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"Hallelujah" for Idol

Who's American Idol's biggest winner so far? The answer might surprise you.

David Archuleta has the buzz. Chikezie just might have had the performance of the week. But it's Jeff Buckley who scored the No. 1 hit.

"Hallelujah," a Leonard Cohen song released by the late Buckley 14 years ago, came out of nowhere to top iTunes' sales chart this past week after one Idol performance, and one big Idol shout-out.

According to Buckley's record label, the song, which slipped to No. 5 by Friday, is the first No. 1 anything on a U.S. chart for the acclaimed singer-songwriter who accidentally drowned in 1997 at the age of 30.

"We couldn't pay people to make that choice," said Buckley's mother, Mary Guibert, of Jason Castro's decision to sing "Hallelujah" on the Mar. 4 Idol.

The song earned Castro raves, Cohen a rare prime-time mention for a poet, and Buckley a tribute from none other than the Dark Lord of the Sith, judge Simon Cowell.

"The Jeff Buckley version of that song is one of my favorite songs of all time," Cowell said.

Less than 48 hours later, Buckley's "Hallelujah," a six-minute-plus novel compared to Castro's 90-second condensed version, was the second most downloaded song on iTunes—and climbing.

The power of Idol, not to mention the pull of Buckley, an influential, though never top-selling, performer, had spoken. And not just on iTunes. Grace, the 1994 album that featured "Hallelujah," stood in 10th place, and in the company of giants such as Michael Jackson's Thriller, on Billboard's latest pop catalog album chart.

"It really has translated on that level," Guibert said of the surge in album sales. "Once they heard ["Hallelujah"], they wanted to hear more about the artist.

"And Jeff is going to take them to meet Nina Simone, Van Morrison and a bunch of other people."

"Hallelujah" itself is a testament to Buckley's penchant for cross-referencing. Guibert said her son found the Cohen song by way of John Cale, who'd recorded it for a French-issued Cohen tribute album.

Buckley's version, just vocals and guitar, became a staple of his live shows.

"He used it at the end of the encore," Guibert said. "There was never a dry eye in the house."

Buckley has no known connection to the latest "Hallelujah" interpreter, Jason Castro. Guibert said she doesn't know the 20-year-old Idol finalist from Texas, and marveled that he was able to slip in a song that was first recorded, but never a hit, in the 1980s onto the show's 1980s-themed week.

"A choice like this indicates to me that it was a personal choice," Guibert said.

As it turns out, Guibert was among the tens of millions watching Castro and Idol on March 4. A friend who'd seen the show in an earlier time zone tipped her off, and she tuned in. Anxiously.

"I held my breath through the whole thing for the artist," Guibert said. "You never know what people are going to say. I wanted it to be positive for the young man who was singing."

Guibert was not disappointed.

"Even, bless his heart, Simon Cowell didn't have a bad word to say out it," Guibert said. "He would have gotten a letter from me had he."

The mentions for Buckley and Cohen were bonuses. Her son, Guibert thinks, would have especially appreciated the spotlight on Cohen.

"I'm sure Jeff would just be pleased as punch that something he did went on to honor that gentleman," Guibert said.

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