Interview: Johnny Manuel talks chasing his dream and his 'now or never' AGT moment
America's Got Talent YouTube

Flint, Michigan native singer-songwriter Johnny Manuel’s journey to the “America’s Got Talent" season 12 audition stage is filled with many dramatic highs and lows. His amazing vocal prowess was immediately apparent, though, when he soared through a bold-if-not-risky performance of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing.” He was treading on sacred ground. There has arguably never been a male AGT contender to cover the late, great R & B songstress in such spectacular fashion and the crowd roared with excitement accordingly.

Seasoned AGT judge Howie Mandel sprang to his feet then declared, “That was a jaw-dropping ‘America’s Got Talent’ moment.” Simon Cowell jokingly called him a “diva” then praised him for knowing how to “nail and sell a song.”

It wouldn’t be a stretch for anyone watching to think, “Why hasn’t this guy already been signed?” The truth, which Johnny revealed before he sang, is that he was signed, at the tender age of 14. He even opened for Lil’ Bow Wow and *NSYNC before he was suddenly dropped by his label and forced to watch “living his dream” evaporate into thin air.

He was 18 then and many teens bearing this kind of disappointment might crumble under the weight of it all. Not Johnny. Instead of falling apart, the talented singer pressed on and relentlessly contacted everyone he met while touring. He just needed one person to believe in him and help him rebound. Unfortunately, all his leads fizzled. Yet, he still didn’t give up hope.

Where did his resiliency and strong spirit come from at such a young age?

Perhaps from his parents. His mother Sheena and his father Johnny Manuel, Sr. were very supportive during his struggles. They were both musicians who performed in a group with two of Johnny’s aunts and a friend. They played local venues, were featured on local radio stations, and had a recording studio in Johnny’s childhood home. So, music was a strong part of his identity, from a very early age.

Like many great R & B singers, Johnny started singing in the church choir (with his mother as the director). He performed in front of his first “audience” at a family reunion when he was six. As he grew, his love of music deepened. He listened to Anita Baker, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Celine Dion, and Donny Hathaway.

“I’ve always loved big singers who could take a song and finesse it in delivery,” Johnny told AXS in a recent exclusive phone interview.

Johnny seems well-suited to join those “big singer” ranks, after getting such a tremendous positive response from his AGT audition. He wanted to showcase who he really is as an artist, though the label had previously tried to mold him into someone else.

“Because I was young and because I was black and I was from Flint, Michigan, I think a record company saw me as a certain way. They wanted me to sort of be much more hip hop and wear baggier clothes and not really sing so much. It wasn’t about the singing. It was about image. It was about cranking out a machine. It was different,” he explained.

That’s a lot of pressure for a young person who was just on the cusp of a career. He was awestruck by the tour bus and the idea of traveling to perform. He felt a certain camaraderie with his fellow touring acts, which also included Christina Milian, because they were all around the same age.

“Everyone was around the same age. Everyone else around us were adults. So, we enjoyed hanging out together,” said Johnny.

Naturally, he was devastated to give up that life after getting dropped. However, at 32, he realizes he was meant to give something deeper with his musical gift. His triumphant “America’s Got Talent” audition reinforced his belief.

“Now, I want people to hear my voice and enjoy that,” Johnny said, “I feel like that is what I’m here for, to touch people with my voice. To let people hear it and then feel something from it. Which is exactly what has been happening. I’ve been getting an outpouring of love and support from all over the world. Which for me, is complete validation that I’m headed in the right direction and that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

This season’s AGT talent roster is extremely large. Like most of his fellow hopefuls, Johnny battled nerves as he took the stage to perform in what he felt would be a pivotal moment in his lifelong music journey.

“I felt like it’s now or never. I felt like, if I don’t do this now – I worked so hard, I’ve struggled so much and I’ve given so much of myself that if I don’t do it now, it’s probably not going to happen,” Johnny said. “So, in that moment I felt like ‘Just calm yourself, relax and just really give the best of yourself; because you’re not going to get this opportunity again.’”

He admittedly broke the cardinal rule of auditioning on purpose because he felt like this kind of do-or-die moment deserved a bold move.

He said, “Everyone is always told, ‘Never do a Whitney Houston song in an audition.’ So, I thought, ‘I’m gonna be brave and I’m gonna try this and I’m just gonna stick to my gut and do it.’ So, the response after that felt completely validating.”

He delivered a chill-inducing performance that left an indelible imprint on people watching around the world. Making this kind of impact with his listeners is the most important reason Johnny remains determined in his quest to forge a successful career. He has been moved by the positive feedback streaming daily across his growing social media sites.

“I’ve gotten messages from people who are sick or who have relatives who are sick and they said for a moment in time I took them out of that head space. I made them forget about their illness or their family member’s illness and they were able to just sit back and enjoy life,” Johnny said. “That, for me, is why I’m so happy that I get to do what I’m doing right now. Because without touching people, without really changing people’s lives I’d just be doing it for myself. I’ve always felt I’m here to do it for other people.

“The person that did that the most for me was Donny Hathaway and a song by him is ‘A Song For You,'" he continued. "I remember listening to that song a million times in my bedroom growing up and I just could not stop. I listened to it every single day and every time someone asked me to sing I wanted to do that song, so, Donny Hathaway and 'A Song for You' is what did that for me.”

Johnny understands firsthand the rigors of being from the Midwest and trying to break into the highly competitive music industry. He is deeply grateful for all the support he’s garnered both on and offline during his AGT journey. He encourages local aspiring artists to “never stop” pursuing their dream.

“Never stop, even if you do get discouraged,” he stressed. “And, just do any and everything you hear about going on. No matter what it is, show up and give what you have. Because, you’re not going to get any better feedback than from a live audience. They’ll let you know exactly what you should be working on or what things are working or not. Take most of it with a grain of salt because you’re going to get a lot of negativity. But please just keep going.”

Follow @JohnnyManuel on Twitter.

“America’s Got Talent” airs on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT on NBC.