Michael Johns, the hunky Aussie who tested American Idol’s age limit and whose premature dismissal during season seven led to the “Judge’s Save” in subsequent seasons, died Friday in Los Angeles. He was 35 and the first Top 10 Idol finalist to die since the Fox show’s debut in 2002.
Johns, 29 at the time he made it to eighth place on the one-time TV ratings giant in 2008, the top limit for a contestant on the youth-driven singing competition show, reportedly died as a result of a blood clot that formed in his ankle after an injury. Though rare, these kind of blood clots in the extremities can become fatal if they detach and make their way to the lungs. Much like a blocked pipe, the blood flow is compromised and the pressure can lead to heart failure.
Blood thinners are usually prescribed to break up clots. According to TMZ, Johns sought medical attention on Thursday for the swelling and bruising that had started to make its way up his leg. But he was cleared to go home, the site reports.
The Perth-born Johns, who came to the States on a tennis scholarship to Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Georgia, never found the level of fame he went after on Idol. Before Idol he was briefly signed to Madonna’s imprint, Maverick Records, and released a solo album under his birth name, Michael Lee. He formed a backing band, The Rising, but the group, too, didn’t soar.
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But Johns’ soulful voice, front man good looks and charisma should have connected. His post- Idol album, Hold Back My Heart in 2009, was an oft-gritty, soul-rock keeper whose best moments would not have been out of place in the early ’70s alongside acts like Otis Redding and Sly and the Family Stone on AM and FM airwaves. He seemed to have the elusive “X factor” that late INXS front man and fellow Australian Michael Hutchence had and a similar soul-rock swagger.
John’s album sold a disappointing 20,000 copies. An EP, Love and Sex, followed in 2012 and he performed on a PBS special, Hit Man: David Foster and Friends alongside Michael Bublé, Blake Shelton and Josh Groban. Yet superstardom wasn’t meant to be.
But he elevated Idol, however briefly. Johns’ bluesy take on Dolly Parton’s aching It’s All Wrong, But It’s All Right, in April 2008, a week before his shock exit, remains one of the standout, adult performances on a show that often sinks under a glut of forgettable contestants who are applauded by celebrity judges for soulless oversinging or for warbling unconvincing Motown karaoke.
Johns seemed to know that the Idol format wasn’t always the best for his brand. In his exit interview, published in the Miami Herald’s former Idol Watch blog, he said: “I’ve never chosen a song based on what the competition is doing.… Sometimes Simon [Cowell] is off the mark, to be honest. Most times he’s on, and I respect his opinion a lot, but he wanted me to sing that soul blues stuff every week. I’m a rock soul singer. I like to do both genres, so I wasn’t necessarily going to always hand it to what the judges said every week. You have to go out there and say this is the kind of record I am going to make and this is the sound I do. Some weeks they loved it, some weeks they didn’t.”
Over the weekend, Billboard.Com released statements from fellow Idol folk during his run.
“His acoustic version of the Bee Gees' To Love Somebody was very special but I will always remember him singing the Beatles' You Never Give Me Your Money/Golden Slumbers. One of his favorite songs. He was a great talent and dear friend. My boys and I were devastated to hear the news,” said former producer Nigel Lythgoe who worked with Johns in charity work recently.
“Michael was not just an amazing talent, he was an incredible human being who was so full of life that the notion of it stopping is incomprehensible to me,” said judge Paula Abdul, while Simon Cowell Tweeted, “…A truly great guy.”
Johns’ family said the loss of “a wonderful husband, son, brother, uncle, and friend” was devastating. Johns is survived by his wife Stacey Vuduris.