to make it less difficult to sing. But Adam would put it back up. He told me, ‘People want to hear you strain and hear you push yourself,’” recalled Al-Saadi, who soon noticed, upon taking his advice, more emotion coming through his performances.
IF HE HAD THE CHANCE TO PERFORM ONE MORE SONG ON “THE VOICE,” Al-Saadi said it would be one from his “favorite era of songwriting, the time of Tin Pan Alley.” His two top choices? Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.”
AL-SAADI IS GOOD FRIENDS WITH CONAN O’BRIEN’S BAND LEADER JIMMY VIVINO, who is featured on Al-Saadi’s 2013 album, “Real.” The two met at a music venue in Los Angeles, where Vivino was performing a late-night set. A friend of Al-Saadi’s campaigned hard to get Al-Saadi on stage for a song—a request that somehow made its way to a fellow clubber, movie star Angela Bassett. Bassett asked Vivino if he would indulge a fan in the audience. “Vivino said, ‘Anything for you, Angela.’ We ended up playing four or five songs, and Vivino said he’d let me come sit in whenever I was in town.”
Jenn McKee, ’93, worked for more than a decade as a staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News. She is now a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, The Ann Arbor Observer, and other publications.