Former 'American Idol' runner-up Willie Spence dies in Tennessee crash

'Now Willie is in heaven singing the lead in the heaven's choir,' cousin says of 23-year-old singer with ties to Riviera Beach
Willie Spence, 'American Idol' performer, sings in Atlanta in 2021
Posted at 11:42 AM, Oct 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-12 23:52:05-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Former "American Idol" contestant and runner-up Willie Spence has died in a crash in Tennessee, his family confirmed to WPTV on Wednesday. He was 23.

A relative of Spence said the "American Idol" runner-up from season 19 of the reality singing competition was killed in a crash Tuesday afternoon in Marion County, Tennessee, just west of Chattanooga.

Although he grew up in Douglas, Georgia, Spence was born in Palm Beach County and spent his early childhood in Riviera Beach. His parents recently returned to Riviera Beach.

WPTV profiled Spence and his family's ties to Riviera Beach last year.

Spence often spoke on the show about his grandfather, a retired Palm Beach County pastor who died in March 2021.

"We don't know the details that led up to this crash," cousin Sabrena Cooper told reporters Wednesday outside the family's home in Riviera Beach. "We know he collided with a semitruck."

Picture of Willie Spence outside family's Riviera Beach home after his death, Oct. 12, 2022
A picture of Willie Spence is seen outside the family's home after a news conference to announce the former "American Idol" contestant's death, Oct. 12, 2022, in Riviera Beach, Fla.

Cooper said her cousin enjoyed playing drums in a West Palm Beach church band, and she thanked Spence's fans "for your prayers, for your calls, for your kind words and for your gestures."

"Willie was our gentle giant," she said. "He had such a soft demeanor but a very, very powerful voice."

Actress and singer Katharine McPhee, who sang a duet with Spence on "American Idol," took to social media to share her grief after learning about Spence's death. She reposted a video of the late contestant singing in his car.

"He posted this right before his accident," she wrote.

Among the songs Spence sang during the season 19 finals of "American Idol" were "Georgia on My Mind" by Ray Charles and "A Change is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke.

Funeral services will be announced later.

"Now Willie is in heaven singing the lead in the heaven's choir," Cooper said.

Willie Spence Sr. said his son will be missed.

"I'm just gonna miss him," he said. "I love him."