“I’m about to go out there and give it everything I have, leave everything on the floor. I’m gonna leave with no regrets,” Elijah McCormick declared right before his American Idol audition Sunday. And while many Idol contestants have displayed this sort of determination and positive attitude, Elijah had special motivation to seize the day when singing Rascal Flatts’ “God Bless the Broken Road” — because his broken road almost never led him to this moment.
Elijah’s backstory was harrowing, even by Idol standards, on a show filled with contestants who’ve overcome hardship and tragedy to make it to the audition room. The 21-year-old belter was in a horrific, fiery automobile accident on his high school graduation day — just a few hours after receiving his diploma, and when he was only one mile away from his home — in June 2019.
“I had to learn to walk again, learn to talk again,” Elijah revealed. “I flatlined a couple times in the process of being airlifted. And then I flatlined a couple times on the operating table — a total of nine times. I was in the hospital for 79 days, had about 10 surgeries: open-heart surgeries, dialysis. I’m just thankful to be here, honestly — so thankful for the guardian angels that were around me that day.”
“Those days he was in the hospital, he was very determined,” Elijah’s mother emotionally recalled. “I remember the first time he was able to talk, his first question to me was, ‘Mama, can I still sing?’ And so, he tried to sing a song.”
Elijah watched that 2019 hospital-bed footage, of him struggling to sing again, on a wall-sized video screen right before his audition, shaking his head as he pondered his miraculous, against-all-odds recovery. “I would’ve never expected to go through something like that, man. I was not supposed to be here,” he marveled. “So, I have to fulfill my purpose.”
And that he most certainly did. After Elijah’s beautiful and heartfelt audition, Luke Bryan had “goosebumps” and proclaimed, “I just gotta say it, the last person that I saw approach singing like you was Willie Spence” — referring to the fan-favorite Season 19 runner-up (who, eerily, died in a car accident last year).
“I mean, you hit one of those notes and I thought ‘Willie,’ and from then on I couldn’t recover. I was trying to look very dignified, and then it just beat me up some more,” said Lionel Richie, tearing up and reaching for one of his always-at-the-ready handkerchiefs. “But let me just tell you this: God brought you back nine times for you to do something amazing. I’m so glad you’re here with us. And that was just one of those moments in my life I will never forget.”
“Elijah, do you understand that this is like the beginning of your story?” said Katy Perry. “It’s the beginning. I can’t believe you came to us. How the heck did you even come to us?” When Katy found out that Elijah’s mom had actually signed him up for this show before his accident (“Like, I had my ID number and everything,” Elijah explained), she then told him: “You’re just here fulfilling your destiny. This was always meant to be.”
“God brought him back for a reason,” Lionel then told Elijah’s mother, who had proudly accompanied her son to his long-deferred audition. “There is a purpose in life. And it starts right on that [Idol] oval. I know you went through absolute torture. But God bless you and your family and that golden child right there.”
The fact that Lionel called Elijah a “golden child” was another goosebump-raising moment, and signal of the singer’s destiny — because, as it turned out ,“Golden Child” had been Elijah’s nickname when he was admitted to the emergency room. “My ID got burnt up in the car, and that’s what they called me on that whole floor in the hospital,” Elijah revealed. “That’s crazy that you just said that.”
So, the Golden Child received Golden Ticket on Sunday… but it was actually a Platinum Ticket. Elijah competed in the American Music Awards’ Platinum Ticket contest last fall against 10 other hopefuls, and he earned the most votes, thus fast-tracking him past the first round of Season 21’s Hollywood Week. The fact that he won this honor based solely on the brief audition snippet that was shown — without viewers, at that time, knowing anything about his accident — is a strong indication of his God-given talent and chances going forward.
But many other talented singers received Golden Tickets on Sunday. These were the other standouts of the night:
Sara Beth, 25: “You Know I’m No Good” / “Bennie and the Jets”
This adorkable, young mother of three only started semi-seriously pursuing music about six months ago, with her prior singing experience mostly limited to karaoke nights with her gal pals. “I’m still processing; like, this is so much,” she admitted, as she addressed the superstar judging panel. Katy suspected that music isn’t Sara’s true passion — that she doesn’t have that same hunger as other Idol singers — and while I thought Sara’s Amy Winehouse cover warranted a Golden Ticket on its own, Katy griped that it was “not enough” and demanded a second-chance song, the Elton John cover. “Sing it like it’s your dream,” Katy instructed. Katy actually encouraged Sara to get a bit too shouty in parts (by the end, the winded singer exclaimed, “I feel like I’m gonna pass out!”), but there were some Haley Reinhart-esque “Bennie” moments in there. “You don’t know what the hell you’re doing here, but you’re a great singer,” laughed Luke, who said yes to Hollywood. Lionel didn’t think Sara was ready for prime time, but Katy was eventually impressed enough to cast a vote in Sara’s favor, calling her an “accidental American Idol.” Quite a happy accident, indeed — I adore this quirky girl, who Katy described as a “comic strip character come to life.”
Tanner Charles, 20: “Golden Eyes”
This Oklahoma singer-songwriter sang an original penned for his girlfriend, Delaney — a surprise early birthday gift — which had Katy exclaiming, “This is TV! This is TV!” when Delaney was invited into the audition room for the world premiere of “Golden Eyes.” The song reminded me of Lewis Capaldi (if Capaldi hadn’t gotten his heart broken — think Lewis in pre-“Someone You Loved” mode), and Katy praised Tanner’s “exceptional” songwriting skills, telling him: “There are a lot of singers that come to this show, but you are an artist.” Luke told Tanner, “You’re one of the best I’ve personally seen at telling a story. … Your instincts are perfect.” All three judges said yes, but the most important vote came from Delaney, who called this song the “best birthday gift I could have ever asked for.”
Adin Boyer, 22, “Predicament”
Adin was diagnosed with autism age 2 — right around the same time that his artsy parents realized he had perfect pitch. (“Music has always been easy for me; it’s the other things in life that aren’t easy,” he explained.) Adin’s actress mom and trombonist/bandleader dad quickly enrolled him in a classical music lessons, and 20 years later, it has paid off, as his original song showcased his savant-level musicianship to great effect. (“That was truly some of the best piano-playing I’ve heard on American Idol,” Luke remarked.) Luke was actually more impressed with Adin’s piano skills than with Adin’s voice and initially was going to say no, but like Katy — who was impressed by Adin’s “really big surprise note” at the end of this audition — he decided to “roll the dice” on Adin. Lionel was a yes from the start, giving “Predicament” a standing ovation and saying, “I could listen to that all day long.” Adin has sensory issues — specifically when it comes to sudden, loud noises — that could make his time during the chaos of Hollywood Week tough… but he did manage to figure out a way to handle seeing a high-decibel-level concert by his favorite band, Coldplay, at the 90,000-seat Rose Bowl, so I think he will be just fine.
Wé Ani, 23: “Anyone”
This spunky Harlem diva (who eagle-eyed/eared reality-viewers might recognized as robbed The Voice Season 11 contestant Wé McDonald), came in with a squeaky cartoon-voice/Frenchie-from-Grease speaking voice… but then she let rip a resonant baritone on Demi Lovato’s massive ballad. “Way to throw the curveball!” gasped Katy. I have a feel this science-confounding powerhouse could sing just about anything. “You are amazing. … God, I’m so happy about this,” Lionel enthused, kicking off the panel’s unanimous yeses.
Marybeth Byrd, 21: “If It Hadn’t Been for Love”
This radio DJ, who hails from an Arkansas town with a population of just 300, dreams of other DJs playing her music nationwide. And I think she just might get her wish. Doing a SteelDrivers song “with a little bit of pop flair,” her total-package performance was effortless and sexy and checked all the boxes. Katy called her top 10 material “for sure” (I was honestly surprised that the judges didn’t give her a Platinum Ticket.) “You opened your mouth and it was correct. Period,” said Lionel. “Some people just have it. From the first note, you had it,” Luke told Marybeth.
Bre, 27: “All Night Long”
This cabaret singer and dueling piano bar performer dueted with the one and only Lionel Richie, she and held her own; her collaborative and improvisational skills should serve her well during Hollywood Week’s group and duet rounds. “I learned more about your voice just by doing that,” Lionel told Bre. “For whatever reason, my songs are very difficult to actually pull off. You handled that very well.”
Olivia Soli, 20: “Hello”
Bre wasn’t the only contestant to pull off a Richie cover this week. All that was missing from Olivia’s torchy, passionate performance was the lumpy clay art-class bust of Lionel’s head from his notorious music video. Olivia’s final crescendo even made Lionel jump out of his chair in salute. “I want to be the first in your long career, to rush the artist,” he gushed, walking up to hug Olivia, declaring this the best audition of Season 21 so far. He admitted that he was relieved that Olivia had made his song her own, saying “You did it to perfection. I know who you are as an artist now. Yes, it’s my song. Yes, I wrote it. Yes, I sang it. But it’s your song.”
Preston Duffee, 21: “Something to Write About”
Preston didn’t start writing songs until his mother, who struggled with bipolar disorder, died by suicide two years ago. But he’s clearly a natural raw talent, and his mom, who was always his biggest fan, would be proud. “Songwriting is a skill, and you nailed that,” said Lionel. Katy described Preston as a “young Luke Bryan” (Luke was even namechecked in Preston’s song), but Luke was Preston’s toughest critic, warning Preston that this season already features some very strong country contenders. However, Luke gave the country kid a chance, noting, “If that’s the first song you wrote. … Then, man, you got a really bright future.
Emma Busse, 20: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
Musical theater kids get a bad rap on Idol and other singing shows — “too Broadway” is a common, supposedly negative critique — but this performing arts school graduate had the crossover appeal the judges were looking for. With her interesting, tasteful, unexpected phrasing and pacing choices, perhaps Hollywood, not Broadway, is where Emma really belongs.
Keelin, 24: “Don’t Call Me”
This Irish lass and self-described “ball of energy” was very extraand seemed like a joke contestant, but her original — inspired by some loser who love-bombed and then ghosted her — was a serious earworm. I loved everything about it: the relatable Tinder-era content, the Y2K-style presentation (I would have totally called the Total Request Live hotline for “Don’t Call Me”), the Spice Girls-esque canned backing vocals, the hooky chorus, everything. I could even see Katy (or Meghan Trainor, to whom Katy compared Keelin) recording this. “Things that are memorable — that’s what makes careers,” said Lionel, who gave Keelin a yes. “It’s a little weird, but so am I,” shrugged Katy, who also went with a “yes” dice-roll. Maybe Keelin wasn’t this season’s best singer (which is why Luke passed), but I wouldn’t be surprised if “Don’t Call Me” becomes a bigger hit that this year’s coronation song or any other Season 21 original.
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