First Person: My ‘American Idol’ Experience, by James Durbin

The 15th and final bittersweet season of American Idol is almost over, and all season long, Yahoo Music’s Reality Rocks has been inviting alumni from the series to share their stories. Today’s essay is by Season 10 rocker James Durbin, the man responsible for two of the most headbanging (and only two Judas Priest-related) moments in Idol history – moments that had fans “giving metal a chance!"

Durbin’s new single and video, “Smackdown,” comes out April 1.

(photo: Associated Press)

One of my favorite moments was the thrill of being in the top 24. I knew that the first night I got to perform on the Idol stage could’ve been my last. So I knew I had to pick the right song that would highlight my voice, my performance style, and what I really wanted to bring that was unique.

I was scanning the list of available song choices, and nothing was really standing out to me. There were some great Aerosmith songs… but that would be tough with the man himself, Steven Tyler, sitting right in front of me.

I looked over the list one last time, just to see if I’d missed anything, and sure enough, I had: “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” by Judas Priest!

I told the producers immediately what my song choice was (as they were waiting on me), and they had a real belly-laugh at it. The didn’t even know how Judas Priest had made it onto that list in the first place, or why. It was just there.

I worked out the arrangement with my always-spectacular vocal coaches, Michael Orland and Peisha McPhee, grabbed the killer outfit with my stylist Art Conn, and hit the stage like it owed me money. Thankfully, I made the correct song choice and continued through for many weeks.

After making it to the top 13, I knew I’d get to perform at the finale. Making it to the top four I knew I’d get to pick from a few choices. They eventually came to me with two choices: Def Leppard or Judas Priest. Obviously, I had to go with the band whose song earned me my spot in the top 11.

I was informed that I was invited to dinner with the band to meet them for the first time. I had no idea what to expect. I mean, were talking about one of the premier heavy metal bands of all time. I know they’re not young guns anymore, but ya never know how hard guys like them still party. Thankfully, it was a lovely dinner: cracking lobster and sipping tea with Rob Halford, Glenn Tipton, Richie Faulkner, Ian Hill, and Scott Travis. After dinner they sent me back to the Idol hotel with a box full of Priest gear and merch to keep me smiling till the finale.

The best part and the culmination of this story was when we got to rehearse everything the day before the finale. Everyone was there: Judas Priest, Gladys Knight and Kirk Franklin, Beyoncé, Tony Bennett, Lil Jon, TLC, Tim McGraw, Marc Anthony Jennifer Lopez and Sheila E., Tom Jones, Lady Gaga, Carrie Underwood, Reeve Carney with Bono and the Edge, and Steven Tyler. Wow.

But this next story involves Judas Priest, Jack Black, and myself.

I had just finished rehearsing with Priest when we walked backstage and Rob Halford asked if I wanted to try on his studded leather duster coat. Duh! I forgot that we had just been rehearsing sweatily, and when I started putting it on, it felt like I was putting on a wetsuit that had been presoaked. Ha. As all this went down, Jables himself turned the corner. Jack Black had the same childlike expression that I did when he walked in on this once-in-a-lifetime experience. No words were exchanged. but I knew what had to happen next. I disrobed the coat and proceeded to help Jables with it. The crowning jewel (literally) was when I placed my studded leather military hat upon Jack’s head and he began to leap and frolic in all of his glory. Two dreams were achieved that day, as two boys became men and continued to rock!!!

After the finale, on the American Idol Live! Summer concert tour, was where I really bonded with all the guy contestants – most notably with Casey Abrams. We were the last two awake most nights – jamming, partaking, watching movies, and our season of Idol (thanks to some of my fans for burning their DVR of the whole season!). I’m so thankful to American Idol not only for what they did for my career but for giving me some of the best friends (family, really) I’ve ever known.

We knew there were going to be a few tour pranks amongst us guys. The first prank happened on the first show night in Salt Lake City. We were waiting for the first person to shower up in the dressing room, and they were going to get the ol’ bucket of ice water and cubes from the rest of us It had to be Jacob Lusk, didn’t it? (Love ya, Jacob!)

We discovered three of us guys – me, Jacob, and Casey – had a common bond which made the back of the bus smell a lot like pinecones but that’s another story for another day. Ha.

Some nights, after both Stefano Langone and I had finished our solos and group performances, we would run to the bus and have a beer together before the group finale. It wasn’t every night, as most of the time we got caught. But those times we didn’t were special.

American Idol was an interesting thing to have been a part of. I have this bizarre thing in common with this small group of people. All of us took different things away from our experiences. Good or bad, better or worse, every one of those experiences taught us something.

The journey is far from over, no matter where it takes us all. I’m just blessed and grateful to have gotten to take the ride – on the show, and on the tour bus.