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On its Wednesday night broadcast, American Idol revealed half of the season 14 contestants who will move into the top 24. With 12 names put forward, another 12 will complete the field on Thursday night. But no point waiting to meet the dozen hopefuls who just made the grade. In interviews with The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard, the finalists reveal which previous Idols they had crushes on, their favorite Beatles song (“Rocky Raccoon,” anyone?) and their earliest musical memories.
Clark Beckham, 22
Favorite Alums: Clay Aiken, Melinda Doolittle, David Cook, Joshua Ledet
Formative Listening: Otis Redding, Al Green, Marvin Gaye
First Idol Experience: Watching season two
Clark Beckham’s earliest music memory is singing along in the car with his mother to Stevie Wonder’s “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday.” “My mom played piano and sang in choirs and made sure I listened to the ‘oldies,'” says Beckham. “She quit her job as a court reporter and became a music teacher. She taught me in middle and high school.” Beckham’s father worked as a professional musician, playing guitar for the Righteous Brothers and Dolly Parton. “He opened for Alabama. He’s my all-time favorite singer. …I sing just like my father. But he never pushed music until I made the decision.”
As a college student, Beckham planned a career as a history teacher and physical education coach. But then he competed in a battle of the bands. “We killed it. It was like a spiritual high.” During his years at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., he toured with the campus choir, developing his vocal skills.
Beckham plays a number of instruments. He started with the drums at age nine. “I picked up guitar at 12 and took lessons for a month and hated it. It’s the only time I ever took lessons. I learn by ear and by watching other people. I took up piano at 16 and now it’s my main instrument.”
Asked to name his favorite album, Beckham immediately responds with Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. And his favorite songs? Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” and the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and “Rocky Raccoon.”
Shannon Berthiaume, 17
St. Paul, Minn.
Formative Listening: country music (thanks, Grandma) and rock and roll (thanks, Dad)
First Idol Experience: Watching the show with her grandmother
After her parents porced, Shannon Berthiaume missed her dad and turned to the rock music that he loved so much. “I started to sing, putting my own voice over the music. My mom told me I was OK, so I kept going. I sang at camp for about 40 people, but the first time I sang in front of an audience was at Hollywood Week.”
Berthiaume’s grandmother loved Carrie Underwood. “And my sister was a big fan of Kelly Clarkson. When my grandma passed away, I stopped watching. I started again when Hayley Reinhart was on.”
As soon as she turned 15, Berthiaume’s sister told her she should audition for Idol. “The auditions were in Chicago. We were short on money and couldn’t afford to drive there.” This season, when auditions were held in Minneapolis, Berthiaume sang “House of the Rising Sun,” which she knew from the hit recording by the Animals. “I love that song. It has a lot of soul to it.”
A fan of Black Keys, Metallica, Eminem, Lauryn Hill and Sum 41, Berthiaume tells THR that her favorite album is The Beatles, known as “the White Album.” Asked what her favorite song from that LP is, she doesn’t hesitate: “Rocky Raccoon.”
Adanna Duru, 18
Diamond Bar, Calif.
Favorite Alums: Katharine McPhee, Jordin Sparks
Formative Listening: ABBA, Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child, Ashanti, Madonna
First Idol Experience: Watching season five
“When I was four, I was singing ‘Dancing Queen.’ My mom had ABBA’s Gold album and no other album would play. It’s because of them that I love music,” says Adanna Duru. “I’d lock myself in my room and only listen to music. I’d just come down to eat. I thought I wanted to be an airline pilot because they travel the world, and then I thought, wait, pop stars travel the world!”
Duru wrote her first song when she was 10. She played guitar and piano on “Come Back to Me,” which wasn’t a love song; it was about world peace. She performed in musicals during middle school, starring as the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland and an Oompa Loompa in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. For three years, she was a member of her high school choir.
She decided at nine years old that she would be on Idol one day. At 15, she competed on season three of The Voice and made it to Team Adam before elimination. “I said, ‘I don’t care. I’m going up for American Idol.'”
The day she started college, her mother told her they were leaving that night to drive to San Francisco for Idol auditions. When Duru demurred, her mother told her, “I paid for the hotel and the gas. We’re going to San Francisco!” “My mother has given me amazing support. She’s reminded me I can do this.”
Duru’s favorite albums, in addition to ABBA’s Gold, are Michael Jackson’s Bad and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. Her favorite songs include “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak and “Rather Be” by Clean Bandit featuring Jess Glynne.
Adam Ezegelian, 20
Formative Listening: Les Miserables, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic
First Idol Experience: Competing at Disney World’s The American Idol Experience
Adam Ezegelian was making music before he could speak. “I thought I invented singing,” he says. “I could talk but it sounded like music.” He had some unlikely early musical influences. “I’d go on car rides with my mom and she would play theater scores. I liked “Master of the House.”
In middle school, Ezegelian played trumpet in the school band. When the band director asked who wanted to do the vocals on James Brown‘s “I Got You (I Feel Good),” Ezegelian volunteered. “That performance freaked everybody out, they didn’t know I could sing like that. When my dad heard it, he wanted to know where it came from.”
With his mother pressing him to do theater, Ezegelian won roles in Grease and Beauty and the Beast, and was the voice of Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. “That was my biggest singing role, even though I wasn’t on stage.”
Music wasn’t Ezegelian’s only love. “I was drawing much earlier than singing. Disney World was a family vacation spot and I’d go on the animation tour.” As a level-headed kid with a back-up plan, Ezegelian studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, where he enrolled in drawing and animation classes. “Because I was located in the city, I could go on auditions.” Eventually, animation took a back seat to music.
But Ezegelian didn’t stop going to Disney World. Six days after The American Idol Experience opened at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in February 2009, Ezegelian and his family were on vacation in the park. “Mom said I had to try out. I won my preliminary round and the finale. I was 15. I had to wait until the following year to audition [for the actual TV show]. I was not prepared enough. It’s the only time I remember being nervous. I sang ‘Kiss from a Rose.’ And ‘Carry On Wayward Son.'”
Ezegelian didn’t make the cut. But as we know, that’s not the end of the story. He had to take a day off from his internship at Fisher-Price to audition a second time during which he sang Bob Seger‘s “Old Time Rock and Roll” and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.” That time, success.
Lovey James, 17
Formative Listening: Kristin Chenoweth, Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor, Jessie J
First Idol Experience: Watching season one
Lovey James happily admits that as a child, she was a “little ball of energy” that wanted to be the center of attention. “I’ve been singing forever,” she says. “We’d go to dinner at my grandparents’ house and I’d put on shows for my aunts and uncles.”
James was eight when she sang “Never Never Land” from Peter Pan in the vocal category of a dance competition. She studied theater in middle school and grew up listening to everything from pop to Broadway.
James started watching American Idol right from the start. “As a little girl, I was in love with Kelly Clarkson.” But James was so busy traveling and performing that she didn’t consider going on a television show, until she auditioned for The Voice and Rising Star. “I don’t think it was my time then,” she says. “Then the American Idol bus came to Portland, and I thought, why not!”
East Brunswick, N.J.
Favorite Alums: Katharine McPhee, Ace Young
Formative listening: Pink Floyd, the Beatles
Jax says her family had great musical tastes. “We’d listen to CDs on car rides. ‘Rocky Raccoon’ was my jam. My pre-school teacher didn’t believe me when I said I listened to the Beatles until I sang ‘With a Little Help from My Friends.'”
Jax knew from an early age where she belonged. “I was on stage before I could read. And I’ve always loved to write, whether it’s music or general writing.” As a child she won her dream role, playing Annie in the stage musical. “Reading scripts taught me how to memorize, which helps with learning songs for Idol.”
Watching American Idol was a “family thing” for Jax. “I had an Ace Young poster hanging in my closet. He was my first boy crush. I was obsessed with him. One day my parents surprised me. A limo came to our house and took us to the season five summer tour.”
Jax, who auditioned in Brooklyn with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” says she always wanted to audition for Idol while she was growing up. She asked herself two questions: “Could I get up on that stage in front of the whole world? Could I pull off what Katharine McPhee pulled off?”
As a fan of Janis Joplin, Stevie Nicks and Joan Jett, Jax says she believes in “woman power,” and that one of her goals is, “to inspire young women.”
Tyanna Jones, 16
Favorite Alum: Fantasia
Formative Listening: Gospel music
First Idol Experience: Getting inspired by season three’s Fantasia
At the age of five, Tyanna Jones told her mother, a choir director at their church, that she wanted to sing at a service. “I sang ‘Joyful Joyful’ and everybody applauded. It was awesome. I asked her if I could sing some more.” Eventually Jones didn’t have to ask because her mother told her that people wanted her to sing. And Jones knew what she wanted to do with her life. “The only career I ever thought about was singing.”
Jonese knew at 16 she would try out for Idol. Growing up, she found different competitions to enter. And when she hit the new eligibility age of 15, her mother said, “What about Idol?” At this point, the only audition city left was San Francisco, and the family couldn’t afford to make the trip from Jacksonville, Fla. “Our church helped raise money. Every weekend, there would be an extra collection basket that said, ‘This is for Tyanna and her mom to go to San Francisco.'”
The trip across the country was only Jones’ second time on an airplane. “The flight was really long and I was nervous,” she laughs. At the first round of her audition, she made a last-minute decision to sing Priscilla Renea‘s “Doll House” and was asked to sing something that would sound more like a 16-year-old girl who wants to be a pop star. She switched to “Wings” by Little Mix – and was sent through to the next round.
Jones is a junior at West Side High School in Jacksonville. “They’ve put up posters at school and announced that people should watch Wednesdays and Thursdays,” she says. “My principal is very supportive.”
Loren Lott, 22
San Diego, Calif.
Formative Listening: Michael Jackson, Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, Disney princess songs, classical music
First Idol Experience: Watching when she was 10
When Loren Lott was growing up, her favorite singer was her grandmother. “I heard her sing opera when I was four,” says the native San Diegoan. Lott started singing in church and at the age of seven, played Molly in a production of Annie. “When the audience cheered, I knew I wanted to do this forever.”
Lott remembers Idol judges telling people they were too ‘theatrical.’ I want to be on Broadway, so that scared me from auditioning. I had a huge fear of being judged in front of America. My dream is to play Nala in The Lion King. I’m too scared to audition for that, so I thought, let me audition for American Idol.”typical ’90s kid all the way.”
The 22-year-old, whose favorite songs are “Treasure” by Bruno Mars and “Saving All My Love for You” by Whitney Houston, says she has already learned valuable lessons from her Idol journey. “There are a lot of opinions coming at you. Trust yourself. And make someone happy. That someone could be you or it could be God. Someone is happy because of what I’m doing.”
Rayvon Owen, 23
Formative Listening: Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie, Katy Perry
First Idol Experience: watching season 1
Rayvon Owen first became enamored of music as a child. “I sang with the Sunbeam Choir at Antioch Baptist Church,” he recalls. “My mom played gospel CDs in the car.” Owen had a boom box and listened to different radio stations, including the “Quiet Storm” format. “When I was older I listened to a lot of pop.”
Owen took notice that people were moved and uplifted by his church singing. “The feedback was surprising,” he notes. He joined the Richmond Boys Choir in middle school, and later the Harlem Boys Choir, singing everything from barbershop to patriotic songs. “It taught me professionalism and inspired me to know I could do this as a career.”
As soon as he turned 16, Owen went to Philadelphia to audition. “Bo Bice was there and it was surreal.” This year marked Owen’s fifth time auditioning for Idol, but as many before him have learned, if you have the talent, never give up.
Daniel Seavey, 15
Favorite Alums: Andrew Garcia, Burnell Taylor, Blake Lewis
Formative Listening: Worship music, Norah Jones, Adele
First Idol Experience: Staging shows with family members playing the judges
Daniel Seavey has already made American Idol history. Born in 1999, he is the youngest top 24 finalist ever, the first to be born as late as ’99. The 15-year-old’s earliest memory of music is sitting in the family bathroom while his mother fixed her hair. “I asked if she was playing the song ‘Ode to Joy’ and she said, ‘No, I’m spraying my hair.'” But the sound the aerosol hairspray made reminded Daniel of the famous song. By the age of six, he was banging on the keys of his little toy piano, playing songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” but also making up original songs, “mostly in the key of C,” he laughs.
Seavey’s favorite artists include Ed Sheeran, Jimmy Needham and Mali Music. At six, Seavey was taught to play violin by a neighbor. At 10, his father bought him a guitar. In sixth grade, he was in the school orchestra, where he learned to play cello and viola. He only took six months of piano lessons and since then has learned to play by ear. He also plays mandolin, ukulele, bass and drums.
Seavey remembers being a fan of Jordin Sparks, thinking that if someone that young could compete on Idol, he could start early, too. Reaching the eligbility age this season, his dad suggested making the 20-minute drive to Portland, Ore., for the bus tour auditions. But Seavey was scheduled to be away in Mexico on a missions trip with his youth group. “My dad said he promised, so he asked me if I wanted to go to the San Francisco auditions the following week.”
The high school sophomore auditioned with “Hallelujah,” “Sunday Morning,” and Andrew Garcia’s version of Paula Abdul‘s “Straight Up.” “His version was so cool,” says the 15-year-old.
Michael Simeon, 21
Favorite Alum: Carrie Underwood
Formative Listening: Gospel, contemporary Christian, Radio Disney
First Idol Experience: Watching season one
Michael Simeon’s mother was a show choir director. ‘I’d be in my playpen during her practices so I was singing before I can remember. I made up a fried chicken opera. By fourth grade, he was listening to country, R&B, hip-hop and pop. Usher and John Mayer were favorites. When he was 10, he sang Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” in a school play. He felt nervous before, but with the first word out of his mouth, the nerves disappeared and he felt the emotion in the song.
After watching season one of Idol, Simeon saw the lone season of the spin-off series, American Juniors. “That’s my first memory of wanting to be on Idol. I knew I could do that.”
When he turned 16, Simeon auditioned for season nine of Idol. He sang “A Whole New World” from Aladdin and although he didn’t make it, he was told to come back and try again. “Last season the bus tour came to Oxford and all of my fraternity brothers said I should try out.” One of a dozen candidates sent on to an audition in Salt Lake City, Simeon made it to Hollywood Week but was cut from the top 48. “I was initially upset but as time went by, I realized it was an incredible opportunity and I would totally do it again.”
Simeon tried out for this season at the New Orleans audition, but didn’t win a golden ticket. “I thought about it for a few weeks and went to Nashville to audition.” This time, his rendition of Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” won him a trip to Hollywood, and something extra – a memorable slow dance with Jennifer Lopez.
Maddie Walker, 17
Favorite Alum: Carrie Underwood
Formative Listening: Taylor Swift
First Idol Experience: Watching when she was “itty bitty”
Maddie Walker’s mother loves rock music – and she loves to sing. “I did my own thing,” says Walker, who prefers country. “I’ve been singing since I was three,” she says. “The first thing I remember is singing ‘Twinkle,Twinkle, Little Star’ at church. People said, ‘Oh, that’s so cute.'”
Walker has known she wanted to sing since she was very little. “A back-up plan? I never thought of it,” she admits.
Walker’s mom has photos of four-year-old Maddie watching Idol . “I would stand in the fireplace and say, I’m going to be the next American Idol . ” So it’s no surprise the teenager tried out as soon as she turned 15. “Last year I made it to the group round [of Hollywood Week]. I took a break from singing for a couple of months and told myself I wasn’t going to audition again. But then I realized it was a really good experience.”
Walker tried out again this year in Brooklyn, singing Gwen Sebastian’s “Suitcase.” Now, she says she’s already learned a lot from her Idol journey. “I’m not a trained singer. It’s crazy how much I’ve learned from the other contestants, from people who have had lessons.”
Walker is a junior in high school, taking classes online. She has three younger brothers and a younger sister. Perhaps there’ll be another Walker on Idol in a decade or so. “I tell my little brother he should sing, but he’s super-shy.”
Quentin Alexander, 20
New Orleans, La.
Favorite Alums: Jena Irene, Fantasia, Ruben Studdard
Formative Listening: Erykah Badu, Sade, Brian McKnight
First Idol Experience: When Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini sang the same song, talked with his family about who did it better
Quentin Alexander first became aware of music when he was five. “Mom says I would bang on the pots and pans. I’d hear a song in one of my favorite movies and sing the track. I’d get pen and paper and try to write down the lyrics.”
Alexander describes himself as being a “nerdy kid.” “I was very imaginative. I thought being a spy was a possibility. Or a paleontologist. I wanted to study everything that was very ancient. I love things that are old and have a deeper meaning. Cooking was a passion in high school.”
In middle school, Alexander joined the band. He played trumpet and attempted drums but that didn’t happen for him. He also concentrated on acting. He enrolled in college as a mass communications and broadcasting major.
He first auditioned for Idol in 2012. “I made it through but I wasn’t ready for it to happen just then. I needed to grow and develop. I was told to work on my pitch and tone and find out who I am. That has been my journey. I’ve constantly been singing and have been teaching myself how to harmonize, breathe and stay on pitch.”
Mark Andrew, 29
Formative Listening: Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Beatles
First Idol Experience: Remembers watching with his folks
Mark Andrew grew up listening to the “oldies,” music from the ’60s and ’70s, thanks to his parents’ “huge” record collection. “I got my first guitar when I was 12 and was a drummer before that. My brother had been playing bass and I took guitar lessons. I got more into it in middle school and high school. When I was older, my brother was in an outlaw country band, playing Waylon [Jennings] and Willie [Nelson].”
Andrew wrote his first song at 13 and had 10 original tunes by the time he was 18. “I still play them,” he says. “I write country-style lyrics with more aggressive rhythms and big guitar parts.”
As a member of Team Shakira on season four of The Voice, Andrew was eliminated in a battle round. Friends encouraged him to try out for Idol as this year was his last shot, since he was 28 when auditions were being held. “Idol focuses more on artists,” he believes. Andrew sang the Allman Brothers’ 1994 album track “Soulshine” for the judges. “Keith [Urban] said it was very fitting for my vocal tone.” Then Mark performed “I Wan’na Be Like You” from The Jungle Book and the judges “ate it up. It’s a song I’ve been doing for a really long time.”
When he’s not playing gigs, Andrew supports his wife and son by working in his family’s landscape construction business. “During the winters I work in pizza places,” he says. “I make a mean pizza.”
Riley Bria, 18
Spring Hill, Tenn.
Formative Listening: Def Leppard, Warrant, Metallica, Keith Urban
Before his family moved to Tennessee to pursue music, Riley Bria grew up in Lancaster, Pa., where his dad was music director of the family band while his mother booked their gigs. She’s the one who came up with the idea of three of her sons starting a band. “My younger brother played guitar and my older brother played drums,” says Bria. They called themselves Headstrong, and later, Levi Road.
Before the creation of the family band, Bria played guitar in his sixth grade talent show. “We did ‘Eye of the Tiger.’ It wasn’t that good but we had so much fun. I decided I would be a singer. The family band’s first gig was at a church talent show. I was 12 and we sang ‘The Middle’ by Jimmy Eat World.”
Almost three years ago, Bria attended a summer Grammy Camp for youngsters who wanted to be in the music business. From there, he was invited to join Keith Urban on stage, playing guitar on the American Country Awards in December 2012. “Keith got me converted to country music. He’s the blueprint for everything I’ve done,” says the 18-year-old who sang Urban’s “Georgia Woods” when he went before the Idol judges in Nashville. Urban remembered Bria from the ACA broadcast. “He explained our back story. It was surreal.”
Joey Cook, 23
Favorite Alums: Clay Aiken, Brooke White
Formative Listening: Disney soundtracks, Prince, Chaka Khan, ’80s hair metal, Britney Spears, ’N Sync
First Idol Experience: Watching season one
Joey Cook was inspired to sing by her mother. “We’d go on car rides and sing Lion King duets together.” The family inherited an organ from a friend. “They take all the credit for my music, because I started playing the organ, imitating a commercial jingle.” Cook was five when her mother suggested piano lessons.
Cook remembers her first CD. “It was a free one you got at McDonald’s with a happy meal.” In elementary school, she surprised her teacher and fellow students. “They expected me to sing a Christina Aguilera song, and instead I did ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses.’ I liked Broadway a lot when I was little.”
Cook vividly remembers watching the first three seasons of Idol when she was a child. “I got a little bit salty when Clay [Aiken] didn’t win.”
Cook says she always wanted to audition for Idol. “But as a little kid, I was shy when it came to music. I was secretive about it, even in high school. My grandpa asked me to audition this year. He said, ‘I’ve always wanted you to do this. I’m not asking for much.’ I had never auditioned for any kind of show and I said no. I didn’t know where I would fit in. I was living in Newport News and Chris Jacobson [owner of music venue Victorian Station] sent in a video without telling me. He called me three days before the Idol bus tour came to Richmond. I originally said no but I knew my grandpa was going to love this.”
Cook won a fast pass to the next step. “I saved up money for the 16-hour road trip to the Kansas City auditions.” Expect anything from Cook this season. Her favorite song is Billie Holiday‘s version of “My Funny Valentine” and her favorite album is Vampire Weekend’s Contra.
Sarina-Joi Crowe, 19
Formative Listening: Stevie Nicks, Barbra Streisand, Tina Turner, Jessie J, Demi Lovato
First Idol Experience: Everyone in her family was excited when Ruben Studdard won season two
Sarina-Joi Crowe had a musical inspiration in her own home. “My mom was a singer and was playing music all the time. I did my first solo in the church choir when I was five, singing ‘Jesus Loves Me.’ At 10, I wanted to move to Nashville and be a singer. In my hometown, I was known as the little girl who sang.”
Crowe never took a vocal lesson, but she had plenty of real-life experience, singing at banquets and performing the National Anthem at local events. “I did a lot of studio work, recording demos. In high school I was in the choir and in college studied music theory.”
One of her high school teachers strongly suggested that when she turned 16, she should try out for Idol. When the age limit dropped to 15, Crowe auditioned for season 10 in Nashville. “I didn’t think I had a shot. The next thing I knew, I was in Hollywood.” She didn’t become a finalist but undeterred, she tried out again during seasons 12 and 13. “I thought that was going to be my last year, but J-Lo told me I was getting better and to please come back next season. I said ‘thank you,’ but I didn’t know if I would.”
When auditions were held in Nashville for season 14, Crowe was there. “Mom said we had come full circle. I thought the show would be sick of seeing me but mom told me you can’t worry what other people think of you.” When Crowe was successful this time, she says she was “honestly shocked.”
Trevor Douglas, 16
Fort Worth, Tx.
Formative Listening: Ed Sheeran, Eminem, John Mayer
Music has always been a part of Trevor Douglas’ life. The earliest song he remembers liking is ‘Go the Distance’ from Disney’s Hercules. “I saw a cartoon with a violin dancing around so I wanted to play the violin. And the sax. I learned to play the fiddle in school. I loved School of Rock and wanted to play rock music.”
Douglas has other interests, too. “I really like science. Also acting,” says the student who is taking theater classes at the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas. He is considering attending Cornell University.
Douglas says that when he was younger, he wasn’t interested in singing competitions on television. “I used to look at it as cheating. But no, these people are so talented and make good music.” His Idol journey began in Los Angeles where he was in an artists development program that led to a gig at Disney’s California Adventure. Someone from the Idol production staff spoke at one of his classes, but when his teacher suggested Douglas sing for him, the teenager resisted. After a change of heart, the 16-year-old sang Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire,” and was encouraged to try out for the show. “My mom and a friend and I packed sandwiches and drove to the auditions.”
Nick Fradiani, 29
Favorite Alums: Chris Daughtry
Formative Listening: Beatles, Rob Thomas, David Gray, Goo Goo Dolls, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, OneRepublic, Justin Timberlake, John Mayer
First Idol Experience: Watching Kelly Clarkson because his mother “was really into Idol”
“My father is a musician,” says Nick Fradiani. “He traveled a lot, playing Las Vegas and on cruise ships. My mother and I traveled with him. It was a great environment. I was listening to the Beatles when I was five. There are videos of me on stage with him when I was six. He never forced music on me. He always wanted to be more athletic and he pushed me into sports. I was a basketball player in high school. But music never left me.”
Fradiani continued to play basketball in college until he tore a couple of ligaments in his ankle, which kept him off the court for a couple of months. “I had been so busy with sports. Now I had time to play guitar.” Fradiani’s father knew a lot of booking agents in Connecticut and helped his son find gigs. “I’ve never been a solo artist. I formed a band.” With his group Beach Avenue, Fradiani competed on America’s Got Talent but suffered elimination.
Fradiani didn’t consider trying out for Idol until it was almost too late. “Once in a while people would say I should go on. I didn’t know the cut-off age. My mother really wanted me to do it and I was looking for ways to get my music out there and Idol is such a great venue to do that. Now that I’m part of it, I’ve gone back and studied how some people succeeded. Song choice is important and being genuine. It’s a fascinating show.”
Alexis Gomez, 22
Favorite Alum: Carrie Underwood
Formative Listening: Martina McBride, Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Reba McEntire, Shania Twain
First Idol experience: Family was obsessed from the beginning
Alexis Gomez credits her father for her interest in music. “He played guitar and sang with a family band, Grow. As I got older, he taught me to sing and play. My first gig with the band was when I was eight, at a coffee shop in Centerville.” Gomez says she has always wanted to make music. “I knew this was a big dream to chase after and I wanted to be realistic.”
The first person in her family to graduate from college, Gomez has a degree in Spanish education. “I always said it takes 10 years to be an overnight success. When I was 17, I knew I was going to give music my all. If I haven’t made it by 27, I’ll be a Spanish teacher.”
This year marked Gomez’s third time auditioning for Idol. “I auditioned for seasons 10 and 12,” she says. You have to have a thick skin. When the feedback wasn’t good, I used that to motivate myself. I never walked away from Idol.”
When Gomez records her first album, you can count on hearing some original songs. “When I was 14, I wrote my first song with my dad. “Lovin” You” is about the idea of being in love. It’s still one of my favorites.”
Qaasim Middleton, 19
Formative Listening: Stevie Wonder
First Idol Experience: Watched a little bit of season one and then all of season two
Qaasim Middleton remembers singing when he was two years old, though his parents say he was beat boxing at six months. “When I was in the womb, my mother played Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life album. That’s my anthem. When I started writing original songs people would mistake my songs for his.”
Studying black history in elementary school, Middleton entered a Malcolm X essay contest. He won first place with a narrative piece but wrote a second essay that was a song. “I wrote about Malcolm X’s life in a poetic way and put it to a melody.”
Middleton’s parents are both professional musicians. His mother, Toni Seawright, was Miss Mississippi in 1987 and went on to star in The Wiz on Broadway. She has sung backing vocals for Tina Turner, Teena Marie and Laura Branigan, among many others. His father, Keith Middleton, was a cast member of the stage musical Stomp for 20 years. “I learned a lot of my showmanship and artistry from them,” Middleton acknowledges.
After appearing on Nickelodeon’s The Naked Brothers Band, Mddleton tried out for American Idol because a friend of his mother’s sent her a link to a listing of where and when auditions were being held. “We had auditioned for other shows [The Voice, America’s Got Talent, The X Factor] but I said I don’t know if this is for me. My mother said I should do this one so I said alright, let’s go.” Middleton sang an original song, “Pride,” and advanced to the next round.
Shi Scott, 19
Formative Listening: Prince, Queen, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder
First Idol Experience: Wanting to stay up to watch but was so young her parents told her it was bedtime
Like many of her fellow season 14 finalists, Shi Scott was born into a musical family. “My dad was a dancer and a DJ who loved soul and house music. My mother loves classical music and was a music teacher who sings, and plays piano and sax. We all sing and we all dance.” Living in this environment, Scott started singing before she was talking. “It sounded like gibberish but it was my own language.”
Scott first auditioned for Idol when she was 15. “I’ve always looked at myself objectively. I knew I wasn’t ready. It was a long day and I remember sleeping on the concrete.”
Scott wrote her first song when she was eight, but says she was 14 when she wrote her first “real” song. It was titled “Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall.” “I haven’t written a love song,” she explains. “All my songs end up being about human nature, how humans treat other humans.”
Scott says her retro soul vocals remind some people of Amy Winehouse. “I didn’t listen to her in high school but people tell me I’m channeling her.” But there’s no doubt which artists have had the strongest influence on Scott. Her favorite album is Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions and her favorite single is Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Katherine Winston, 18
Favorite Alums: Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert, Hayley Reinhart, Casey Abrams, Phillip Phillips, Alex Lambert
Formative Listening: Avril Lavigne, Shania Twain, Johnny Cash, Tim McGraw
First Idol Experience: Watching Kelly Clarkson compete
Music always played an important role in Katherine Winston’s family, with everyone playing an instrument. “My mom is an amazing singer and my little sister sings a lot.” At five, Winston was performing with her family at community events and by 13 she was gigging by herself, doing shows at local restaurants.
An Idol watcher from season one, Winston would gather around the TV with her entire family when the show aired. “Once I was grounded for trouble in school and I wasn’t allowed to watch TV.” With the rest of her family viewing American Idol, young Winston hid outside the door and watched from a distance.
She was waiting to become old enough to audition and tried out for season 12. “As much as it hurt to get a no, I realize if I had made it then I wouldn’t be as happy as I am now.”
Don’t be surprised if Winston sings an original song on the show; she wrote her first composition, “The Battle,” at age 11. She finds inspiration while reading books. Her latest song was written after reading a tome on iron mill workers. “I Worry” tells the story of a wife concerned that her husband might not make it safely home from the ironworks.
Savion Wright, 22
Favorite Alums: David Cook, Adam Lambert
Formative Listening: John Mayer, Carole King, Coldplay, Eric Clapton, Burt Bacharach, James Taylor
First Idol Experience: Knowing during season three that he wanted to be on the show
Like his siblings, Savion Wright grew up in church because his father is a pastor. “We were all enveloped in music,” says Wright. “I started singing at four. I did my first choir solo when I was nine, performing “I Am a Promise.”
Wright was 12 when he picked up the guitar. He liked it so much, he stopped singing at 14 to focus on playing instruments, adding sax, ukulele, piano and harmonica to his repertoire. He was inspired to sing again when he performed Sam Cooke‘s “A Change Is Gonna Come” for his father. “He’s from Mississippi and is connected to its history. He gave me this look of excitement, sorrow and surprise. He said, ‘I didn’t know you could sing like that.'”
Wright wrote his first song, “Dark Side of Me,” when he was 17. “It was four in the morning. I woke up my roommate to play it for him. He said, ‘Dude, you have a hit!'”
A pre-med student who intended to be a doctor, Wright auditioned for season 13 of Idol. “I was trying to open that door and explore who I could be. I had studied the show. I had a notebook for every season, writing down the names of the top 12, the themes, the song order and the judges’ comments.”
Although he didn’t make the top 12, he was encouraged by what the judges told him. “Jennifer said, ‘We’d love to see you again.” Harry [Connick, Jr.] said to persevere. Keith agreed.” Wright spent the rest of the year touring as much as he could. “I picked up my guitar and busked.”
Now Wright is waiting for what might be the best birthday present of his life. He turns 23 on the day Idol will announce this year’s top finalists.
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