Christopher Ruben Studdard, the youngest son of two teachers, sang for the first time at the Rising Star Baptist church in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, at the age of 3. He continued singing gospel in church, performing solos as a child while his mother sang in the local choir. While at Huffman High School, he played football and received a football scholarship to Alabama A&M University. After growing up listening to his mother's Donny Hathaway albums, Fred Hammond, and a lot of gospel, Ruben was convinced that his destiny was in the music industry, so he decided to be a voice major while at Alabama A&M. After he graduated in 2000, Ruben gave himself years to try to make in big in music.
A backup singer from Just A Few Cats, a popular local Birmingham jazz and R&B band with whom Studdard sang, asked him to accompany her to Nashville, Tennessee for an audition on the second season of Fox's American Idol. When auditioning, Studdard sang Stevie Wonder's "Ribbon In The Sky" and he ended up as one of the local finalists. On American Idol, he impressed viewers with his performances of "Superstar" (originally recorded by the Carpenters and later covered by Luther Vandross) and the Peabo Bryson/Regina Belle duet "A Whole New World"; during the time on the show, Ruben got praise from music legends such as Lionel Richie, Neil Sedaka, Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, and Gladys Knight. During the televised competition, Studdard gained the nickname "Velvet Teddy Bear" and was noted for his shirts printed with "205," the telephone area code of his hometown of Birmingham.
He won the contest by just a few thousand votes over runner-up Clay Aiken. Studdard released his first single album with the hit song "Flying Without Wings" produced by the Underdogs and Face a month later.
In December 2003, advance orders for Soulful topped the 1 million mark before the album was released into stores.