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The singer competed on the Fox music show in 2008 and came in eighth place. He followed with a full-length album, 2009’s Hold Back My Heart, that included single “Heart on My Sleeve.”
“Michael Johns was an incredible talent and we are deeply saddened by the news of his passing. He was a part of our AMERICAN IDOL family and he will be truly missed. Our hearts and prayers go out to his family and friends during this difficult time,” read a statement posted on the show’s official Facebook page.
Michael Johns was 29 when he auditioned for American Idol — the absolute upper limit of eligibility. For season seven, Johns auditioned for Idol in San Diego with a rendition of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Simon Cowell was the first judge to comment: “I thought that was a very good audition, Michael. You’re like a white soul singer.” During his time competing on Idol, Johns created a stir because he had been signed to a major label, Maverick, prior to auditioning.
Johns grew up in a family that had musical talent, describing his mother as having a “Doris Day” type voice. “My brother and sister both play piano and sing. My stepfather is a great singer too. I was always around music growing up,” he told Billboard in 2008. He described his earliest musical memory, “Sitting around the family Pianola, which is a very old turn-of-the-century piano which plays itself – just like the ones in the old Western films.”
As much as he loved music, Johns was an avid tennis player who dreamed of being a Wimbledon champion. At 15, he gave that idea up because, “that’s when music found me and I have not looked back.”
However tennis is what brought Johns from his native Perth to the United States. He received a tennis scholarship and he considered it his ticket to the States to pursue music.
He was going to attend Denver University. “I thought it was way too cold there and it turned out the coach had second thoughts anyway,” he told Billboard in 2008. “I chose Abraham Baldwin Agriculture College as it was in the South and a lot of great music was coming out of there. I knew if I went to Los Angeles or New York, I could get swallowed up.”
While attending ABAC, Johns met guitarist Roddie White. The two wrote songs together and performed on campus.
Johns played cover gigs in Atlanta, then joined a band call Film. They were together for 18 months and were offered deals, but the deals were for Johns as a solo artist and for his music publishing. Johns was 21 and the other band members were over 30. He described it as a difficult time and a “messy situation.” He told the lead singer, Michael Sickler, that if they wanted their songs to see the light of day, he needed to take one of the deals.
Michael Goldberg signed Johns to Maverick as a solo artist. Johns recorded under his birth name, Michael Lee. He didn’t take the last name Johns until 2006, as an homage to his grandfather, whose first name was John. Michael Lee was actually Michael John Lee, thus the plural “Johns.”
Johns completed his album for Maverick and assembled a band called the Rising. “The label folded and my record never saw the light of day until I appeared on American Idol,” he told Billboard. “Warner Bros. put the Maverick recordings up on iTunes.”
Next, Johns was signed to Columbia by Tim Devine. But when many west coast label personnel were dismissed, a lot of developing artists were dropped, including Johns.
Johns told Billboard in the 2008 interview that he started watching Idol right from the beginning. “I was intrigued like the rest of the world. Kelly Clarkson was awesome and still is. I think she is the biggest reason why the show got as big as it did,” he said. “She came out and legitimized the credibility of the show. Idol is the best platform these days for finding new talent.”
Indeed, while Johns didn’t win, his career as a singer was by no means stagnant. A favorite of Grammy-winning producer David Foster, he performed on the PBS television special, Hit Man: David Foster and Friends, which also featured such music luminaries as Michael Buble, Josh Groban, Blake Shelton and Andrea Bocelli. He also participated in many A-list charity events and appeared on a 2012 episode of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which stars Foster’s wife Yolanda.
Johns leaves behind his wife, Stacey. The couple met at the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood in 2003 and married in 2007.
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