LOS ANGELES — Phillip Phillips clutched his guitar as he worked through a bluesy version of “Superstition.” In rehearsals for the upcoming “American Idol” Live tour, he focused on the band and offered little more than whispered vocals.
Satisfied, he jumped from the Stevie Wonder classic — it opens his segment on the tour — into Usher’s bedroom burner “Nice & Slow.”
When Phillips took the title in May, he earned a majority of the 132 million votes cast, but some critics wrote off the 21-year-old troubadour as just the latest “white guy with a guitar” to win — a trend that’s dominated the show for the past five seasons. Phillips acknowledged the challenge, and that post-“Idol” success has been hard to come by for the boys, but he hopes to break the mold.
“If they paid attention to each person’s artistry, then they would know the difference between a lot of us,” Phillips said. “Kris (Allen) is different from David (Cook), David is different from Scotty (McCreery) and I’m different from all of them. I feel like I play the guitar and approach music a lot different than they do.”
Last year’s winner, McCreery, made history when his debut, “Clear as Day,” bowed at No. 1 on the charts, the first time a winner launched a career at the top since Ruben Studdard in 2003. But McCreery is the exception.
The debut of season 9’s Lee DeWyze, “Live It Up,” logged the lowest first-week sales for a winner from the franchise, including Taylor Hicks, and was only the second, after Allen’s self-titled debut, to not score a top 10 debut.
DeWyze was subsequently dropped from RCA; Hicks lost the support of Arista Records after one album; Allen’s latest disc, “Thank You Camellia,” didn’t make much noise; and Cook parted ways with RCA after two albums.
The franchise had a nine-year partnership with 19 Recordings and RCA’s parent company, Sony Music. Now, however, contestants broker deals through Universal Music Group.
Each season begins the same, with an early favorite stealing hearts and votes. Season 10’s Casey Abrams was one of those, but finished sixth, even after the judges used their lone save on him.
Debuts from former “Idol” contestants have been dismissed as record-label-issued blandness, and Cook, Allen and DeWyze found projects criticized as “generic,” “uninspired” and “vague.”
Jimmy Iovine, in-house “Idol” mentor and chairman of Interscope/Geffen/A&M, said the show’s platform could place finalists at a disadvantage.
“The first album, you’re entering a different place than most artists,” he said. “It’s hard to go on TV in front of 20 to 25 million people ... and then go make your first album. That’s a tough trick.”
Phillips acknowledged there are jitters about his debut album, which he said he hopes will have a November or December release.
“A lot of people that have come out of ‘American Idol,’ it’s a lot of poppy stuff. There’s some country stuff, but I really wanted to show the world what I was trying to do with my album,” he said. “I like writing my own stuff. Hopefully people recognize No. 1 hits aren’t always the best songs in the world.”
“American Idol Live” tour will hit the stage Aug. 14 at Consol Center, Pittsburgh; Aug. 21 at Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia; Sept. 6 at Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza, Wilkes-Barre; and Sept. 8 at Sovereign Center, Reading. Visit www.americanidol.com/tour for more information.