As the American Idol auditions came to a close in Nashville, 28-year-old bakery cashier Sam Finelli made the judges jump up to give him a standing ovation after singing Kacey Musgraves’ 2018 ballad “Rainbow.”
The Georgia native, who was diagnosed with autism but is high functioning, according to his mother Suzie Finelli, told judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan that he usually shies away from singing for people.
“I have done some karaoke around our town and that was pretty exciting and that’s about it,” said Finelli. “I am going to be honest with y’all. I never thought I would be here in a million years.”
In a video reel before his performance, Finelli shared that he had no experience performing in public and most of his singing has been limited to his bedroom, basement, and shower. “I don’t like talking about it usually, but I was always different as a kid,” said Sam in the video. “I don’t connect with people very well. It’s just a small part of who I am, it’s not all of who I am. It was lonely growing up, but music was my best friend.”
Finelli’s mother talked about how music has helped him cope. “He puts in his earbuds and that’s how he learned to cope,” she said, “and now he’s going to show America just how talented he is.” Her son added, “I am ready to go after my dream. I’m afraid I’m not good enough, but right now at 28, I wanted to try before my age maxes out the age limit for ‘Idol.’ I wanted to give it a shot, so here I am.”
In tears following Finelli’s performance, Richie told the singer, “You told us about your struggles. Now, you walk out here to American Idol with no other experience, and you have three judges giving you a standing ovation. I want you to know right now, we are so proud of you. Sam, you were born enough. What you consider your handicap is your gift. You understand me? You are enough.”
Still overcome with emotion, Richie asked Perry to continue with the comments.
“Sam, I think you picked the perfect song,” said Perry, “because I think there has always been a rainbow hanging over your head.” Finelli responded, “I needed this song 20 years ago. I did.”
Perry told Finelli that the moment was now to follow his dreams. “All you have to do is let go of all that fear and negativity and always sing from your heart,” she said. “That’s all you have to do and that’s what you did just then. We felt that.”
Bryan added, “I love an experience and that felt like an experience. Thank you for being here.”
Richie later told Finelli’s mother, “He gave us the pure Sam, and that’s all that matters.”
After receiving the Golden Ticket to Hollywood Week, Finelli was elated. “This was the best day of my entire life,” he said. “This is my moment.”
Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC