Sunday, May 13, 2007

Finalists' Hometown Visits

The red carpets were rolled out for Jordin Sparks, Melinda Doolittle and Blake Lewis when they returned home on Friday, courtesy of "American Idol." You'll see highlights of the visits on Wednesday night's show before one of them is eliminated. Also on Wednesday's show, a performance by last year's third-place finisher, Elliott Yamin.

Update: Digital Spy reports that "X Factor" winner Leona Lewis is flying home from Los Angeles after falling ill while recording her debut album.

The 23-year-old singer is suffering from tonsillitis after "overdoing it" during daily recording sessions. She has been working with Clive Davis, the man who launched Whitney Houston's career, and is expected to meet a September deadline.

"She has been overdoing it. The expectations on her are so great," her dad Joe told the Sunday Mirror. "She's in the studio every day, late into the night. Now her producers have stopped until her voice gets better."

Leona will spend a week with her family in Hackney, East London, while she recovers.

So unless her segment for the Idol results show was taped in advance, guess she won't be appearing.

There is also a performance by English singer and songwriter Leona Lewis, the 2006 winner of the Simon Cowell-produced " coronation song!) was released on Dec. 20, 2006. The single was also available as a digital download from midnight on Dec. 17, 2006 and broke a world record after it was downloaded 50,000 times in 30 minutes. Supposedly, she will sing her second release -- for the first time ever -- on the results show.

No matter how good she is, she is a typical Simon Cowell-shilled production. According to and Chart Rigger Cowell mentored her and has said "We'll do everything in our power to make her an international star" and "I've always said that she is the next Whitney Houston and I believe it." Cowell brought her to the U.S. in February where she was signed by the wizened Clive Davis for a five-record $9.7 million deal. On April 25, a press release announced that Simon Cowell and Clive Davis would work together in a first-of-its-kind partnership on both the song and producer selection for Leona's eagerly-awaited debut album. It was also revealed that the album would be getting a global launch this summer.

And see if any of this also sounds familiar: Some of her best performances on "The X Factor" were: "A Moment Like This" (Kelly Clarkson), "Summertime" (Fantasia) and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (Katharine McPhee). After she sang "Summertime," which Cowell personally selected for her (on a week when she was apparently mentored by Tony Bennett), Cowell raved, "You are, absolutely, the best contestant I have ever had across any of these shows, and that was an amazing performance." After she sang "Over the Rainbow," Cowell said that for him, it was the single best performance he had ever witnessed. He also commented throughout the show that Lewis' lack of awareness as to how good she is, is what makes her special and told her that she needs more self confidence (Melinda Doolittle).

Frankly, she has a good voice (when Cowell introduced her to music executives at the Beverly Hilton in February, one allegedly proclaimed her "the lovechild of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey"), but we don't think her performance of "Summertime" matched Fantasia's for emotional understanding of the lyrics or that her "A Moment Like This" is as powerful as Kelly's because of Clarkson's growly vocals. We even think Katharine McPhee, who we generally dislike, did a much finer version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." But judge for yourself.

View video of her first release, "A Moment Like This," a collage of her appearances on "The X Factor," in which Cowell is prominently featured:

To view video of "Summertime click here" (from "The X Factor" on which Cowell was her mentor).

To view video of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow click here" (from "The X Factor" on which Cowell was her mentor).

But back to our Idols. Here are summaries of their hometown experiences:

MELINDA DOOLITTLE: Back before she was an "American Idol" finalist, Melinda Doolittle was a Belmont University mascot. She wore a hot, sweaty bear costume and jumped around in the name of school spirit.

The Tennessean and the Washington Post report that several thousand people gathered on the campus of Belmont on Friday to welcome Melinda, 29, back to her alma mater (she graduated with a music degree in 1999), some arriving as early as 6 a.m.

As the Brentwood resident arrived sitting in the back of a white Mustang convertible, her fans lined both sides of the street. Many were wearing red shirts with the logo "Belmont ♥ Melinda Doolittle" and waving signs in the air. Doolittle wiped away tears with both hands and looked up to the sky momentarily before waving to the cheering crowd. "Wow. This is probably one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced, and it's so good to be home," Doolittle said.

Belmont president Robert Fisher led Doolittle to the unveiling of a new blue street sign that read "Melinda Doolittle Way." That sign indicates more than just the street’s temporary name for the month, Fisher said. "Melinda Dolittle Way is the way to live life," Fisher said. Doolittle's hands began shaking and then she gasped and covered her mouth when she saw her name on the side of the street she likely walked so many times as a student.

After taking the stage, she said, "I'm a mess. OK, my mom is worse than I am, so I'm OK."

Doolittle’s family filled the first two rows, traveling from North Carolina, Illinois and other places to attend the day’s festivities.

"We at Belmont have known for a long time what America is just finding out and that's just how good you are," Fisher said. "What America needs is an idol like you, someone who lives their life like you." Fisher then proclaimed it Melinda Doolittle Day. "I think it ought to be a year, don't you?" Fisher asked.

Fisher told the crowd he voted for Doolittle 25 times during last week's show. "I promise 50 votes this week if the rest of you will do it," he said. People in the crowd began yelling, "You've gotta win," "We love you, Melinda" and "We know you're gonna win."

The famously shy Doolittle didn't change her demeanor even though she was back on familiar ground. "Gol-lee, just thank you, thank you, and thank you again," Doolittle said. "I can't believe this. If I talk too much, I'll cry. You have no idea how much this means to me. ... This is probably one of the most amazing things I've ever experienced."

During a lull in the production, a fan screamed,
"Vote Melinda 2008," and another chimed in, "Melinda for President." "No way," she replied.

Doolittle said she was glad to be home, even if just for an afternoon. "I just got some sweet tea, so I'm happy. Now I need some candied yams and greens and I'll be great."

Doolittle sang, "Home," but the sound went out several times during the show because of production problems. She also sang "Since You've Been Gone," her voice even more powerful live than on television. It’s likely her voice carried across the Belmont campus to Music Row.

Ironically, her mother, Marguerite Doolittle, said her daughter was tone deaf until about the sixth grade. She couldn't carry a tune to save her life. "God really dropped a voice into her in the seventh grade," her mother said. "It's been so exciting watching this, because it was not there before. It's like seeing a miracle, really."

Doolittle said what she has learned from her Idol experience is, "You can dream so big and God can take it farther than you ever thought."

"She's very talented, and she's also very sweet and personable," said Susan Belsante of Charlotte, N.C.

Belsante has a daughter at Belmont and a son graduating from nearby Vanderbilt University. She felt a little guilty about it, but she skipped the commencement speech at her son's graduation so she could come cheer Doolittle.

"I went 'Let's see,' " she said, holding up both hands like a scale, "commencement speech or Melinda Doolittle. I had to go with Melinda Doolittle."

Doolittle began her morning at the Wildhorse Saloon where she appeared on the local Foxshow "Tennessee Mornings," and was scheduled to meet Gov. Phil Bredesen at an afternoon press conference at the state capitol.

Here are links to Melinda’s Nashville radio interview. There are four parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

BLAKE LEWIS: AP and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer report that the scene was just as raucous in Seattle, where Lewis, 25, played a free concert before more than a thousand fans at Westlake Park. He was joined onstage by Seattle's own Sir Mix-A-Lot, who sang his hit "Baby Got Back" over what many in the crowd came to see: Lewis' beat-boxing.

Sir Mix gave Lewis plenty of respect. "I've been wanting to do this ever since I saw this cat on TV," he told the crowd. "Every time you watch 'American Idol,' you see people that can sing, and that's it," Mix-A-Lot said to wild applause. "This cat got real talent. ... He's the new king of Sea-town, baby." But while Blakemania took over the region Friday, its object kept his cool.

Lewis attracted several thousand fans at events in Bothell and downtown Seattle. At an afternoon parade and concert in Bothell, an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people screamed, cheered and followed Bothell's favorite son. Lewis, seated between his mother, Dinah, who was wearing a Blaker Girls T-shirt, and his father, Dallas, rode in a blue Mustang convertible. He blew kisses, waved and at one point stood up in the car and gave his fans a hand.

Ear-piercing shrieks followed Lewis down Main Street to Bothell Landing, where fans ignored police requests to stay back. The crowd weaved between cars stopped on Bothell Way and state Route 527. Cyclists on the Burke-Gilman Trail paused to take in the spectacle. Everyone said they'd never seen such a huge crowd in Bothell, not even for the Fourth of July. Watch video (Click on "Bothell Parade for American Idol Finalist Blake Lewis" and "Mayor of Bothell With Dallas, Dinah and Blake Lewis")

Among those greeting him was Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. A fax from Paula Abdul arrived announcing that next week Blake would sing "Roxanne." Lewis took the stage, thanked the crowd for their warm support.

One thing Lewis didn't do was predict that he's going to win the competi-
tion. That, he said, likely would happen for Jordin Sparks, the teenager from Glendale, Ariz. But Lewis said his first goal was to get into the to top 10, and then the top four. Of course, he wouldn't mind winning, either. "If it happens, great. If not, I'm so happy I got sent home yesterday. When I made the goal of the top four, that was the goal," said Lewis, who said his musical heroes are the band 311 and musician/producer BT.

And despite criticism of too much beatboxing in his performances, he said he won't shy away if it feels right. "If I feel the performance needs it, I don't care," he said. "I've gotten, you know, criticism for my hair and wearing the wrong shirt. Criticism's criticism. It doesn't really affect me."

Knees bouncing and right hand "air mixing" in his trade-
mark dance style, Lewis performed five songs at Westlake, including Keane's "Somewhere Only We Know" and Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity." He also did an original song, "She Loves the Way."

Local pride was on display, along with signs of support. The messages ranged from "Blake is a hottie," to "Blake, U R the bomb," to "Vote 4 Blake." Handpainted T-shirts proclaimed, "I ♥ ♥ ♥ Blake," and "Marry me, Blake."

Pat Monahan, lead singer of Train, whipped up the crowd ranging from newborns to middle-age moms and dads, by introducing Lewis as: "Your own, your one and only American Idol, Mr. Blake Lewis."

Not surprising-
ly, many there were teen and preteen girls, some of whom had skipped school to follow their idol.
They screamed and waved signs that read "Blaker Girls" or "We ♥ Blake."

Paula Rogers, 31, brought her son Wyatt, 22 months, with a "Vote for Blake" sticker on his baby backpack. "I just fell in love with Blake Lewis on this show, because I feel like he changed 'American Idol' with a new sound," said Rogers, who added that the show usually sounds so Top 40 and predictable. She owns Nectar, a Fremont lounge where Lewis has performed numerous times.

Kayleigh Olds, 14, of Graham had secured her spot front and center with three friends by showing up at 8 a.m. "He doesn't try to copy the song exactly. He makes it his own," she said.

Diana Ortiz, 19, who traveled with a friend from Vancou-
ver, Canada, to see Lewis perform, said he's unique. "I think he's the only one who doesn't care when the judges say 'Do this or do that,' " she said. "He's true to himself."

Jonathan Douglas, 8, held a sign declaring himself Lewis' No. 1 fan. "I like the beatboxing he's been doing. I think he's going to go all the way," the youngster said. His mother, Marie Douglas, said, "He's like a breath of fresh air because he's so different. She added that she couldn't tell her son they were going to see Lewis on Friday or the boy wouldn't have been able to fall asleep.

Blaire Ginnever, a 14-year-old eighth-grader, said she was skipping her lunch period and Spanish class at Villa Academy in Seattle. "Blake es muy bueno," she said.

Ginnever's mom, Marilyn, was also in the crowd, and said she didn't mind that her daughter was missing school. "It's the end of the year, and this is big for Seattle," she said. "We follow the show. It's kind of a family event, and rooting for a hometown boy makes it special."

Before reading a proclama-
tion, Seattle City Council-
woman Jean Godden -- clad in a hot pink blouse and a black leather jacket -- shouted to the feverish crowd, "What's today?!" "Blake Lewis Day!!" they shouted back.

She read a proclamation placing the "renowned beat-box musician" in a local tradition that includes Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones, Ann and Nancy Wilson, Nirvana, Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie. The proclamation ended, "And, whereas all of Seattle anticipates that Blake Lewis will become the next 'American Idol,' therefore be it resolved by the city of Seattle that May 11 be proclaimed as Blake Lewis Day."

In between the morning public events and the midday concert, Lewis snagged some private time with friends at the Space Needle, resting his voice. Then he rode the monorail over to Westlake Center. On Thursday night he had a rehearsal and a private party with friends before staying at a downtown hotel. He said he planned to catch the Blue Scholars at The Showbox Friday night.

The biggest question that trailed Lewis from event to event was whether his voice can sustain a long day of singing, interviews, fan interaction and more. He had moments of hoarseness, but fans hope three days of rest before the next "Idol" sing-off will help.

His prescrip-
tion for handling all the hype and the pressure is: "Keep doing me. Keep true to myself." He later added: "I just hope everyone sees how much fun I'm having, because I'm having a blast. The only thing I hope comes across is that I'm communicating my song well with everyone each week."

His main ambition, he said, is to pursue his music. A lifelong dream, he added, is to host and be the musical guest on "Saturday Night Live." He did drop that he hasn't lived by the curfew the show sets for its contestants and goes out just about every night -- to see live music. "They call me the rebel for that," he said. "I'm not 12 and I don't need to be baby-sat. For me, I get all my inspiration from going to live music and being around passionate people."

Friday morning at the KCPG/13 studios he per-
"All Mixed Up" live, followed by some freestyling with the aid of his loop machine and a chaos pad. Watch video (Click on "Exclusive: American Idol Finalist Blake Lewis Performs Live")

Lewis' homecoming plans included a performance of the national anthem at the Mariners-Yankees game Friday night. He looked out on the crowd in the warm midday sunshine and said: "I'm speechless. Thank you guys for all the support."

Lewis said the hometown support, especially for an
"eclectic artist," has been amazing. He called the "American Idol" winnowing process and its attendant fame "surreal," and said he hadn't watched the show before auditioning. "I'm kind of a hermit," he said. "I stick to music."

Watch more video here. See more pictures here and here.

while, in Glendale, Ariz., an estimated 5,000 fans weath-
ered 100-degree heat to see the 17-year-old Sparks, their hometown fave, according to and The Associated Press. A stage was erected in an outdoor plaza at Westgate City Center and some fans waited up to five hours to see her.

Sparks, 17, made a grand entrance 45 minutes late Friday after-
noon, perched on the back of pink Mustang convertible, as fans baked in the sun, cheering Sparks' name. Her father, former Arizona State and NFL player Phillippi Sparks, and other family members followed behind in two other convertibles.

"You guys are crazy but I love you for it," Sparks told the crowd before singing three songs that she has performed on the show: "Give Me One Reason," "Heart-
breaker" and "I Who Have Nothing." "I hope I make you proud next Tuesday," Sparks told the crowd.

Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs thanked Sparks for the recog-
nition she has brought Glendale and presented her and her family with a special city proclamation, at the bash at Westgate City Center. Officials have said the AI exposure parallels that of last January's BCS collge championship game and the upcoming Super Bowl.

After Scruggs' proclama-
tion, Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky presented Sparks with an honorary team jersey. Representatives from the Suns, Diamondbacks and Sting did the same.

Next, Sparks led the crowd in a chorus of "happy birthday" to Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart, who turned 24 that day, and who had also presented her with a team jersey. Diamondbacks president Derek Hall asked Jordin to throw the first pitch at a home game following AI's season finale.

sional volleyball players from the neigh-
boring AVP Pro Beach Volleyball tourna-
ment presented Sparks with a signed volleyball. The Suns cheerleaders gave her a commerorative basketball signed by the entire team. And Fender dropped off a custom-made guitar emblazoned with Sparks' name. The singer both plays and writes music on guitar.

In the midst of the celebration, Scruggs announced that Idol judge Simon Cowell had requested that Sparks sing "Wishing on a Star" on Tuesday's show.

Sparks fans Vicki and Earl Rayl of Phoenix made a spontan-
eous decision to see the singer at Westgate. They arrived at the complex around 2 p.m. and camped out with a bag of sunscreen and bottles of water. "We figure we might as well get the concert while it's on the house, because I figure her next concert won't be free," Vicki said.

Earlier in the day, Sandra Day O'Connor High School also held a cele-
bration. Sparks was a student at the school until her sophomore year, when she left to become home-schooled and pursue a musical career. Friday afternoon, the school held a rally to welcome the singer.

Sparks entered the school gymnasium around 1:45 p.m., eagerly hugging former teachers and students before taking her place of honor on a makeshift stage. "Hey guys, did you miss me?" she asked while pointing out and acknowledging friends.

Sparks sang two songs,
"Broken Wing" and "To Love Some-
body," a Bee Gees song she performed this past Tuesday, drawing praise from its composer, Barry Gibb. She also told classmates that next Tuesday, she will again sing "I Who Have Nothing," a song she performed early on in the competition that got warm reviews from AI judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul.

Students in the bleachers chanted the 17-year-old's name and waved signs. The densest poster-waving section was the corner where the school's drama club sat. When she attended Sandra Day O'Connor, Sparks was "a total drama kid," said the club director, Amanda Moore.

Watch video of the three songs that Jordin sang at Westgate City Center. To see more pictures of the day's events, click here.

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