Soul singer Taylor Hicks. Broadway songstress Katharine McPhee. Country crooner Kellie Pickler. Modern rocker Chris Daughtry. Power balladeer Elliott Yamin. Southern rocker Bucky Covington.
The season-five contestants remain some of the most indelible figures in “American Idol” history.
“People always talk about the judges, but this show is about the contestants. Season five is the most-watched season in large part because you had so many great singers,” says Shirley Halperin, author of “American Idol: Celebrating 10 Years (The Official Backstage Pass).”
Maybe more than any other season, this season proved the importance of voting. McPhee quickly established herself as a talented beauty, Pickler showed a genuine affinity for country music and Daughtry’s powerful professional style won over many of the established musicians who guested on the season. However, none of them would win.
It was Alabama-bred Hicks who would take the victory lap, even after Simon Cowell famously announced that he didn’t understand Hicks’ appeal to the audience. But Hicks was never worried about Cowell’s comments. Instead, he stuck to what had made him popular and relied on his self-titled “Soul Patrol” fan group and song choices.
“I believe in singing songs that people know,” said Hicks during his run to the top. “When someone is watching at home, they have to be able to sing along with you — all the way to the kitchen and then back to the TV room.”
It’s that kind of strategic thinking that helped Hicks walk away with the win, according to Halperin.
“There have been a few contestants on ‘Idol’ who have been especially good at planning how their moves in the competition,” Halperin says. “Hicks is definitely one of them because he was able to step back from it all, pick the right songs and understand his own strengths.”
Halperin is also quick to point out that it doesn’t hurt to be from the South if you want to win on this show. She thinks it may have given Hicks an edge in the finals against California girl McPhee, since large blocks of voters reside in Southern states.
It wasn’t just Hicks that got a career boost, however. A handful of the “Idol” contestants were rewarded with recording contracts after the season. McPhee, Yamin, Daughtry and Pickler all had distribution deals with Sony BMG Music Entertainment. Covington was distributed by Universal Music Group.
“Anyone who gets to stand on that stage is blessed,” Hicks says. “Even if you don’t win ‘American Idol,’ having that kind of exposure is the best way to break into this business.”
TOP 5 MOMENTS
- Michael Sandecki got the surprise of his life in the season finale when he sang “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” with his hero, Clay Aiken.
- The shocking elimination of Chris Daughtry after weeks of inspired, strong performances. Lesson learned? Don’t assume anyone is safe and be sure to vote.
- When Katharine McPhee wore a memorable yellow dress, she wanted to cast herself as a gorgeous diva but a small wardrobe malfunction (one popped button) became the news.
- Elliott Yamin’s breakout performance of “Trouble” raised the bar and announced to the world — and his fellow contestants — that, as Randy Jackson would say, he’s in it to win it.
- When Prince made a surprise appearance on the finale, the show became much more than a place to determine the season’s winner but a place where established musicians found a place to reach a massive audience.
Taylor Hicks has gone on to release multiple albums, a book and tour throughout the world. And he’s very clear about what it takes to succeed as a performer: “I think the experience on ‘Idol’ was excellent preparation for everything that’s happened for me since then,” Hicks says. “Six years after winning, I’m here to tell you that you’re going to have to work very hard all the time if you want to have a career in this business.” He has appeared with Tom Petty and Snoop Dogg, and participated in a national stage tour of “Grease.” Though he parted ways with Arista Records, where he had a No. 1 hit with “Do I Make You Proud,” Hicks went on releasing songs through his own company, Modern Whomp Records. He’s also mulling over some film and television roles, but can’t discuss specific projects.