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'American Idol': Rickey Minor Returning as Musical Director (Exclusive)

After two years as bandleader of "The Tonight Show," the accomplished arranger and producer returns to Fox.

Rickey Minor Sparkle Premiere - H 2013
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

After a two-year break from American Idol, Rickey Minor will return to take on the role of musical director. The accomplished arranger and producer left the Fox show after season nine in 2010 to lead The Tonight Show band. With NBC relinquishing Jay Leno's late-night throne to Jimmy Fallon, the door was open for an Idol return.

Naturally, that means Ray Chew and his Ray Chew Live band will not be back when season 13 launches in January. 

Says FremantleMedia North America president of entertainment programming Trish Kinane: "We are thrilled that Rickey Minor and his band are returning to American Idol XIII, bringing great live music to enhance our contestants' performances. Rickey really cares about helping the kids shine and, whether it's the most current pop hits, or classics, Rickey knows how to bring them to life with authenticity.”

The idea of having Minor back on the show, where he had worked from season four through nine, came after producing VH1 Divas with new Idol executive producers Jesse Ignjatovic and Evan Prager of Den of Thieves back in Dec. 2012. "We talk all the time," Minor tells The Hollywood Reporter. "They asked if I would be interested in being a part of the team again? I was like, 'Yeah!' I really love working with those guys, then [Swedish Idol exec] Per [Blankens] and Trish came in with a game plan and asked, how we can elevate our game?"

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Minor's answer: "Bringing in a strong, live element and really making distinct arrangements based around the contestants. Because a great song is a great song, but make it contemporary and original, like we did with Adam Lambert and David Cook and all the artists where we helped them find their voice. That's really the key. ... Our mission is to help them find their voice and surround them with an arrangement that really supports their voice and them as an artist."

Minor is not referencing those two contestants randomly. Season eight runner-up Lambert and season seven winner Cook have built and maintained loyal followings thanks in large part to their memorable performances on Idol. But since those heady days -- when viewership was regularly over 20 million -- it seems the audience has lost interest in the show's breakout acts, with the exception of season 10's Phillip Phillips, whose debut album went platinum.  

Unlike The Voice and X Factor, for whom Minor worked during his Idol sabbatical, the success of the Idol graduate is paramount to the formula, says Minor. "The key is to really nurture that artist. ... Give them guidance, because that's what they need. If they didn't, they wouldn't be on the show."

VIDEO: 'American Idol' David Cook Covers Bruce Springsteen at New Jersey Tour Stop

Minor will only be seen after Hollywood Week. "I don't know if it's a top 30 or top 24, but whenever the artists appear on stage, I'll be there," he says of his semifinals start date.

Until then, he's excited to watch the new judges panel in action. Says Minor: "Keith [Urban] is a stand-up guy and a straight-shooter [who's] very warm. Harry [Connick, Jr.] ... We're both from Louisiana, and I've worked with him many times. He's going to tell it like it is. And what can you say about Jennifer [Lopez]? From everything I've heard, it's a really good chemistry and they all have the same goals, which is to support the contestants together. You're going to have varied opinions, but the goal is still the same: to add value to the contestants."

As for his Leno stint, however brief, Minor says he's "honored to be a part of that legacy," adding, "Of course there are things about [The Tonight Show] that I'll miss, but I'm grateful to be coming back -- because a lot of people get invited, but not everybody gets invited back."

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin