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When Willie Spence's American Idol audition premiered in February 2021, he was asked where he saw himself in five years. His response: "Hopefully winning a Grammy one day."
There was no question in anyone's mind during that audition that Willie Spence had a voice that was worthy of that award. However, instead of a special episode congratulating Willie's success in the music industry, American Idol will pay tribute to their Season 19 runner-up during tonight's episode, the Season 21 premiere, following his death last October.
There hasn't been one story I have typed about Willie since his passing that hasn't brought me to tears or been easy. This story is no different. I pulled up YouTube to see the date his audition aired, which led me to another one of his powerful performances, and I couldn't stop.
We have all heard of the fake celebrity death scams that occur. The night Willie passed, I was praying this was the case. We received a few messages asking if the rumors were true, and I remember saying that it had to be a sick joke; there was no way Willie Spence was gone.
I went to his contact on my phone and tried to call him. The phone rang but he didn't answer. For some reason, the fact that his phone didn't go straight to voicemail gave me a little hope that it wasn't true. I stared at my phone, waiting for a call or text back from him. Minutes went by, and I heard nothing. I reached out to producers from the show that I still had contact information for, and they hadn't heard anything, which also gave me a little optimism that he was okay.
A few minutes later, I received a call from someone confirming his death. That moment was the first time in 31 years I had ever been told someone I considered a friend had passed away. It was a feeling I'd never felt before.
Willie and I didn't speak every day, and we hadn't seen each other in a few months, which made his death even more unbelievable and hard to process. I spent the next day watching all of his performances and blasting his song "One Minute with God" on repeat in my car.
This was intended to be a short post letting people know about the tribute, much like the rest of the stories I've written about Willie since his passing have been: straight to the point and simple. But Willie Spence was not simple, and he was more than just someone from Douglas who went on to become the runner-up of a hit television show.
Along with everyone else who followed Willie's Idol journey, on the night of the finale, I sat patiently waiting for the winner to be announced. When he was named the runner-up, my heart sank. I immediately sent him a text, letting him know how much support he had from everyone in Coffee County. I wasn't expecting Willie to be angry with the outcome; he wasn't that kind of person.
The following morning, Willie responded, "Thank you, Kristen (with his typical diamond emojis)! Yes, you know, I feel like everything happens for a reason! & I'm grateful either way. I can't wait to be home with my family and see you all."
Willie didn't care about fame or money; he truly just wanted to make people smile with his God-given talent. Almost every time I spoke to Willie while he was on the show, he would express how surprised he was to still be there. He was modest and humble about his talent but also exuded natural confidence during his performances. He was unique, and he was kind. He loved his family deeply, especially his mother, and he went out of his way to brighten someone's day, even during his busiest times, including mine.
When someone passes, life eventually goes back to normal. We all move forward and heal, but that doesn't mean we forget about those we lost. Willie Spence will never be forgotten, as his voice and music can still be heard, keeping his memory alive.
During his audition, Willie told judges his only other wish was for his voice to "reach the world" so he could "share his gift." Tonight, his gift and life will be honored during a tribute in the American Idol season premiere. The show will begin at 8:00 p.m. on ABC.
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