In his heart, Justin’s really a good ole boy. Born and raised near Memphis, Timberlake can’t help but draw inspiration from his city’s rich musical history. Besides being the birthplace of Aretha Franklin and Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, and the home of Elvis Presley (whom Timberlake says his grandfather, a construction-company owner, knew), it’s also one of the cradles of the blues, a place with deep roots in soul.
“We listened to every kind of music in our house,” says his mom, Lynn Harless, 42, who plays several instruments and still lives in Memphis. Timberlake was immersed in song from his infancy; his father, Randy Timberlake, 43, played in a bluegrass band when Justin was an infant. Harless recalls her son singing from the age of 2, harmonizing to tunes on the radio. “If you tried to sing with him, he’d get real mad, like, ‘Don’t sing my part!’” says Harless, laughing.
Although Timberlake loved R&B growing up, he didn’t perform it professionally until he became a regular on The Mickey Mouse Club. His vocal coach, Robin Wiley, who was a producer on the show, remembers how the then 12-year-old had to adjust. “He hadn’t sung a ton of R&B-ish stuff, mostly country, and the show covered whatever was on the radio,” Wiley says. At the time, the prepubescent Timberlake still had a very high voice. R&B usually calls for a lower register and a more nasal sound, but he adapted easily. “He had a lot of natural style and could sing anything you threw at him,” Wiley says. “I remember thinking, Jeez, where did this kid come from?”
But Timberlake, almost from the beginning had a feel for the music. “Justin was always drawn to a more bluesy sound,” his mother says. “He loved old R&B singers with a lot of texture to their voices who could riff.” Timberlake’s favorite vocalists growing up were Brian McKnight, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, to whom Timberlake, along with Ja Rule, Musiq, India.Arie, and others, recently paid tribute on BET’s Walk of Fame.
He maintains a godly respect for his hero. When Wonder recorded the harmonica solo on “Something Like You” for N’Sync’s Celebrity, the last note he played continually sounded flat. “Justin and I kept debating who was going to say something,” says Wiley, who coproduced the track with him. Finally, Timberlake hit the studio talk-back button and told Wonder. “Justin takes his finger off like he just touched a hot stove, with a panicked look on his face, and goes, ‘I just told Stevie Wonder he’s out of tune. I’m going straight to hell,’” Wiley says, laughing. (Of course, there was nothing wrong with Wonder’s playing. His harmonica was off, so he had to switch instruments.)
It’s this kind of behavior that defines Timberlake’s gracious character. His grandma (who, he says, makes the best peach cobbler in the world) wouldn’t have it any other way. “I grew up in the country, so I guarantee that I’ll go back there because it feels so good,” says Timberlake. The humble hometown boy keeps a small inner circle, including his childhood friend, Trace Ayala, 22, who travels with him and serves as his reality checker. It was inevitable that the two become close: Their mothers were best buddies in high school. “He makes me feel like I’m on earth, he’s unfazed by all the craziness, says Timberlake. “He’s the person in my life that I can sit in a room with, not say anything, and it’ll be cool.”