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‘American Idol’s’ Devin Velez, singing since he was a toddler

DevVelez played Charlie Brown musical Rickover Naval Academy iChicago. Yearbook phocourtesy Tim Schenck.

Devin Velez played Charlie Brown in a musical at Rickover Naval Academy ion Chicago. Yearbook photo courtesy of Tim Schenck.

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Updated: April 6, 2013 6:21AM



Home videos of Devin Velez show the “American Idol” contestant belting out songs as a toddler — on pitch and in the right key.

“I’d be in my playroom just singing my life away,” said Velez, whose vocal talent can be chalked up to nature and nurture.

His mother, Sandra Liz Lam, was a professional singer who went on to release a few CDs.

“We’re always singing together,” Velez said about his mom, an Applebee’s waitress and choir director at New Life church in Portage Park, where Velez lives with his mother, stepfather and younger brother and sister. He hasn’t had contact with his biological father for well over a decade.

“My father sang back in Puerto Rico and my grandmother could carry a tune,” said Velez, who plays some piano and guitar. “I guess singing was just passed down, and I was the one who wanted to take it really serious. I decided to chase my dream with ‘Idol,’ and it’s worked out pretty well.”

Pretty well indeed. The born-again Christian who unsuccessfully tried out for “The X Factor” and “The Voice” has made it to the semifinals on “Idol.” He’ll be among 10 males singing live Wednesday in a bid for viewer votes, which will determine who advances to the finals on Thursday’s results show.

Velez credits his six years in the Chicago Children’s Choir — “some of the greatest years of my life” — with helping him get as far as he has on “Idol.”

“It taught me how to blend my voice with others and with back-up vocals, which definitely helps me now,” he said.

Velez’s vocal prowess was obvious at an early age. When he was 12, his mom suggested he sing at the wedding of his godmother, Pearl Conley of Melrose Park.

“He sang ‘Amazing Grace’ a cappella right in the backyard,” said Conley, who joked that she’s known Devin since he was a plus sign on a pregnancy-test stick. “The voice came out of this little kid and I was completely shocked. I started crying.”

Now 18, Velez is one of this season’s youngest contestants. He’s a senior at Rickover Naval Academy in Edgewater, where posters are hung in the college-prep school’s hallways urging cadets to support their classmate.

“I remember him walking into school for orientation and his mom telling me how much he loves to sing,” said Velez’s high school counselor, Tim Schenck. “His passion is music. He truly wants this and he’s taking it very serious.”

The seriousness that Velez exudes on “Idol” belies the outgoing, social teenager Schenck has come to know over the past four years — the gregarious kid who starred as Charlie Brown in the high school musical and is a standout performer in jazz band.

“I see him on ‘Idol’ being a little reserved and I think, ‘Where’s that boy that always has students around him?’ ” Schenck said.

It’s not the first time Velez has come off as someone other than his true self.

“I dye my hair blonde and people think I’m a white boy,” said the Hispanic teen who’s part Puerto Rican, part Colombian. The young crooner who gets compared to Michael Buble has tapped into his Spanish several times during “Idol” performances, most recently during a stirring rendition of Beyonce’s “Listen.”

Another misconception about him: “I look really delicate but I can be a little rough,” he said. “I’ve broken five bones and have 11 stitches on my forehead.”

One thing there’s no mistaking about Velez is his love of Starbucks. He’s been a barista at one across from North Park University for the better part of a year.

“If I’m not at work at Starbucks I’m at another Starbucks drinking coffee and doing my homework,” he said.

While out West for “Idol,” Velez has kept up with school through online coursework. He’s on track to graduate this spring and hopes to attend VanderCook College of Music in Chicago.

“If ‘Idol’ doesn’t work for me, graduating from VanderCook would definitely be my fallback,” said the aspiring music teacher.

“Music has been my life,” he said. “I’ll pursue it until the day I die.”

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