Ahead of the Wednesday premiere of the 15th and final season of American Idol, we talked to original judge Randy Jackson about the cultural phenomen’s many success stories, what to expect from the final installment of the show, and all of that (beloved) bickering.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: A lot of the success of the show over the past 15 years can be attributed to the fact that the original trio of judges was overflowing with chemistry. Did you know each other before the show started?
RANDY JACKSON: I had known Paula [Abdul] for years and I had met [Simon] Cowell once or twice because we were both record company guys. Yeah, it was lightning in a bottle but I’ll tell you what, we really lucked out because none of us knew that we could have that chemistry. It was instant. But there were growing pains. The first day on set — the first hour — there was a dustup with all three of us because we couldn’t believe how crazy Simon went on this once contestant. “You’re horrible, you’re terrible.” We were like, you can’t say this guy’s horrible! You can say his voice is horrible, but you can’t say that he is! So we stopped for like, two hours, had this whole powwow. We had some growing pains but Simon was who he was and we were who we were, you know.
You fell in the middle of Paula and Simon in terms of judging style. What were your goals heading into that first season?
I just really wanted to be honest. I wanted to be somewhat encouraging but if you’re really delusional and have a terrible talent I’m gonna say you have a terrible talent. But too many times I’ve seen somebody, years later, turn around with some encouragement and become really good. If you think somebody has an inkling of talent, you want to inspire them, and try to give them some real sound advice.
What’s your favorite performance ever?
So many. Kelly Clarkson, the finale of that first season. Clay and Reuben, that finale, Fantasia singing “Summertime.” But Jordin Sparks had a moment, for me, when she auditioned for us in Seattle. We looked at each other — me, Simon, and Paula — and were like, “Where have you been?!” And she said, “I’ve auditioned three times but I never made it in front of the judges.” And we were just like, “What?!”
And that was the season that you guys really hated the Seattle auditions, right?
Yeah! But Jordin was incredible and of course went on to win the whole thing. You know, there are just so many memories like that. I think of the first time we saw Kelly Clarkson in Dallas, the first time we saw Carrie Underwood. I mean, my God. I think back to when we saw Clay [Aiken] in Atlanta, you know! We were shocked and surprised. And then there are some wild moments with some of the funnier contestants.
I don’t think America will ever forget William Hung.
Oh my God, that dude! That’s what I’m saying — he and his father and whomever was handling him at the time really made a go of it, really built a business. And he was a very smart kid. He made it work. It just goes to show that you can make something out of almost nothing. Because he certainly didn’t have a voice. [Laughs]
Is there an elimination that still pains you?
Jennifer Hudson was my wow card that year, and I was gutted when she got eliminated because with her and Fantasia and LaToya [London], it was like we had our own version of the Supremes up there. And it gutted me because I really thought she could go all the way. But she’s proven that she could and she has.
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You’ve sat through countless auditions — have any songs been completely ruined for you?
Every season we banned songs. People were just killing Alicia Keys, they were killing Adele, they were killing Mariah [Carey]. People love and admire those songs, but sometimes they’re just so terrible it’s like, my God, come on, save yourself and save us. Save the world! But Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’.” Alicia, God bless you, baby, but man, I don’t know what was goin’ on with them and your song.
What are your thoughts on the various iterations of the judges’ table?
I’m of course biased, but I think me, Paula, and Simon was still the best ever — best ever of any judges ever on any kind of show like this. ‘Cause we discovered some great talent that has gone on to do some great things. But I think a lot of them have been good. Jen[nifer Lopez] and Keith [Urban] and Harry [Connick Jr.] are good, and if you take away some of the antics that happened between Mariah, Nicki [Minaj], me, and Keith, I thought it was good. People always look at that season as a little bit negative but I think it was still valuable.
Who argued more, Paula and Simon or Nicki and Mariah?
Mmm, hard to say. [Laughs] I think Paula and Simon are still bickering.
I know you’re involved in season 15, but what can we expect from your involvement in season 15?
A lot of like, hot, steamy looks.
Is there any info you can share with us? Any teasers?
Uh, no! I want you to watch and be surprised! Oh my God! Yes! Yo!
What do you want to see Ryan Seacrest do with his free time after the show ends?
I think he should hang out with me and Simon and Paula. We’ll get a house down by the beach, just ride around town. We’re gonna hang out and open up a bar and a lounge. We’ll just be on the beach playing Frisbee, dude!
What would the Ryan/Randy/Simon/Paula bar and lounge be called?
It’d probably more like that show on ABC? Wipeout.
Once the show is off the air, what do you hope people remember about it in the years to come?
Dude, that people had a good time. It’s like, one thing we’d always say is, nobody—including us—should take themselves too seriously. It’s only music. Songs and lyrics, lyrics and melodies. You know what I mean?
The final season of American Idol kicks off Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on Fox. Check back in Tuesday and Wednesday for interviews with Harry Connick Jr. and Ryan Seacrest, respectively.
A version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1397/98, on newsstands now or available for purchase here.