‘American Idol': David Leathers Jr., Phillip Phillips Wow

Gabi Carrubba, Shannon Magrane and Amy Brumfield also stand out during Savannah, Georgia, auditions.

“American Idol” kicked off its 11th season Wednesday (January 18) with auditions in Savannah, Georgia, and Steven Tyler, Randy Jackson and Jennifer Lopez were in a very giving mood when it came to handing out Golden Tickets.

In all, 42 singers were given the green light to Hollywood, as the show placed an overwhelming emphasis on true competitors rather than gag auditions. The mood of the show was sunny and positive, a far cry from the days of Simon Cowell, when acid-tongued barbs were the order of the day.

The evening started with David Leathers Jr., a wayfarer-clad 17-year-old who claimed his nickname among his friends is “Mr. Steal Your Girl.” But his most defining characteristic was bluntly pointed out by Lopez: “You look like you’re 12,” she told the singer. However, the Fayetteville, North Carolina, resident impressed the judges with his version of 21st Century’s “Remember the Rain” and later with Michael Jackson’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.” “Nice, nice, that’s beautiful,” Tyler told him, while Jackson followed up with, “Dude, we love you, man. You’re through to Hollywood.” Whether he looks 12 or not, you’ll be seeing more of him in the future.

Despite her visible nerves, Gabi Carrubba, a 16-year-old tap dancer from North Haven, Connecticut, wowed the judges with her version of Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning.” Lopez compared her voice control to that of Luther Vandross, and Tyler told her she “nailed” the audition. “You were born to do this!” Jackson beamed, sending her through to the Hollywood round.

Shannon Magrane, daughter of former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Joe Magrane, graduated to Hollywood on the strength of her version of Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” which is sampled in both Avicii’s “Levels” and Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling.” She was complimented for her “nerves of steel” by Jackson, and her father should have been complimented on his patience after not jumping Tyler when he called the 15-year-old “hot, humid and happening.” It was the most awkward moment in an otherwise smooth show.

The season got its first good backstory out of Amy Brumfield, a 24-year-old who lives in a tent “way out in the middle of the woods” in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. She spoke of her struggles and inability to afford a “$100-a-week hotel room,” thus her humble tent. But she’s content: “I’d rather be outdoors and happy than indoors and miserable,” Brumfield explained. And when she sang Alicia Keys’ “Superwoman,” she was immediately sent off to Hollywood. “So positively yes,” Tyler told her. “Out of a tent and into Hollywood — what a story!”

Perhaps the evening’s most memorable contestant, or at least the one with the most instant name recognition, was 20-year-old Phillip Phillips of Leesburg, Georgia. The Southern singer was so physically expressive that Lopez commented, “It’s like you have electricity going through your body or something!” He punched up not only a raw, emotional version of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” but also a Southern-fried, front-porch rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” that would have ripped the screen door off the audition room, if there was one to be ripped off. Phillip Phillips: Remember that name. As if you can forget it.

Other singers given the go-ahead to Hollywood on Wednesday’s show included Ashlee Altise, a 28-year-old from Kinston, North Carolina, who sang the Beatles’ “Come Together” and is apt to express herself through “joy dancing”; W.T. Thompson, a 25-year-old former prison worker from tiny Appomattox, Virginia, who quit his job in order to audition and won two out of three “yes” votes with his version of Little Big Town’s “Boondocks”; NBA dancer Brittany Kerr, a 24-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina, who sang Joss Stone’s “Spoiled” and whose stunning good looks had Jackson and Tyler’s attention long before she ever sang a note; Schyler and Colton Dixon, two siblings from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who both tried out last year and were denied but made it through this time; Lauren Mink, a 25-year-old from Winchester, Kentucky, whose version of Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Country Strong” gave Lopez “goosies!”; Stephanie Renae, a 15-year-old from Orange Park, Florida, who got two out of three “yes” votes for her version of Carrie Underwood’s “Inside Your Heaven”; 15-year-old Brianna Faulk of Monroe, Georgia, who passed through on the strength of her version of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”; 20-year-old Atlanta resident Neco Starr, who sang Bruno Mars’ “Grenade”; 28-year-old vocal coach Elise Testone, who was dubbed a “spitfire” by Lopez for her take on Janis Joplin’s “Get It While You Can”; and Franklin, Tennessee, 15-year-old Molly Hunt.

The news wasn’t as good for 26-year-old Shaun Kraisman of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, whose take on the Chi-Lites’ “Oh Girl” did not earn him a pass to Hollywood. But given that he was able to showcase his dead-on impression of Ryan Seacrest, he may be the one singer on Wednesday’s show who is almost guaranteed an appearance on this year’s “Idol” finale.

What did you think of Wednesday’s “American Idol” premiere? Let us know in the comments!

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