There was a familiar face in the crowd during last week’s airing of American Idol Hollywood Week.
Stephen Sylvester, junior high youth minister at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Fairhope, and a staple on the local live music circuit, survived the grueling audition process in Mobile, Nashville and Savannah before being sent to Los Angeles to compete with 165 other aspiring artists for a coveted spot in the show’s top 10.
The musicians were housed in a fancy hotel and shuttled to the world famous Orpheum Theatre where they promptly spent all day, waiting.
“Seriously, I’m not exaggerating 95 percent of what we did was wait,” Sylvester said with a laugh.
The nearly six-month audition process was a lesson in patience.
Sylvester auditioned during the show’s 30-city bus tour, at Gulf Quest in Mobile last August with hundreds of other hopefuls from across the region. There he performed Amos Lee’s “Arms of a Woman” and the low-level producers asked him to sing four or five other songs.
After clearing that hurdle, Sylvester was sent to Nashville to sing for executive producers. After another nine hours in line he sang the title track to his newly released album, “Home to Alabama.”
Producers, he said, loved it. And he was promptly pushed on to the next round of auditions, in Savannah, in front of the panel of celebrity judges: Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie.
After 18 hours of waiting in line, Sylvester was the last contestant. He sang his original track.
“Both Luke and Lionel said I reminded them of James Taylor. I could have died on the spot. It’s the best compliment I’ve ever received as musician,” Sylvester said.
Katy Perry was on the fence and eventually gave Sylvester a no, but two votes were enough to send him to Hollywood. In the weeks prior, the show sent camera crews to interview Sylvester at home and catch footage of his family and work life.
His backstory is one that was worth telling.
Six years ago when Sylvester married his wife Afton Sylvester the couple learned one month after their vows that she suffered from leukemia. Afton lives with the disease through the help of pricey, daily medication that controls the spread of it through her body.
Before then, Sylvester said he was a cover artist, playing music for fun. Afton’s diagnosis gave his writing soul.
“For the first time I felt I was writing music that could speak to people,” he said. “I wanted to give people comfort.”
On the Orpheum stage Sylvester picked up the pace, as suggested by the judges in Savannah, and belted out Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain.” When he finished, there was silence.
“There was no feedback from the judges at all. They didn’t say anything, I just walked off stage,” he said.
At the end of the day, Sylvester was sent home and given his 60 seconds of airtime. Ryan Seacrest interviewed him about the loss, the only part of Sylvester’s audition that made the cut for viewers at home.
Sylvester said he regrets his song choice in Hollywood, but enjoyed the journey.
“It was a great experience, I really enjoyed meeting all these other talented people,” he said, adding that he doubts he will audition again since the multiple layers of audition meant out of pocket travel costs as well as time away from work and weekend gigs.
Sylvester said he prefers to play for the crowds that welcome him every night, home to Alabama.