Lee DeWyze texted his former high school teacher a few hours before he took the "American Idol" stage Wednesday.
"I'm pumped," he told Amy Silverman.
Simon Cowell agreed.
"I thought this was the best performance by far," said "Idol's" notoriously dour judge, after DeWyze sang "Chasing Cars" by Snow Patrol. "He has an authentically good voice. I think you'll do well in this competition."
That wasn't news to Silverman, one of two people DeWyze picked to be in the audience Wednesday. Silverman and DeWyze met when he was a Forest View Alternative School student and signed up for an Upward Bound summer camp trip in 2002. DeWyze also attended Prospect High School.
"He always had a guitar in his hand," said Silverman, of California. "He would make up songs off the top of his head, pretty funny songs."
Upward Bound camping trips run about 10 days and Silverman's group went to Georgia, where DeWyze didn't exactly want to show off his musical talent.
"We had to coax him, beg him to play, and that was only in front of about 10 kids," Silverman said. "Now he's playing in front of millions."
DeWyze, 23, is one of 24 "American Idol" finalists. Twelve women performed Tuesday and DeWyze and 11 other men played Wednesday. Two men and two women will be voted off tonight, and another four contestants will be voted off Thursday, March 4, until one American Idol is eventually crowned the winner in May.
Judges have their say after every performance, but it's the viewing public that determines who will advance to the next round by voting via telephone and text-messaging, beginning immediately after each performance.
DeWyze has a lot riding on his time on "American Idol."
The Mount Prospect resident recently left his job at a local paint store and lost his apartment lease.
"I totally know this is what I'm supposed to do," said DeWyze in his audition tape. "There is no backup plan for me."
He also talked briefly about his struggles in high school on the tape.
"I got kicked out of high school, but that's totally not who I am now," DeWyze said while wearing a blue jeans and a hooded sweatshirt.
Silverman confirmed that DeWyze has a lot riding on his "American Idol" gig and won't have a job or apartment to return to.
"This is it for him," she said. "He's excited and a little nervous, but who wouldn't be?"
Not that DeWyze hasn't been preparing - he has, but the venue has been much smaller.
Almost every Tuesday for the past two years, DeWyze has grabbed the karaoke microphone at Potato Creek Johnny's Saloon and Grill in Glenview.
"Not too many people bring their own instrument to the bar," said John Coyne, owner of Extreme Karaoke. "Every time he played, his friends loved it. He really hammed it up on the guitar and sometimes he'd play some of his original stuff."
Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kings of Leon songs are among DeWyze's favorites to cover. Coincidentally on Wednesday night, "Idol" judge Randy Jackson suggested he try a Kings of Leon song rather than songs like the Snow Patrol tune.
DeWyze, a self-taught guitarist, cites Cat Stevens, Kris Kristofferson and James Taylor among his musical influences. He has also played at Chicago's House of Blues, Durty Nellie's in Palatine and Naperville's Ribfest.
A group of DeWyze's high school friends gathered at the Rand Roadhouse near Des Plaines to watch his performance Wednesday. While almost every television in the bar showed Olympic hockey, his group of friends stayed tuned into "American Idol" in a backroom.
Like Silverman, Shawn Stoltz said DeWyze grew into his talent.
"For a while he would only sing in the other room or with the lights off," Stoltz said.
Matt Mika said DeWyze wanted to do something different, that he was sick of playing at bars and local festivals.
"He always said he wanted to make it on his own," Mika said. "But this last year or so, he knew he had to do something different."