Phillips was born in Albany, Georgia, to Sheryl and Phillip LaDon “Donnie” Phillips, Sr., and moved to Leesburg, Georgia when he was twelve. He grew up in Sasser and Leesburg, and attended Lee County High School. He graduated from Albany Technical College with a major in Industrial Systems Technology, but missed the graduation ceremony due to his obligations to American Idol. Prior to appearing on American Idol, he worked at his family’s pawn shop.
Phillips auditioned in Savannah, Georgia. He sang “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder. The judges then asked him to perform a second song with his guitar, and he performed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” He advanced to the Hollywood rounds, and later to the Las Vegas round.