Greenville music worship leader Chris Sligh advanced to finals of American Idol

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Former American Idol contestant Chris Sligh performs during Sunday morning services at Seacoast Church in Greenville on April 15, 2007.

In less than a month, Chris Sligh went from leading worship music at his church in Greenville to handling the worldwide scrutiny of millions by making it into the finals of American Idol.

Sligh finished in the Top 10 during the 2007 season.

Until getting bounced from the competition, the smallest details of his life were scrutinized -- both in the tabloids and on the fan sites popping up all over the Internet. People Sligh had never met were digging for the smallest nuggets of information about the frizzy-haired, married, 28-year-old lead singer in a local band.

"It's really, really cool to see the fan interest, especially since they've really heard me sing for maybe 45 seconds total," Sligh said during a phone interview from Los Angeles during the competition.

Sligh capitalized on strong performances in front of the judges coupled with a quick wit and a distinctive look that featured an afro grown especially to helped him stand out from the crowd.

Professional oddsmakers pegged him as the early favorite to win it all.

Sligh's followers called themselves the Fro Patro', a play on Soul Patrol, the name groupies of the previous year's eventual winner, Taylor Hicks, gave themselves. (Sligh endorses the Fro Patro' moniker).

"People, I think, really connect with the humor," he said. "People really connect with the personality. Who I am on TV is no different than who I am in real life. That's one of the things that's kind of exciting for me is that I just get to be myself and, thankfully, America is kind of liking it."

Sligh moved to Greenville to attend Bob Jones University. He had spent 10 years living in Germany with his missionary parents before he returned home at age 17 to Kansas City to graduate from high school.

As a child, he wasn't allowed to listen to any music other than classical, he says.

He left Bob Jones for North Greenville University, where he continued his music education.

Sligh said he found himself growing apart from the culture and theology of Bob Jones while maintaining a strong conviction as a Christian. Along the way he found a whole new world of music.

Sligh trained at North Greenville under voice professor Cheryl Greene. It's there that he started The Chris Sligh Band, which over the years evolved into Half Past Forever in which he played guitar and sings lead vocals.

Greene said the few audition glimpses the television audience had seen of Sligh's performances barely scrape the surface of his talent.

"I was pleased with what he's done," she said, "but the public hasn't seen what he can do yet. It's an incredible voice."

When fellow Half Past Forever bandmate Cole Edmondson first crossed paths with Sligh, Edmondson says Sligh was on the verge of quitting music.

"When I first met him, he was at the point as a musician where he wanted to quit and totally abandon everything and work some dead-end job the rest of his life," Edmondson said.

But the band was re-tooled, and Sligh began to transform on stage.

"It's just been really cool to see the transition from him being very timid and unsure of himself to getting to be very confident and being very sure of himself," Edmondson said. "We've all been really stoked just kind of following along."

Sligh auditioned for "American Idol" the previous two seasons, said Don Chapman, a collaborator who drove Sligh to the auditions, including the one in Birmingham that got him to Hollywood.

The audition process is intimidating. In Birmingham, 8,000 people showed for a chance to appear before the celebrity judges, Chapman said. He watched as Sligh stood before producers along with three others and was given 10 seconds "to sing something."

This was his last chance. The "American Idol" age limit is 28.

But Sligh continued to impress as he moved on.

Chapman said Sligh learned from his earlier failures at the auditions -- foremost that he needed to offer something distinctive. So when he performed, he aimed to be more expressive.

"He would just stand there like a statue and sing," Chapman said, "and I was like, 'Dude, you've got to get out of yourself. If you feel like you're an idiot, you're probably just about getting where you need to be."

It worked. At the 2007 season's audition, Sligh entertained the judges with some dry humor and sang Seal's "Kiss From a Rose."

Abdul jumped out of her seat with excitement, and Sligh was on to Hollywood.

Sligh said he knew he had to find a way to stand out, so he let his naturally curly hair grow longer.

"The big thing for me was image," he says. "The 'fro definitely makes me instantly recognizable. I think that it adds to the personality, too. When people think about Chris Sligh, they think about the 'fro, they think about the funny lines. And hopefully with the semi-finals coming up, they will start thinking about the voice also."

At Bob Jones, he never could have had long hair. Growing out his hair was a symbol of his changing personality. He moved away from singing solely Christian music.

"It took me awhile to grow out of that mentality," he said. "I am a Christian who is an artist, but I don't consider myself a Christian artist. I think ministry is more in relationships."

Even as he altered his image and the music he performed, Sligh said he still saw himself as a lead guy playing guitar in a band. He described feeling excited for his bandmates who were receiving a sudden flood of publicity as they prepared to release a new CD.

And he knew there was a life waiting for him back in Greenville: his band; his wife of three years, Sarah; his church, Seacoast Church, whose members got together during each episode to watch their music worship leader perform.

In the meantime, Sligh said he was trying to find his way through the blinding light of instant fame.

"I don't think anyone is fully ready for what 'American Idol' has for you," he said.

Eric Connor