As a ninth grader at Hoover High School in Hoover, Ala., Hicks likes to perform and sometimes brings a harmonica to play during class. Ninth grade English teacher Susan Whitson – who will become press secretary to First Lady Laura Bush in 2004 – tells PEOPLE of Hicks' musical talent, "On a couple of occasions I was like, 'Okay Taylor, why don't you get in front and play?'"
In high school, Hicks splits his passions between sports and music, often combining both in the same night. "When I was about 16, I would play high school basketball and then I would put on this big white hat and go into particular restaurants and play harmonica with bands," Hicks tells PEOPLE. In 1995, he enters Auburn University to study business and journalism, but drops out to focus on his music.
Hicks releases his own album, In Your Time. It will become a collector's item once Hicks makes American Idol, fetching more than $100 on eBay. In 2006, he'll file a lawsuit against Nashville producer William Smith after he tries to sell copies of Hicks' early songs. Hicks drops the suit after Smith gives him possession of the master recordings.
Visiting New Orleans for a friend's wedding, Hicks is forced to evacuate the city as Hurricane Katrina approaches. "I called an airline company [Southwest], and they said we'll give you a ticket – one way – for anywhere in the country," he tells PEOPLE in June 2006. "So I went to Las Vegas. American Idol tryouts were there, and I auditioned and here I am." Over judge Simon Cowell's objections, Hicks is invited to Hollywood to continue with the competition.
With less than two weeks to go before the new American Idol is chosen, Hicks – one of the three remaining finalists – returns to Birmingham, where he performs for 12,000 fans at Alabama's largest mall and is feted with a parade through downtown. He even finds time to travel to the state capital, Montgomery, for a meeting with the newest member of Soul Patrol, Alabama governor Bob Riley.
With 63.4 million people casting their vote, Hicks is wins American Idol over Katharine McPhee. Asked if he has anything to say to America, Hicks, who will finalize his record deal a week later, yells out "Soul Patrol!" before singing his first single, "Do I Make You Proud?"
Thanks to the giant push of Hicks' Idol win, "Do I Make You Proud?" debuts at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart. He'll sign a book deal with Random House's Crown imprint two months later for his memoir, Heart Full of Soul. The book, for which he receives an estimated $750,000 advance, is scheduled for release in spring 2007 and details Hicks' struggles on the way to success.
As the cover guy of PEOPLE's annual "Hottest Bachelors" issue, Hicks tells the magazine about his dating do's and don'ts. "She's gotta be cool," he says. "She's gotta be easy to get along with. And deep. Shallow does not turn me on at all." The following month, during the "American Idols Live" tour, Hicks and the other 11 finalists meet President George W. Bush at the Oval Office, making them the first participants from the show to do so.
Hicks releases his self-titled major label debut. "It's my take on modern soul music," he tells PEOPLE. "My musical sensibility goes way beyond the two minutes of Idol." The album eventually sells a respectable 702,000 copies, but doesn't reach the standard platinum mark of most Idol alum. In January 2008, he loses his record deal with J Records.
Hicks, 31, takes steps toward a comeback – on Broadway! The Idol will join the cast of Grease on June 6, playing Teen Angel. "It's a big number, and, you know, I've made some pretty grand entrances before," Hicks tells the AP. "And this one is probably the grandest entrance I've had in my career." Having lost his record deal, Hicks is recording his latest album on his own terms: "The options are unlimited and there has been some great interest now that I'm a free agent, so to speak." In June, he signs with Vanguard Records, which will distribute his new album in August.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): FOX; Ray Mickshaw/WireImage; John Loomis/Redux; KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/AP; Jim Wright/Montage; Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic