By Richard Burnett
Like a shy troubadour in the royal court, Sam Finelli mustered up his courage to audition for “American Idol” two weeks ago. With soaring, heartfelt tones, he belted out “Rainbow,” by Grammy-winning artist Kacey Musgraves, prompting a standing ovation by judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan.
Tonight [cq Monday 3/28], Finelli will follow up his stirring audition as he takes his spot in the iconic singing competition’s Hollywood Week at 8 p.m. on ABC.
It’s a remarkable journey for the 28-year-old bakery store clerk and Beacon College alum, who overcame autism to graduate magna cum laude in 2020 with a bachelor’s in business management. Along the way, music was his passion, though he mostly sang by himself, for family and friends, or at an occasional karaoke open mike — until now.
On March 13, a global audience saw Finelli’s turn on “Idol,” which came 20 years after he watched his musical hero Kelly Clarkson win the first contest in 2002.
“It has always been my dream to audition for ‘American Idol’,” he said in a recent interview. “But for so many years, I just didn’t feel like I was ready to do it. I was always holding myself back. I just never had the guts or nerve to get up there and sing. Something in me this time really wanted this so badly. I really wanted to chase my dreams.”
More than 6.6 million tuned in to hear his emotional rendition of “Rainbow,” which moved the “Idol’ judges to tears, even as Finelli fought back his own “happy tears.” Another 1.13 million have viewed it on YouTube.
“You know what that was for us, Sam?” Richie said. “Those were happy claps. You told us about your struggle, then you walked 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.”
Singing ‘we’d never forget’
That sentiment is echoed by those who knew him at Beacon, the country’s first accredited college for students with autism, ADHD and other learning challenges.
Academic advisor Gina Vinson, a learning specialist who worked individually with Finelli, recalled the first time she heard him sing.
“Sometimes, he would put his headphones on and sing while he was studying,” she said. “I heard him and walked over and said, ‘That’s amazing, Sam.’ He told me singing helped him concentrate. He also mentioned then that he wanted to audition for ‘American Idol’; that it was a dream of his from the beginning.”
Later in Finelli’s Beacon years, Vinson invited him and another student to her department’s annual holiday party, where Finelli sang some traditional carols for the audience of about 20 people.
“When Sam stood up, he closed his eyes the way he does and began to sing,” she said. “We were all just mesmerized. I mean, it went from being a regular, traditional holiday get-together to be being something special, something we’d never forget.”
Eyewitness to the transformation
As a freshman, Finelli was shy, nervous and insecure when he arrived at Beacon’s Writing Center, said Renee Williams, a writing consultant who works with new students on their composition fundamentals. Over the years, he developed a self-confidence and maturity that was inspiring, as he transformed into a leader in the classroom, she said.
“When he was a freshman, he stayed to himself so much, but he really blossomed through the years,” Williams said. “Sam is such a wonderful, loving person, always ready to jump in and help other students. He was especially good with computers and showed others how to get things done.”
It was no secret to anyone, however, that Finelli hoped one day to sing on “American Idol,” according to Williams. “Everyone told him he should go for it,” she said. “I remember the first time I heard him sing. My mouth just dropped open; I couldn’t believe it. I’m so glad he listened and pursued his dream.”
The road has not been an easy one for Finelli, who describes difficult years as a child wrestling with learning challenges, feeling inadequate in school and not being able to connect with people. It was often a lonely time, but he found music to be his best friend, he said.
“I was never good in school and I really didn’t feel I was good at anything other than singing,” he said. “I loved to sing, more than I loved to talk. As a kid, I would sing everywhere, in the car, in the shower, everywhere. I knew I wasn’t the best singer in the world, but I was okay. It made me happy and it was one thing I could look forward to.”
Finelli credits his family for seeing him through the ups and downs — his parents for encouraging his music and supporting his education at Beacon, and his late ‘Grandma Sue’ for always believing in his dream to sing on “American Idol.” In a moving Instagram post after the audition, he dedicated “Rainbow” to his grandmother.
“I hope to inspire people to chase their dreams no matter what challenges they may be facing,” Finelli said on Instagram. “I never would [have] thought in a million years my dreams would ever come true. But, I’m living proof of that. Everyone has DIFFERENT successes, and success comes in all shapes and sizes, and mine just happened to be this day when I got to perform for the 3 Idol judges.”
Legend has it that at the end of the rainbow supposedly awaits a pot of gold. With any luck, the payoff that awaits Finelli at the end of an “Idol” journey that began with his version of “Rainbow” is a gold record.