Taylor Hicks, a gray-haired, brown-eyed soul singer from Birmingham, Ala., was named America's newest "Idol" on Wednesday night, beating out Katharine McPhee from Sherman Oaks in a two-hour finale to the nation's No. 1 TV show.
Hicks, 29, pumped his fist into the air in victory as "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest named him the winner of the show's fifth annual competition and the audience of 3,400 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood erupted in cheers. The scruffy singer-songwriter, who had been favored to win and inspired a nationwide following with his rallying cry of "Soul Patrol!" hugged McPhee and beamed at his family and friends as confetti fell and a dazzling light show illuminated the stage.
Hicks told reporters that before the announcement, he was telling himself: "Don't fall on the floor. Don't let your knees buckle.... This is the American dream and it's come true for me."
He said he was going to hit the studio soon to make "an album with soul. It's going to have a lot of feeling. I'm an instrumentalist so I'm going to play the harmonica and guitar." He loves Van Morrison, Paul Simon and would "knock on Ray Charles' door if he was still alive. Anything that channels the soul and channels a feeling I'm into."
Hicks, who is the first white male to win the competition, concluded the show by singing his new single, "Do I Make You Proud?," which was barely audible over the cheering. Offstage, Kellie Pickler, a finalist this year, and McPhee embraced.
McPhee, 22, told reporters she "felt very peaceful.... I felt I did the best I could.... It wasn't about winning the 'American Idol' title. I really just wanted to have the best performance that I could."
The hugely popular show, with an average weekly audience of about 30 million viewers, auditioned more than 100,000 would-be crooners this year before winnowing the field down to 12; the number of contestants was subsequently reduced by one each week, based on viewers' votes. Hicks never made it into the ill-fated bottom three vote-getters.
More than 63.4 million votes had been cast the night before as Hicks and McPhee faced off in a performance round with three songs apiece. But the results weren't announced until the final minutes of Wednesday's broadcast. To fill time, the producers created a show that seemed to have exactly the right mix of comedy, sentiment and great music with a performance by last year's "American Idol" winner, Carrie Underwood, a tribute to songwriter Burt Bacharach that featured Dionne Warwick, and a surprise performance by Prince that left the audience screaming.
Members of the top 12 "American Idol" finalists performed songs throughout the evening along with a variety of guests, including Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, Al Jarreau, Live, Meatloaf and 2003 "American Idol" runner-up Clay Aiken.
There were also gag "Golden Idol" awards to mark highlights of the early auditions and recurring comic installments of "Puck and Pickler," in which restaurateur Wolfgang Puck tried unsuccessfully to feed calamari, snails and lobster to Pickler.
It was somewhat remarkable that Hicks made it to Hollywood at all. The withering Simon Cowell passed on Hicks after his bluesy performance at his audition, but fellow judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul saw promise and waved him through to the next round.