Until a few months ago, Tyler Grady of Nazareth wasn't even the lead singer in his own band.
But on Wednesday, Grady won a spot among the top 24 contestants on the nation's biggest show, ''American Idol.''
That makes Grady, 20, the only contestant from Lehigh or Northampton County ever to make it this far and, therefore, the first to perform live on ''Idol.''
Grady has positioned himself as this season's rock singer, and his front-man swagger and penchant for 1970s polyester shirts have given him frequent screen time.
But in a phone call Thursday from California, Grady said his success ''honestly hasn't sunk in yet.''
''And I am glad for that, because I'm afraid that if I actually realized I'm in the Top 24, I might get nervous before the performance,'' Grady said, laughing. ''So I'm just kind of living minute to minute here.''
During the interview, squeezed into his tight ''Idol'' schedule, Grady talked about growing up with musician friends in Nazareth, playing bars and clubs in the Lehigh Valley and his best moment yet during his ''American Idol'' competitions.
Grady moved to Nazareth with parents Vanessa and Derek when he was 10. His sister, Laken, now 9, was born soon afterward.
He became friends with Travis Hobbie, who played guitar. In middle school, they formed a band with bassist Josh Zullo. Grady played drums. They took the name Wailing Waters.
''Honestly, I had, basically, zero musical experience,'' Grady said.
''We were very young and pretty inexperienced, so we just went around and played whatever open mic we could get into, basically,'' he said. The band played mostly original songs.
The group's first ''real'' show was at Crocodile Rock Cafe in Allentown with several other bands. Later, they opened there for national acts for which their '70s rock was a good fit, club manager Tom Taylor said.
''They were ahead of the game since Day 1,'' Taylor said.
He said Wailing Waters had the look -- performing in suits -- as well as musical chops. In 2007, the group competed at Croc Rock against more than 15 acts in a battle of bands. Wailing Waters not only won but was so good that competing musicians voted for them, Taylor said.
The band first played folk-rock, but later transitioned to '60s- and '70s-inspired rock.
''All of my favorite front men from bands have basically come out of the '60s and '70s,'' Grady said. ''I mean, Robert Plant [of Led Zeppelin] is my idol; he has been for years. So vocally, performance-wise, I've taken a huge influence from '60s and '70s rock and from watching a lot of old concert footage.''
Learning to sing an aria
Kelly Rocchi, choral director at Nazareth Area High School, said she enjoyed having Grady in her class.
''He's a very, very good singer,'' Rocchi said. And ''everything he does on TV is exactly like he was in high school -- his arms flailing and the way he movesÂ it's not something he made up for TV.''
Grady was in concert choir, but waited until his senior year to take her vocal instruction class, which has only 10 students. Rocchi, who is classically trained, wanted to expose Grady to that style of music.
''He wasn't comfortable with it, but he tried,'' she said. ''I kept telling him, 'Tyler, every kind of different experience you have will make you a better singer.'''
She has a video of him singing an Italian aria, ''Quella Fiamma.''
Teacher Frank Felix said Grady took his music technology course as a senior. He said it was great having Wailing Waters members in the class. ''Since they already were formed and had been playing together for years, they were our example,'' he said.
Grady said he and his band mates were obsessed: ''A lot of my life in Nazareth was basically based around band practice, then open mics and gigs and things like that.''
Two failed 'Idol' auditions
Grady first auditioned for ''Idol'' two years ago in Philadelphia. ''I didn't even make it past the initial audition, he said.
At a second audition in New York last year, ''I made it past just one round of auditions, just to the first callback, and then I got booted from there.''
During those two years, Grady said, he improved by playing frequent shows with Wailing Waters.
''I really had this feeling that I might be able to get through at some point,'' he said. ''So basically, I was just going to keep trying till I got through. I was pretty bent on getting through the Hollywood round.''
He headed to Boston for his third try last summer. ''It actually became sort of a tradition for my mom and I to just go out and audition in different cities,'' he said. ''It was just kind of a fun thing.'
At the Boston audition, he won the approval of all four celebrity judges for his sultry rendition of Marvin Gaye's ''Let's Get It On.'' The show spotlighted Grady and his two broken wrists -- he shattered them when he fell from a tree. The injuries forced him to stop drumming and assume the band's lead vocalist role last summer.
His band supports his ''Idol'' ambitions.
''They know that, obviously, right now I'm not able to play with them,'' he said. ''But the overall outcome, if I were to get thrown off the show, the band would benefit from it anyway.''
Grady, who graduated from Nazareth High in 2008, is a sophomore at Temple University. He put his psychology studies on hold when he headed to Hollywood, where more than 100 ''Idol'' hopefuls are whittled to 24.
In the five weeks since his audition aired on Fox, ''American Idol'' didn't show any of his other performances for judges until Wednesday. He said he performed Bad Company's ''Can't Get Enough''and a group performance of The Temptations' ''Get Ready.'' His final performance, shown Wednesday, was ''Home,'' the hit by former ''Idol'' competitor Chris Daughtry.
Judge Kara DioGuardi has been particularly supportive of Grady, saying the judges liked his '70s rocker moves. On Wednesday, she salaciously told him, ''We'd like to see those moves again.'' He responded, ''Whatever kind of moves you want, I'll give you.''
But Grady says his most memorable moment was judge Simon Cowell telling him after the group performance ''that I stand out in a crowd.''
''That really floored me,'' Grady said.
Rehearsals for this week's live show started Friday.
Grady says he's been doing his normal vocal exercises ''and trying to really analyze my song choice and get that; do the right song, because this could be my only shot to do it right.''
He acknowledged he was inspired by past ''Idol'' hard-rock performers such as Daughtry, Constantine Maroulis, Bo Bice and Adam Lambert.
Rolling Stone magazine has noticed, saying in a story on its Web site that Grady ''has attempted to step out as the season's 'rocker.'''
In Nazareth: 'Oh my God!'
Back in his hometown, Grady's success has caused a wave of excitement.
''Oh my God! We are the biggest fans,'' Nazareth High senior Jenna Willke said outside school Thursday. ''I think everyone around here is star-struck.''
Her brother, Jack, a freshman, added: ''In gym class, they were doing square dancing today and everyone was talking about how Tyler Grady learned his moves in this class.''
The breakfast crowd at the Nazareth Diner was abuzz Thursday with talk about the show. Waitress Roz Werkheiser, a self-proclaimed ''serious Idol fan,'' said she's picked every winner except for the year Daughtry was voted off and Taylor Hicks won.
''We never hear anything about Taylor Hicks now,'' Werkheiser said. ''Chris Daughtry should have won.''
Her prediction for Grady: ''I think that he'll probably go far. He has that different look about him. He likes that '70s kind of music and he's got a different vibe about him. Simon even said he was good. And when Simon likes you ''
WHAT'S IN THE WATER IN NAZARETH?
For years, the name Andretti and Nazareth were almost synonymous. The Northampton County borough produced three generations of the best Indy car racers -- Mario Andretti, his son Michael and his grandson Marco. And recently, a new breed of celebrities from the town has cropped up. We can't help but wonder: Is there something in the water in Nazareth?
KATE MICUCCI: The 1998 Nazareth High grad scored a big screen role next to Kristen Bell and Josh Duhamel in the romantic comedy ' 'When in Rome,'' which opened in January. She also stars in the Fox TV show ' ''Til Death'' as the hippie daughter of Joely Fisher and Brad Garrett. She lives in Los Angeles and performs as the ukelele-strumming half of the duo Garfunkel and Oates.
Micuccui on Grady: Micucci says she doesn't know Grady and has been too busy to watch much TV, including ''Idol.'' ''Now I'll watch it,'' she says. ''I will for sure be rooting for him.''
PAUL GARZILLO: The Nazareth High senior was chosen by Seventeen Magazine as one of its 17 ''hottest guys.'' He appeared in the February issue and is serving as an online hot guy/counselor to lovelorn teen girls throughout the year.
Garzillo on Grady: Garzillo says he's not a big ''Idol'' fan and hasn't seen Grady on the show, but will check him out. ''I've seen him in at least one talent show at high school and he won. I'm not a critic, but I know his Top 24 rank speaks for his talent.''Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times