Mario Vazquez shocked American Idol fans by dropping out of the competition last year – but weeks earlier, he gave one special viewer a different kind of emotional jolt. After a 16-year separation, Vazquez's father, Mario Rivera, was channel-surfing in his living room when he spotted his son on the show.
"He saw my audition tape and tripped out," Vazquez tells PEOPLE. "He cried to my aunt, 'Mario's there! Mario's there!' " Not long afterward – in that very living room – father and son reunited.
"My dad wasn't around when I was born," says Vazquez, who was raised by his mom, Ada.
Nervous about seeing his father, the singer, 29 (whose self-titled debut dropped Sept. 26), brought a gift for him and flowers for his grandmother and aunt. "It was emotional," says Vazquez. "I'm not too big on crying, but I was definitely choking up inside. I want to have that bond fathers and sons have. I think we're almost there. And now I have twice the family I had before."
Though the show worked wonders for his personal life, Idol couldn't fulfill Vazquez's creative side. "I felt (winning) Idol would be restrictive," he says. "I don't want anyone telling me how to sound or what to sing. That's why I'm an artist."
So he dropped out to sign a record deal unfettered by the show, ending up with Arista (ironically home to Idol winners Carrie Underwood and Taylor Hicks). He says his new album is "much dancier and edgier" than an Idol version would have been.
Whether or not fans embrace the disc, he has no regrets about leaving the competition. Says Vazquez: "I'd rather be known as the guy who got away."