Gutsy “American Idol” contestant Jessica Sanchez took on Whitney Houston’s biggest hit, delivering a performance that awed the show’s judges.
When host Ryan Seacrest asked the panel to name Wednesday night’s top two singers among the 13 finalists, Steven Tyler was ready.
“Jessica Sanchez and Jessica Sanchez,” Tyler said.
The 16-year-old San Diego high school student’s assured version of “I Will Always Love You” was “just amazing. I don’t even know what to say,” Jennifer Lopez exclaimed during the performance show.
“Jessica, you may be the one. You just made 40 million people cry,” Tyler said (adding a dose of hyperbole by roughly doubling the show’s biggest Wednesday night audience for the season so far).
Randy Jackson didn’t hold back either, calling Sanchez “one of the best talents in the whole country.”
On the Fox show’s 400th episode, the men tackled Stevie Wonder’s catalogue and the women choose from Houston’s hits, a tribute to the singer who died Feb. 11, on the eve of the Grammy Awards, at age 48.
“I Will Always Love You” was played at the conclusion of Houston’s New Jersey church funeral last month.
The “American Idol” finalists performed as the Fox show marked its 400th episode. In a twist, the male and female singers who rank lowest in the audience vote will be announced Thursday and the judges will decide which of the two will be bounced.
Others who impressed the judges included Joshua Ledet, 19, of Westlake, La., with his version of “I Wish”; Hollie Cavanaugh, 18, of McKinney, Texas, with “All the Man I Need,” Colton Dixon, 20, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., with “Lately,” and Phillip Phillips, 21, of Leesburg, Ga., with “Superstition.”
Aerosmith frontman Tyler offered Phillips an intriguingly enigmatic review.
“You’re a very interesting character, man. You got a lot of ‘fuhgeddaboutit’ in your voice. There’s no words for it. You just are. You know what I’m saying,” Tyler said.
Skylar Laine’s version of “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” was another standout.
“You’re a country girl .... But what you just proved, you can sing any song,” Jackson told the 18-year-old from Brandon, Miss.
The judges were not uniformly kind.
Elise Testone, 28, of Charleston, S.C., who performed “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” fell short with the panel, which praised her talent but not what Lopez called her “unsure” performance.
Shannon Magrane, 16, of Tampa, Fla., let her nerves get in the way on “I Have Nothing,” Jackson said, and Tyler suggested she might be in trouble in the audience vote.