Hicks' professional music career began with performances at various venues, including The War Eagle Supper Club (a popular college bar) in Auburn, Ala and at the the Playboy Mansion. He released two independent albums, In Your Time (1997) and Under the Radar (2005), prior to appearing on Idol, though he never held a recording contract so he did not violate their requirements for contestants. Hicks has also spoken on Tapestry, a radio program on National Public Radio affiliate WBHM in Birmingham, in December 2005. Hicks has also performed with James Brown, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Drive-By Truckers, Robert Randolph, and contemporary blues legend Keb Mo.Hicks was a regular performer for weddings, including the wedding of Congressman Spencer Bachus's daughter, three years prior to Hicks' Idol run.
Hicks auditioned for American Idol in Las Vegas, Nevada. He originally wanted to try out in Memphis but the site was cancelled due to Hurricane Katrina. He was in New Orleans attending a wedding of a good friend he met while at Auburn University the night before Hurricane Katrina hit. His SWA flight was canceled and he was offered a travel voucher to use at a later date. He used the ticket voucher to fly to Las Vegas. Hicks passed the audition by the approval of judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, but not Simon Cowell, who said that Hicks would never make it to the final round. Cowell called back to this quote in a later episode and admitted he was wrong.
On the May 10, 2006 results show, Hicks along with Katharine McPhee and Elliott Yamin, who became Taylor's best friend on the show, were announced as the Top 3. On May 12, Idol producers brought Hicks to Birmingham for a weekend of promotional events including television interviews for the local FOX affiliate, a downtown parade and mini-concert, another concert at the Riverchase Galleria mall, an evening appearance at the Birmingham Museum of Art, and a campaign appearance with Governor Bob Riley. May 12 was proclaimed "Taylor Hicks Day" and Hicks was given the key to the city. Also on May 12, Governor Bob Riley issued a proclamation making May 16 "Taylor Hicks Day".
Hicks was named the new American Idol on May 24, 2006 winning the title over Katharine McPhee. Over 63.4 million votes were cast in total. With his win, Hicks (at 29) became the oldest person to win American Idol, only the second male to win the contest (after Ruben Studdard), and is the only man to win the contest against a woman in the finale. He is also the first and only white man and the fifth Southerner to win American Idol. He is the second American Idol from Birmingham, Alabama after season 2 winner Studdard, as well as the fourth finalist with Birmingham ties. He is the third person to win the competition without ever being in the bottom two or three (after Kelly Clarkson & Carrie Underwood) and the only man (as of Season 5) to attain such a feat. (Although Clay Aiken was never in the bottom 2 or 3, he did not win the Idol competition.)
Hicks signed a record contract with music mogul Clive Davis in conjunction with 19 Recordings Unlimited, the label managed by "AI" creator Simon Fuller, in May 2006. Arista Records began releasing Hicks' recordings the following month. His first official concert as American Idol will be on July 1 in Utah at Brigham Young University's Stadium of Fire to celebrate Fourth of July week. He did perform at Birmingham's City Stages music festival, first on-stage with Snoop Dogg and with both the Allman Brothers and his former band, the Little Memphis Blues Orchestra, on Father's Day.
In June, 2006, Ford Motor Company signed Hicks to perform the song “Possibilities” in a new commercial to promote Ford’s “Drive on Us” year-end sales event.