Danny Gokey was sent home by "American Idol" viewers on Wednesday in an elimination that set the stage for next week's showdown between the last two singing contestants on America's most-watched television show.
Gokey, 29, a widowed church music director from Wisconsin, had until this week been one of the leading vote-getters among viewers this season. He lost his wife to heart disease last July.
Following his elimination, Gokey sang an encore of "You Are So Beautiful," the Joe Cocker-popularized ballad he had performed the night before to praise from the judges.
Judge Kara DioGuardi sat with her hands clasped as she watched Gokey sing, while fellow panelist Paula Abdul appeared to fight back tears.
Afterward, judge Simon Cowell said Gokey's elimination and the looming showdown between Adam Lambert and Kris Allen, who was considered an underdog, came as a surprise.
"None of us would have predicted this, guys," Cowell said. "No disrespect, because you were brilliant last night, and just now by the way Danny, congratulations."
Cowell then offered his view on how the final competition could shape up.
"This could be what we call a big ding-dong coming up next week," he said.
The winner of the show's eighth season will be announced during a live finale next Wednesday.
Lambert, 27, a musical theater actor from California, has long been considered the presumed front-runner on the show, with the judges praising his vocal command and risk-taking.
Allen, 23, is a college student from Arkansas known for his abilities on the acoustic guitar and the piano and for giving a new twist to songs with his earnest style.
Other highlights of Wednesday's show included performances by 2007 "Idol" champion Jordin Sparks and "I Kissed a Girl" singer Katy Perry.
This week's elimination round drew more than 88 million votes from viewers, with slightly more than 1 million votes separating Lambert and Allen, host Ryan Seacrest said.
"American Idol" pits aspiring singers against one another in a series of competitions leading up to the finale, with the season champion winning a recording contract.
The program has more than 25 million viewers per episode, and is broadcast by the Fox network, a unit of News Corp.
Past winners, including Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, have enjoyed Grammy-winning careers, but even runners-up such as Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry have gone on to stardom.
(Editing by Dean Goodman and Peter Cooney)