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There will be a party on the American Idol stage tonight, as the producers and cast cut a special cake to commemorate the broadcast of the series’ 500th episode. Over the course of those 500 episodes, the popular Fox series has sent some aspiring singers into the stratosphere while hundreds of thousands of others have simply been sent home. There are tales of high hopes and heartbreak, of dreams come true and dreams crashing down. Here is a look back at some mostly untold tales of some of Idol’s highest and lowest points.
On July 24, 1963, high school student William Clinton was a delegate to Boys Nation and shook hands with President John F. Kennedy in the Rose Garden of the White House. American Idol has its own similar time-twisting tale. It’s the end of season one and the top 10 are gathered in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel in Hollywood, about to leave for the finale at the Kodak Theater. Senior supervising producer Patrick Lynn, then an associate producer, was waiting for the cars to arrive. “We need to leave and a guy comes up to me and says, ‘My boy is a huge fan of American Idol and he would love to sing for Kelly.’ I roll my eyes because I know this is going to be embarrassing. Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini were super-nice about it.” They encouraged the 11-year-old boy to sing. “He belts out, ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.’ He’s loud and attracts a crowd, and he’s unbelievable,” says Lynn. “I tell his father, ‘When he’s old enough, make sure he tries out for American Idol.’
After we leave, we talk about him in the car for 30 minutes. Everybody agrees he needs to audition when he’s older.” He does. Five years later, 16-year-old David Archuleta tried out for season seven in San Diego. “When I was little I always wanted to audition even though I never thought I was good enough,” says Archuleta. “My dad told me the auditions were coming up in a week, and asked if I would want to go for it. I said sure, but didn’t think I would make it past the first round. I just wanted to see what the experience was like.” David and his father Jeff lined up at Qualcomm Stadium for hours.
“I felt so uncomfortable because we’d been standing for so long waiting in line,” David remembers. “We couldn’t sleep because everyone was singing. I listened to everybody and the guy in front of me was so good and they didn’t let him go through. So I thought there was no way I would make it.” Archuleta sang “Joyful, Joyful” and “I’ll Be.” “Then they told our whole row that we weren’t going through. After two days of waiting, I was gone in 30 seconds. I walked away and heard, ‘Wait! Come back.’ I didn’t think they were talking to me, so I kept walking. Then I heard, ‘Wait! Come here!’ so I turned around and they said, ‘You’re through!’ It was a shock.”
Archuleta was the runner-up for season seven. His single, “Crush,” peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 and his eponymous debut album peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. He recently returned from a two-year mission to Chile for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Red-headed Rat Pack aficionado John Stevens was four when his grandparents lent him their copy of Songs for Swinging Lovers by Frank Sinatra. A week later, Stevens could croon every tune on the album.
One Wednesday, after an Idol results show, the producers put top 10 finalist Stevens and his family in a limo, destination unknown. They arrived at O’Henry Sound Studios in Burbank. “Standing there are Frank Sinatra Jr., Tina Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra and arranger Johnny Mandel,” Stevens remembers. “I recognized them immediately. I’m crying and I’m starstruck. This is the closest I’ve ever been to my hero.”
The Sinatras were there to master an unreleased Frank Sinatra recording of “Silent Night,” which Stevens was able to preview before the rest of the world heard it. “Tina said it was because of people like me that her father’s music will live on,” Stevens says. “It was a great honor for me at 16 to hear his daughter talking about me. There has never been another night in my life that has topped that one. I’ll always be grateful to the American Idol staff for arranging that visit.”
Bo Bice wanted to perform Jim Croce‘s “Time in a Bottle,” but music supervisor Susan Slamer wasn’t sure she could get permission. When the song cleared she called Croce’s widow, Ingrid, to thank her. Ingrid said she was going to say no, but her son A.J. was a fan of Bo’s. When Slamer said that Bo was a fan of her late husband, Ingrid asked to speak to Bo.
Bice was rehearsing on stage when Slamer handed him her cell phone and told him to place a call to a certain number. As the phone rang, Slamer told him the woman about to answer was Jim Croce’s widow. Bo started talking and the rest of the top 11 could see tears streaming down his face. They rushed over to see if he was all right. “Everything’s great,” Slamer assured them. “When Bo hung up, he said it was the most amazing moment of his life.”
Bice was season four’s runner-up, placing second to Carrie Underwood, who has sold 14.6 million albums and 30.3 million digital songs in the last nine years. Bice’s first major album release was certified gold. After a follow-up set on RCA, he has pursued an independent path. In the last 12 months, he has been a guest lead vocalist with Blood, Sweat & Tears and has joined up with four country artists as the Outlaw Project.
For the season finale, over 25,000 fans filled a stadium in Birmingham to support Taylor Hicks, and the Governor of Alabama and the Mayor of the city showed up to honor their hometown hero. Meanwhile, producer Simon Lythgoe was directing a simultaneous event for Katharine McPhee in Los Angeles. “We had a maximum of 30 people at Universal City Walk. I scrambled to take off all the wide-angle lenses and didn’t use the jib camera, which would have revealed the small turnout. We scrunched the people together to fill up the frame. We made it look busy – not in the same league as Taylor’s crowd, but we pulled it off. Kat did have a huge following and phone vote, but people in Los Angeles aren’t passionate about supporting their own talent. It also didn’t help that we were live at 5 p.m. West coasters think Idol is live at 8 p.m., so a lot of people turned up late and then complained about paying for parking at Universal Studios to support someone who had already lost the competition.”
McPhee released one album on RCA and then went on to record two albums for the Verve Forecast label. She starred in NBC’s Smash and in last month’s Hallmark Hall of Fame movie for ABC, In My Dreams. Three weeks ago she teased the release of her new album with photos from the cover shoot.
For the first seven seasons, the finalist with the lowest number of votes was sent home on results night, with no possibility of reprieve. That changed in season eight with the introduction of the judges’ save, allowing the panel to veto the elimination of a contestant. Designed to be used only once a season and no later than the top five, the concept originated on Nouvelle Star, the French version of Idol. Unfortunately, the judges in France used the save the same week it was introduced, removing all of its intended drama for that season. Not so in America, where the judges did not use this device to retain season eight finalists Michael Sarver, Megan Joy or Scott MacIntyre.
There were seven contestants left on the results show broadcast April 15, 2009, when Ryan Seacrest announced that the bottom three were Lil Rounds, Anoop Desai and Matt Giraud. Ryan sent Desai to safety and then revealed that Giraud was the finalist with the lowest number of votes. Matt sang Bryan Adams‘ “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman” and waited while the judges deliberated. The decision to save a contestant had to be unanimous.
The tension in the Idol studio was palpable. The audience, which included celebrities Zac Efron and Neil Sedaka, spontaneously started chanting, “Save him! Save him! Save him!” Their cries grew louder and the mantra was shortened to a rapidly repeated, “Save! Save! Save!” when the judges finally made their pronouncement. Simon Cowell spoke: “Matt, it’s good news.” Giraud burst into tears, and so did people sitting in the audience and viewers watching at home.
Giraud didn’t win season eight; Kris Allen and Adam Lambert finished in first and second place, respectively. But thanks to the save, Giraud ended up in fifth place and became part of American Idol history.
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