Mother-daughter 'American Idol' audition makes Lionel Richie cry: 'That got me messed up'

American Idol Season 19 premiered on Valentine’s Day, but this Sunday’s episode felt like an early Mother’s Day celebration, with several proud moms showing their love for their auditioning offspring. There was even one adorkable mother-son joint performance of “My Funny Valentine” that earned a Golden Ticket (for the son, Timmy Skelly, at least). But it was another duet between 19-year-old Ronda Felton and her devoted single mom, of a sentimental Commodores song, that had judge and former Commodore Lionel Richie in tears.

Ronda herself was in tears — “tears of joy,” she clarified — from almost the instant she entered the audition room, stood in front of the judges, and realized that Idol could change everything for her struggling family. “I’m here today because I want to succeed,” she earnestly declared. Opening up about her rough childhood, during which she and her mom were often homeless and living all over the country in shelters, in cars, or on friends’ couches, Ronda said of her mother’s sacrifice: “I know at time she felt she liked failed as a parent, but she did anything that helped us survive and just keep on going.”

After Lionel handed her a tissue to dab at her tears, Ronda composed herself and belted the ballad version of Dreamgirls’ “One Night Only.” And it was a Jennifer Hudson wow moment. This was an absolutely stunning, finale-worthy performance, maybe even a Grammy-worthy one. Within seconds, Lionel’s eyes were watering, and he was probably wishing he’d kept that tissue for himself. “I was doing really well, until you came in and did something that no one has done tonight — which is touch me to the point of making me cry,” Lionel told Ronda.

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Moved by Ronda’s backstory as well as by her raw talent, Lionel continued: “Every once in a while, life happens and then you figure, ‘How do I get out of this situation?’ And God provides a crack in the wall. … That crack is just enough for you to get through. And my dear, you just found that crack — because that was the moment that will change your life.” Ronda barely heard the judges’ enthusiastic, unanimous yeses before she impulsively raced outside to grab her mother and pull her back into the room to hear the good news.

Lionel Richie is moved to tears on 'American Idol.' (Photo: ABC)
Lionel Richie is moved to tears on American Idol. (Photo: ABC)

And that was when Lionel’s tears flowed anew, when Ronda and her mother, Juretha Jones, stood holding hands in front of the judges and, upon Katy Perry’s request, sang their “song of celebration”: the Commodores’ “Zoom.” Juretha explained, “I personally love that song. I love the way it makes me feel.” And without missing a beat, Lionel began reciting his “Zoom” lyrics to Ronda and Juretha — “I may be just a foolish dreamer, but I don't care/’Cause I know my happiness is waiting out there somewhere” — before joining them in a joyous impromptu singalong.

Lionel was rendered uncharacteristically speechless by the sweet moment (seriously, if you didn’t smile or tear up even just a little while watching this at home, you have no soul), as a beaming Luke Bryan bear-hugged him and called him a “badass.” Once Lionel pulled himself together, he reflected on the meaning of the Commodores song, which was written in 1977 but is just as relevant today (and not just because it has the word “Zoom” in its chorus).

Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan share a moment on 'American Idol.' (Photo: ABC)
Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan share a moment on American Idol. (Photo: ABC)

“I never thought I’d get on this show and start revealing my side. You know, when I wrote that song I was deeply troubled, because I didn’t know where I was going,” Lionel confessed to Ronda and Juretha. (The hopeful tune was co-penned by Lionel’s then-bandmate Ronald LaPread, whose wife was battling what turned out to be terminal cancer at the time.) “So, if I touched you in any way, you’ve given me the greatest gift ever. Thank you. Whoa. That got me messed up.”

With her incredible attitude, incredible set of pipes, and incredible mother (who I dearly hope is headed to Hollywood as well, because Juretha deserves more screentime), Ronda is sure to go far on Idol. As Luke put it after watching her sing, “That was a great performance, but I have big ol’ feeling it’s not your best performance to come.” However, joining Ronda in Hollywood will be a slew of talented kids (and possibly some of their moms), many of whom shared equally heartbreaking stories this Sunday about their difficult journeys to the Idol stage. So, have your own tissues at the ready, and read on…

Cecil Ray, 20: “Talkin’ Tennessee”

This small-town Texan and new, very young father lost his best friend, brother, and uncle to suicide, all when Cecil was between the ages of 11 and 13. But like the resilient Ronda, Cecil has maintained a positive attitude. (“You are probably our best motivational speaker ever,” said Lionel.) His performance skills needed some work — he kept flailing his arms like a Wacky Waving Inflatable Tube Guy, so distractingly so that Luke made him sing a second time with his hands in his pockets. (“Do you drink coffee? Don’t. Don’t ever,” Katy advised Cecil.) But Luke thought Cecil’s reedy voice was “absolute perfection” and “really distinctive and interesting,” the perfect voice to fill Season 19’s “male country kid slot.” So, if Cecil lays off the caffeine, always wears pants with pockets, and learns to harness all that nervous energy, he could be top 10 material.

Graham DeFranco, 27: “Part One”

Graham, who’s a pilot by day, has never taken his music career seriously, only doing Open Mic Nights on the side. His vocals on his well-chosen Band of Horses cover were lighter and airier than I’d expected from such a tough, bear-like dude, but they were pleasingly raspy à la Season 9 winner Lee DeWyze or last week’s Apple Valley forklift operator Chayce Beckham. Luke even told Graham he possessed “one most listenable voices we’ve heard.” Graham admitted, “I don’t think I believe in myself enough,” which prompted Katy and Lionel to give him a stern, tough-loving pep talk. “You have a gift that you have not gone for 100 percent,” Lionel scolded. “I push because I care,” explained Katy. Now it’s time for Graham to push himself.

Mary Jo Young, 19: “You Broke Me First”/“Bruises”

What’s up with all of these Season 19 newbies who’ve only ever sung TikTok or Instagram — yet seem absolutely ready for prime time? Mary Jo, despite being from a musical family, hadn’t even performed in front of her own mother before, but when she showcased her lilting Lorde/Julia Michaels-esque indie-pop voice for her mom and the judges this Sunday, they were all impressed. The look of delight and surprise on Mom’s face when Mary Jo went into that key change was simply priceless. “I’m kind of in love with the idea of watching you grow on this show,” mused Lionel, while Luke declared Mary Jo top 10 material. (Side note: The judges have already predicted that at least 20 contestants will make the top 10 or the top five, or will actually win. Hollywood Week is going to be filled with unavoidable brutal cuts, and I’m already kind of dreading it.)

Christian McGuckan, 20: “Girl Crush”

After a brush with death in a car accident two months ago, Christian, who works as a maid by day, had an epiphany. She realized she “would have gone out not happy” with her life if that had been the end, so she took a chance and tried out for Idol — her first audition for anything, ever. The poor girl was so nervous, and it showed — she simply could not stay in time, and she was shedding more tears than Ronda Felton and Lionel Richie combined. But there was something I liked about her; she had a sassy tomboy personality that reminded me of Sissy from Urban Cowboy, and a surprisingly mighty voice for such a tiny girl. Luke really liked Christian, raving she had “magic country stuff” in her voice, but he was worried that she wouldn’t be able to handle Hollywood. Such fears were justified, but I’m still glad he and his fellow judges gave her a shot. (“We’re all on your team,” Katy assured her.) Said Christian, “I haven’t done anything big in life. This is like the biggest thing I’ve done. It showed me that I’m more than what I thought I was.” I’m on Christian’s team too. She just needs some confidence — and maybe a metronome.

Alanis Sophia, 19: “Anyone”

This was another touching story of parental sacrifice. Alanis’s mom was 19 — the same age Alanis is now — when Alanis was born, and during those years of struggle, Mama Sophia found solace in the music of her favorite singer. Yes, you guessed it: Alanis Morissette. Alanis Sophia therefore seemed destined to follow a musical path, and when she auditioned while singing into the toy American Idol microphone that her mother gave her years ago, it was just about the cutest thing ever. “You held up your little mic, and you did it with all the sincerity in the world and I believed it!” gushed Katy, who famously got into music because of her own Morissette fandom. This Alanis was also clearly born to do it. She delivered a classic Idol performance, very Clarkson-esque, the perfect combination of diva prowess and girl-next-door sweetness. “The purity of your voice and personality. … I was enjoying the simplicity of your craft,” said Lionel. How much do you want to bet that when Alanis S. makes the finale — which seems very likely — she’ll be dueting with Alanis M.?

Erika “E.T.” Perry: “E.T.” /“Valerie”

This audition had quite the plot twist. Erika started off as a seeming joke contestant, obnoxiously hitting on her “soulmate” Ryan Seacrest, putting the “extra” in “extra-terrestrial,” and so extremely garbling her Katy Perry lyrics that Luke actually thought she was singing in a foreign language. But Erika’s fellow eccentric Katy glimpsed something in her, realizing that Erika’s quirky-girl shtick was just a defense mechanism after years of being teased and misunderstood. “I think you’re both annoying and good,” Katy told Erika. “I think you’re likable — and I think that you might not think you are, and that’s why you’re putting all this on. … I think no one has ever believed in you.” And all of a sudden, Erika tears poured. Her façade crumbled. Luke didn’t believe Erika would be able correct her many bad vocal habits, so he said no. But while Lionel admitted, “I don’t get it,” he still gave her “a very sparing yes.” And Katy said, “I see you” and reasoned, “It’s easier to strip it out than build it up. So, I say yes.” And with that, Erika, who’d just been dumped by her boyfriend because he said she had no ambition, got the last laugh. But this was actually a serious, teachable moment, and one I never saw coming. I don’t think even Erika saw it coming.

Hunter Metts, 22: “All the Pretty Girls”

Hunter’s sister quit her job at Disney — the company that owns ABC, which airs Idol — so that there’d be no conflict of interest and Hunter could finally audition. Was it worth it? Probably. Hunter’s Kaleo cover showcased a delicate, distinctive indie voice. “I almost started crying when he hit that one note,” sighed Luke. Yes, more tears! And yes, more semifinals predictions, as both Luke and Katy pegged Hunter as… wait for it… top 10 material.

Samantha Sharpe, 25: “Titanium”

This middle kid from the Sharpe Family Singers was one of several contestants who, like the three others listed below, didn’t receive much screentime Sunday. Her Sia snippet did showcase what Lionel called “masterful control,” but she seemed to have zero personality, which is probably why her audition wasn't shown in full. Let’s see if she can go solo in Hollywood, or if she’s better off staying in a family band.

Xavier Washington, 22, “Wanted”

Katy called this “one of the most technical perfect vocals I think we’ve ever gotten.” So why not show his entire audition? I need more of Xavier’s pristine falsetto in my life.

Celeste Butler, 23: “Best of My Love”

Celeste deserved a Golden Ticket for her disco-divalicious purple jumpsuit alone; she was serving lovechild-of-Prince-and-Diana Ross realness. But her voice and presence sparkled as much as that jewel-toned metallic fabric. I need to see more of Celeste too.

Dzaki, 20: “Good As You”

I’m not sure if this guy’s pleasant coffeehouse crooning will be enough to make him stand out in Season 19 — but sometimes, less is more. So, I’m intrigued by what I’ve seen of Dzaki so far.

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