'American Idol': Former Atlantan Michael Johns has died and why Dexter Roberts left tour

Michael Johns at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2008. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rhO@ajc.com
Michael Johns at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2008. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rhO@ajc.com

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Season 7 "American Idol" finalist and former Atlanta denizen Michael Johns died yesterday, multiple sources tell me.

The administrator for his fan website confirmed his death on Twitter as well.

Details have not been revealed as of yet but from what I hear, the family is not in a position yet to provide a statement. A source told me what the Hollywood Reporter reported: the death was related to a blood clot emanating from a minor ankle injury. (UPDATE: People talked to doctors about how a minor injury like this could cause the heart to stop.) The last photo of Johns posted on his Facebook page from Thursday featured him in Tustin, Calif. with several tennis buddies.

The Australian native was 35 years old. He's the first "American Idol" finalist to pass away.

Johns, who grew up as Michael Lee, lived in the Buckhead area from 1998 to 2002 and was an active musician here before moving to Los Angeles, playing frequently at CJ's Landing and Tin Roof Cantina when the Buckhead party scene was at its peak. He has a group of very close friends in town. In recent years, he has revisited his buddies in Atlanta, performing at Tin Roof Cantina off North Druid Hills Road.

"I will say that we had become closer friends just over the last five years or so and he went out of his way to help me out in the music world," said Brian Wiltsey, an Atlanta-based musician via Facebook messaging. "We played some fun memorable gigs together this past year. It's shocking to hear and still doesn't seem real to me. He was a nice guy and we had a mutual respect for each other."

Shawn Arnold, who was part of the Buckhead music scene back in the day, said, "Before there was 'The Voice,' we called him the voice. When he sang, it was just different from everybody else. He had the smoothest, most soulful voice. It was just so pure. None of us were surprised when he ended up on 'Idol.' "

Nick Tapp spent many a night at CJ's Landing (which closed in 2007) Nwatching Johns back in the day: " He was always a great showman. He played to the crowd of 60 people at CJs like he was playing a sold out Madison Square Garden."

Here's an excerpt from my first interview with Johns back in February, 2008, when he became known on "American Idol":

Lee/Johns came to the States first on a tennis scholarship a small Tifton college around 1997. He stayed there nine months, then decided to move to Atlanta to pursue music. He'd heard it had a decent music scene. He landed at Buckhead bar CJ's Landing, where he worked "literally picking up glasses and trash." The owner Phil Good liked him and heard him sing so he decided to stick him on the stage, first on Mondays, then weekends. He was there on and off from 1998 to 2002 doing cover songs with a guy named Hank Barbee. (CJ's was torn down last year as Buckhead Village goes through its major transformation upscale.)

"It was the best way for me to learn about the South and what pushed Americans buttons," Lee/Johns said. Barbee, who played with him hundreds of times, said Lee was a quick study and learned hundreds of songs. He'd keep a notebook packed with lyrics of songs that people requested. One time, he even spontaneously did a few lines of Dolly Parton's "9 to 5," Barbee recalled. Barbee also said Lee/Johns had a weakness for Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, as well as Otis Redding and the Rolling Stones.

Johns joined Madonna's Maverick Records around 2004 and recorded an album. Then Warner Brothers merged with Elektra and Atlantic and Maverick dissolved. The record never came out. The band almost signed with Columbia but then management changed with the merger of Sony/BMG. Last year [in 2007], he did a solo record, but then the indie label fell apart. He admits he hasn't been such a lucky guy.

Lee/Johns told Barbee last year [2007] that he was going to go with "Idol" because it is one of the few places left to break it big. "I truly believe their the only outlet aggressively finding new talent anymore," Johns said. "I don't know if I had been ready at age 25 but at 28 [his last year of eligibility], I was like, 'I need to make sure I'm free and clear of everything so I can be on this show.' "

Johns did well in the competition, finishing eighth, his final performance a cover of Aerosmith's "Dream On." Many fans thought he should have made it further.

Although he never became a huge success on radio, he played a lot of concerts nationwide, especially corporate gigs. One of his most memorable moments was singing at a Muhammad Ali event and meeting the boxing legend. (It's one of his profile photos on his Facebook page.)

David Foster - the acclaimed composer who has written hit songs for Chicago, Celine Dion and Earth, Wind & Fire to name a few -  placed Johns on a tour with him back around 2009, including a stop in Atlanta. His friend Shawn Reynolds said Johns always wanted to play the Fox Theatre and Foster made that happen for him.

Here's what Foster told me about Johns in 2009: "I love being around Michael. He appreciates what I do. He's a young, good looking rock singer. And he's got such a great voice. He's smart enough to know what came before him. And I'm just thrilled he's with us. He'll do one of his own songs and some of mine, some of my rockier stuff, like 'She's a Beauty' by the Tubes and 'Man in Motion' by John Parr [better known as 'St. Elmo's Fire')."

Johns also wrote songs for films and documentaries and other artists.

"I'm so lucky that I'm a writer," Johns told me the final time I interviewed him in 2011. "Just the fact people are using my songs, it's fantastic. I'm really grateful."

The last time I saw him was at Tin Roof Cantina in 2011 where he performed for four straight hours. (You can read up on that night here.)

Last year, he returned one more time to Tin Roof and Arnold came by with his wife Holly Firfer. Johns invited him on stage to play Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over." "We shot Jager and played four or five songs," he recalled. "People just bounced up there and played."

The last time I saw him on TV was on "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," which featured Foster's wife Yolanda Hadid in 2012. Johns showed up at a meal and sang a bit.

He is survived by his wife of seven years Stacey Vuduris.

Michael Johns and I backstage after the "American Idols" live tour in 2008 at Gwinnett Arena.
Michael Johns and I backstage after the "American Idols" live tour in 2008 at Gwinnett Arena.

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Here's a video interview I did with him back in 2008:

Here he is singing a clip of 'Bohemian Rhapsody" at Tin Roof Cantina in 2011:

And here's Michael Johns on "Idol":

UPDATE: 5:27 p.m. EST. As the news has filtered around social media, friends and fans have started Tweeting tributes to him including fellow "Idol" alums David Archuleta, Bo Bice, Scott MacIntyre, Chris Richardson, Tim Urban and Blake Lewis:

My heart hurts hearing about the passing of my good friend Michael Johns...It's just not real to me yet. I'm gonna miss u bro. #GodSpeed

My brother Michael Johns. You will be missed but never forgotten. RIP

Yesterday I found out my good friend and fellow idol Michael Johns passed away. He was the nicest, most talented... http://t.co/efUR9sHNlc

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Sending thoughts &prayers to the family & friends of #MichaelJohns. @DavidArchie your wonderful talented friend will be greatly missed

My friend @michael_johns passed yesterday. Please keep his family in your prayers. He was a wonderful, kind spirit that brought joy to all.

Shirley Halperin, author of "American Idol: Celebrating 10 Years," got quotes from Nigel Lythoe, David Cook and others here about Johns.

ExploreMJ collected more condolence Tweets from Ryan Seacrest, Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, Kristy Lee Cook, Diana DeGarmo, Chris Daughtry, Melinda Doolittle, Ace Young, Jordin Sparks, Carly Smithson (another former Buckhead resident), Elliott Yamin, Brooke White and more.


Dexter Roberts has Rocky Mountain Spotted Tick Fever. CREDIT: Fox
Dexter Roberts has Rocky Mountain Spotted Tick Fever. CREDIT: Fox

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Dexter Roberts has gotten more publicity being off the "American Idol" tour than if he had stayed on. Certainly, I have mentioned him more times than I would have otherwise.

He finally revealed why he left the tour: He indeed was sick, as initially reported. On July 31, Roberts confirmed on Facebook that he was recently diagnosed with Rocky Mountain Spotted Tick Fever.

According to the CDC, "This organism is a cause of potentially fatal human illness in North and South America, and is transmitted to humans by the bite of infected tick species...Typical symptoms include: fever, headache, abdominal pain, vomiting, and muscle pain...Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be a severe or even fatal illness if not treated in the first few days of symptoms."

Here's how he got it:

After the American Idol finale show in May, I went on a turkey hunt in Kentucky. I found several ticks on me throughout the 4 day hunt, but that is nothing unusual for turkey hunting. Shortly after the American Idol tour started, I started having serve headaches, chest pains and muscle weakness on my left side, along with tremendous abdominal issues and shortness of breath. The medical facilities, while on tour, were unable to make a diagnosis. After my return home from the tour I found myself, once again, back at a hospital emergency room, where the doctor discovered a rash in my head from the tick bite. Day before yesterday, the blood work confirmed I have Rocky Mountain Spotted Tick Fever. I started medication yesterday.

Please continue to pray for my full recovery. I know God is in control of my life, and his path will be made clear for my music career. He is my rock and salivation, and I trusting in him.

Poor guy. He had to forego a great opportunity to perform before his fans and an unfortunate tick got him. Hopefully, he'll have a full recovery.

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