On Wednesday night, Kodi Lee won season 14 of NBC’s America’s Got Talent, including $1 million and headlining shows from Nov. 7-10 at Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. But the one gift the Lake Elsinore, Calif., native has had his whole life — music — has given him more than the show’s prizes: It’s saved his life, according to his mom Tina Lee during his memorable, tear-jerking first AGT performance.
Kodi Lee’s biography says he was born with optic nerve hypoplasia and underwent a life-saving surgery at just 5 days old. He was also diagnosed with autism at an early age but neither has crippled the musical prodigy’s extraordinary talent. With his audio photographic memory, according to his bio, “he can recall music he hears after just one listen.”
“When we saw that special musical ability in him, we just knew there was something really special about him,” Tina Lee told E! News following his victory. “And then as we kept working with him, he just kept blowing people’s minds everywhere we went.”
Pursuing music with not only his unique talents, but also his jovial fervor landed him on smaller, local stages preceding his AGT debut. The 22-year-old singer and pianist kicked off the Elsinore High School pep rally with the national anthem back in 2012, later graduating to the small stage at the Long Beach Aquarium where he performed at the Human Abilities Event with his sister Kayla and brother Derek the following year.
His YouTube channel has amassed 282,000 followers and even garnered 1.7 million views for his cover of John Legend’s “All of Me” in 2015. The gusto he delivers isn’t simply garnish to his genius: He relies on music to connect to the rest of the world.
“Through music and performing, he was able to withstand living in this world because when you’re autistic, it’s really hard to do what everybody else does,” Tina Lee said during the season 14 premiere, after assisting her son onto the glossy AGT stage before judges Howie Mandel, Gabrielle Union, Julianne Hough and Simon Cowell. “It actually has saved his life playing music.”
While singing and playing Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You,” Kodi Lee blew everyone away in a moment the show can’t shake off from its history — a jaw drop from Cowell, countless tears from Hough, two standing ovations from the audience and one Golden Buzzer from Union, the judge’s first time using the coveted button.
From that moment forward, Kodi Lee crooned and riffed his way to the top, his hands moving nimbly across a piano performing the likes of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “You Are the Reason” with Leona Lewis.
As it came down to him and the Detroit Youth Choir, Kodi Lee stood as the sole winner of the singing competition show. He also stood “for so many families who fight so hard day in and day out for resources, opportunities to give all of our kids shots at winning at life,” Union told E! News.
And how does he want to celebrate with his $1 million? “I will buy lots of grand pianos in every color,” he said.