Willie Spence, the Georgia singer who stole viewers’ hearts during his run to second place on the 2021 season of American Idol, has died. The news was shared by fellow Idol alum Katharine McPhee-Foster, who wrote in her Instagram story on Tuesday (Oct. 11) that she’d just received the news that Spence had died in a car accident.
“Only 23 years old. Life is so unfair and nothing is ever promised,” she wrote. “God rest your soul Willie. It was a pleasure to sing with you and to know you.” McPhee and Spence performed a duet of Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli’s “The Prayer” during season 19. She also left another message on a Sept. 25 post on Spence’s Instagram, writing, “Sweet Willie… you deserved the stars and the moon. I’m so sorry for the world to be robbed of more precious time with you. You were an absolute Angel. I know you are up there now with the rest of the angels. God rest your soul. ”
A spokesperson for Idol has not yet returned requests for comment on Spence’s death, but the show posted a tribute video on Wednesday featuring the singer’s memorable audition and the message, “We are devastated about the passing of our beloved American Idol family member, Willie Spence. He was a true talent who lit up every room he entered and will be deeply missed. We send our condolences to his loved ones.” The video drew emotional responses from former season 19 Idol contestants Casey Bishop, Ava August and Olivia Ximines.
TMZ reported that an unnamed family source said the singer was driving back home to Atlanta from Tennessee when he reportedly crashed into a semi parked on the side of the road. Local news site Douglas Now in Spence’s hometown of Douglas, Ga., was first to report the news about the crash in Tennessee. No additional information is available about the accident at press time.
Spence made his mark on Idol with a memorable audition performance of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” that drew a standing ovation from judge Lionel Richie and a question from Katy Perry about his future. “The voice you have … because you know it stops people in their tracks, this is the magic you have. In five years, what do you want it to look like? In your wildest dreams, if nothing was standing in your way,” Perry said.
Spence told her his goal was for his voice to “reach the world” and, if he was lucky, “[win] a Grammy one day. That’s where I see myself in five years.” He said it would be hard work, but he felt like he could achieve that goal. Spence had an epic run through the show, drawing praise all along the way for his renditions of “The Prayer,” John Legend’s “All of Me,” Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain,” Elton John’s “Circle of Life” and Coldplay’s “Yellow.”
By the time he got to the top four, Spence secured his spot in the finale with Legend and Common’s “Glory” and Beyoncé’s “I Was Here.” On the season 19 finale he wowed one more time with Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Cynthia Erivo’s “Stand Up.” His performances moved him ahead of Grace Kinstler, but country singer Chayce Beckham ultimately earned that season’s crown.
Just hours before Tuesday’s crash, Spence posted an Instagram video in which he crooned Selah’s “You Are My Hiding Place” from behind the wheel. According to his Instagram, Spence was slated to perform in London for the first time on Nov. 22 at Trinity Baptist Church Oasis House in Croydon. The singer released the six-song EP The Voice in 2021 and was featured on Briana Moir’s 2022 single “The Living Years.”
See Spence’s final post and watch his Idol audition — and the show’s tribute — below.