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'American Idol' fan favorite Willie Spence dies in car crash: 'Willie Pavarotti' was 23

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When Willie Spence auditioned for American Idol Season 19 with a spectacular cover of Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” judge Katy Perry asked him where he expected to be in five years, to which he answered, “Hopefully winning a Grammy one day.” Many overconfident Idol contestants make such bold statements, but in the case of Spence — who went on to be widely considered to be one of the greatest singers to ever appear on the show — this seemed like a very within-reach goal.

“That Grammy is attainable, no doubt in my mind. … You’re an unbelievable, special human being,” judge Luke Bryan told Spence at the time.

But that dream and Spence’s magnificent voice were silenced Tuesday, when the 23-year-old gospel/R&B power-vocalist was killed in an automobile accident in Tennessee. A family member first confirmed the tragic news, telling TMZ that Spence had a flat tire at some point Tuesday, but had supposedly gotten it fixed and then continued driving from Tennessee to his hometown of Atlanta. The source told TMZ that Spence later crashed into a semi-truck that was parked on the side of the road. No other details were given as press time.

Just hours before his death, on Tuesday afternoon, Spence posted an Instagram reel of him belting contemporary Christian band Selah’s “You Are My Hiding Place." Chillingly, the video was filmed in his car.

Spence first caught the attention of Idol producers through another viral video, shot in 2017 in the prodigy’s high school music room, of him singing Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” (That video has racked up 15 million views on YouTube alone.) After putting his career on hold when his mother had a stroke, and suffering his own health scare that led him to take control of his life and lose 180 pounds, he tried out for Idol at age 21 with Rihanna's song and quickly established himself as the one to beat. “I feel like God has given me a second chance,” he once declared during his 2021 Idol run.

While Spence eventually placed second to Chayce Beckham, he delivered some of the most memorable performances of Season 19, or of any Idol season. Guest mentor Finneas praised Spence for having “one of the best voices I’ve ever heard,” and when another guest mentor, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, heard Spence sing a gospel remake of “Yellow,” he joked that Coldplay had been “doing it wrong this whole time!” Judge Lionel Richie compared Spence to Donny Hathaway and Luther Vandross, and told him, “Your career is waiting right there for you.” Bryan told Spence, “You're literally going to save people's lives with your voice. You're going to bring people back from a dark place. You're going to bring people out of stuff. They're going to walk up to you one day and they're going to tell you that you saved their lives.”

One of Spence’s biggest TV moments came during the top 24 round, when he dueted with fellow American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee. When he and McPhee joined forces for a stupendous rendition of Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion’s “The Prayer,” the performance earned him the nickname “Willie Pavarotti” from Richie. As the news of Spence’s death spread Tuesday evening, McPhee was one of the many mourners to pay tribute on social media, writing in her Instagram stories, “I received very tragic news tonight. Sweet @williespenceofficial passed away in a car accident. Only 23 years old. Life is so unfair and nothing is ever promised. God rest your soul Willie. It was a pleasure to sing with you and to know you.”

After American Idol, Spence teased that he was working on an EP of gospel/pop songs, posting on Instagram in May 2022, “It’s time to finally share some new music soon.” The accompanying video, titled “Willie Spence…Behind the Music,” showed him in a recording studio, listening to playback and cutting vocals. Also this year, he participated in ABC’s “Great Idol Reunion” special to celebrate American Idol’s 20th anniversary, teaming with Season 19 third-place contestant Grace Kinstler for a soulful version of Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be.”

Before Queen Elizabeth II died, Spence had received an invitation to sing the U.K. national anthem with the Sounds of Success marching band for the queen. “I couldn’t believe it — to be able to go out of the country. I’ve never been out of the country before,” Spence told Idol host Ryan Seacrest at the time. Although that performance, which had been set for June 2023, obviously never happened, Spence was scheduled to make his live London debut at Trinity Baptist Church on Nov. 12 this year.

“You have the gift from God,” Bryan once told Spence on American Idol, after Spence belted "I Was Here" by Beyoncé. "Trust me, no one will ever forget that Willie was here."

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