MILWAUKEE — Danny Gokey was so shocked by his young wife's sudden death last summer that he couldn't cry during her funeral at Faith Builders International Ministries.
On Friday, the 29-year-old "American Idol" finalist returned to the church for a joyful event, singing gospel songs to 1,000 or more people, including friends, family and fans.
"To see him from where he was, because I was here for the funeral, this room packed out for a funeral and now: joy," said his friend, Ruben Burgos, 26.
Gokey returned to his hometown Friday to film footage to air in the two weeks leading up to the May 19-20 finale. The church music director is one of three finalists, along with Adam Lambert from San Diego and Kris Allen from Conway, Ark.
Gokey's wife, Sophia, died during surgery for a congenital heart defect four weeks before he auditioned for the show.
"I couldn't even cry. ... I was so shocked," Gokey told the crowd. "Me and my family, we didn't know how to say goodbye. ... It was the most tragic event I ever had to face in my life."
The couple had agreed he would try out for the show, and Gokey has called Sophia his "biggest inspiration."
He started his day early Friday morning at the local Fox affiliate, WITI-TV, where hundreds of people, many young girls, screamed his name and held signs that read "Ga Ga Gokey, ur our idol" and "We love you Danny."
After the visit, Gokey said he's struggled with song selection on "Idol."
"I've always done gospel music and I don't know much about the music outside of that realm," he said. "Literally every song I pick, I'm learning. I don't know what to pick and song choice has been the most difficult thing for me, and it only gets harder as it goes."
On Tuesday, "Idol" judge Simon Cowell criticized Gokey's performance of Aerosmith's "Dream On." Cowell said Gokey's final note _ an elongated scream _ "was like watching a horror movie."
But Gokey laughed about it Friday.
"Rock wasn't my thing, and I bit off a song that was bigger than me," he said.
"I loved it. It was terrible sounding, but it was funny. ... The thing is I can hit the note but that was like the 40th time. Finally, you get to a point your voice can only handle (so much). Right now my voice is sore from the rock."
At the church Friday, he returned to his gospel roots, singing "Glorify Him," "Keep on Praising" and "Praise Medley." His voice raspy from singing, he thanked God, his pastor Jeff Pruitt and his family for their support.
"Here all I got to do is sing and focus upward," he told the crowd. "On the 'American Idol' stage I got to work on focusing on the camera. I'm not the kind of guy to be all funky and crazy in front of the camera, but I'm developing that."
Ruben Burgos, 26, and his wife, Annie Burgos, 27, belong to the church but usually attend services at its Beloit location. Ruben Burgos said he and Gokey met in high school.
"He slept over at my house. We ate pancakes," he said. "It's amazing. You know, to see where he is at now. People are just getting to know the gift that's in him for people."
At one stop Gokey met Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who gave him an autographed jersey. Gokey later gave a free concert at the lakefront festival grounds.
The singer wrapped up his day by performing the national anthem and throwing out the first pitch of the Cubs-Brewers game at Miller Park.
He took to the rubber and pretended to make an underhand toss before winding up and nearly throwing the ball to the backstop if not for infielder Casey McGehee's leaping catch.
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