INTERVIEW: Metro Atlanta man Sam Finelli on autism spectrum brings ‘American Idol’ judges to tears

Credit: ABC

Credit: ABC

Episode with his audition re-airs after Sunday night’s Oscars

Metro Atlanta singer Sam Finelli earlier this month ended an episode of “American Idol” with a bracing version of Kacey Musgraves’ “Rainbow” and a sense of gratitude that sent all three judges into tears.

Finelli, who lives in Peachtree Corners, is on the autism spectrum and has struggled all his life to connect with people. Music is one place where he has found his grace.

The Nashville audition, which will re-air tonight in a special “Idol” episode after the Oscars, has been seen by more than 1 million people on YouTube so far. Finelli was given three yes votes and a Golden Ticket to Hollywood.

At age 28, he remembers watching “American Idol” at age 8 and becoming captivated. His parents provided “Idol” with video of him singing season one winner Kelly Clarkson’s victory song, “A Moment Like This.”

Finelli decided to audition now because he finally felt enough confidence to do so and this was his last shot given the show’s age limit.

Given his autism, he said he was super shy in high school and had a hard time singing in public. Eventually, he has been able to do so at karaoke bars.

He fell in love with Musgrave’s “Rainbow” in 2020 and sang it regularly. The message of support, hope and resilience spoke to him. As he said on the show, he wished the song had been around when he was a kid.

Finelli said he sang that song to his biggest cheerleader, his grandmother, who died in November 2020. “She always lifted me up and made me happy,” he said.

During the audition, he felt her presence and was glad he was able to return the favor. “She had the best seat in the house,” he said. “I could feel the warmth in the room.”

Finelli didn’t expect to get so much acclaim. “I was totally caught off guard,” he said. “I realize I’m not the best singer in the world. There are better singers. It just ended up being the happiest day of my life.”

He graduated college in Florida in 2020 with a degree in business administration and was working at a Corner Bakery in Peachtree Corners when the audition happened last year. He would regularly sing karaoke at Iron Horse Tavern in Norcross. Some of of his favorite songs include “God Bless the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts, “Say Something” by a Great Big World and “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus.

He said he still finds himself feeling awkward having conversations with most people. Singing is his true outlet. “I want to inspire people like me,” he said. “I am happiest when I sing. I sing in the shower, in the car, in the basement. That’s never going to leave me.”

ON AIR

“American Idol,” on Sunday after the Oscars on ABC, with a fresh episode airing Monday at 8 p.m. from Hollywood