‘America’s Got Talent’: Soulful singer with autism draws cheers, tears and a golden buzzer

Spoiler alert: This story contains significant details from Tuesday’s season premiere of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”

Musician Kodi Lee captivated “America’s Got Talent” judges and its audience Tuesday with an inspirational story and a beautiful song.

The 22-year-old singer and pianist, who is blind and has autism, earned Season 14’s first golden buzzer – and an express ticket to the midsummer live shows – in Tuesday’s season premiere of NBC’s top-rated summer series.

Before even taking the stage for the two-hour show’s final performance, Lee won over TV viewers as his mother, Tina Lee, described to him the buzz of activity at the auditions, which continue next Tuesday (8 EDT/PDT). He responded enthusiastically. 

“I’m feeling so good!” he said backstage, describing his excitement as “a happy nervous.”  

Kodi Lee takes in the audience applause after his musical performance on Tuesday's Season 14 premiere of NBC's 'America's Got Talent.' (Photo: Trae Patton, NBC)

Lee, guiding himself onstage with a cane while walking arm-in-arm with his mother, had the studio audience rooting for him just as quickly with his sweet spirit and a story of accomplishment in the face of challenge. 

“I’m going to sing a song for you on the piano,” he said after new judge Gabrielle Union asked about his audition.

Tina Lee offered some background to the audience and the judges panel, which includes newcomers Union and Julianne Hough and veterans Simon Cowell and Howie Mandel.

“We found out he loved music really early on. He listened and his eyes just went huge and he started singing,” she said.

“Through music and performing, he was able to withstand living in this world, because when you’re autistic, it’s really hard to do what everybody else does,” she explained. “It actually has saved his life, playing music.” 

She then accompanied her son to the piano, crouching to offer a final bit of motivation.

“This is your time, OK?” she said. “You ready?

“Yeah!” he responded.

Was he ever. Lee skillfully hit the opening notes of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” then showcased a soulful voice, complemented by an effective falsetto, that showed a talent for music and an ability to pull at heartstrings.

Cowell was immediately mesmerized and was the first to jump to his feet as Lee finished, leading the judges and audience in a standing ovation. Hough’s eyes glistened as she said, “I can’t stop crying.”

"America's Got Talent" judges Howie Mandel, left, Gabrielle Union, Julianne Hough and Simon Cowell give a standing ovation after a Season 14 audition performance. (Photo: Trae Patton, NBC)

“Not only did we feel the authority of what you do, but you’re a great inspiration and a great talent,” Mandel said. “It was amazing.”

Cowell said Lee’s performance was “extraordinary. … You have a really beautiful tone. Thank you so much for trusting us on this show. I’m going to remember this moment for the rest of my life.”

Union, reflecting on her own experience as a new mother, talked to Tina Lee about motherhood’s joys and challenges and how “you just want to give your kids the moon, the stars and rainbows,” before going her fellow judges one better and offering her own gift: the golden buzzer. 

As gold confetti fluttered toward the floor, other Lee family members and the judges swarmed the stage to offer hugs and congratulations, as Kodi Lee clapped and jumped as tears streamed down his cheek.    

As Kodi Lee left the stage, it was clear he realized the significance of his accomplishment. “Golden buzzer!” he said emphatically, before breaking into hearty laughter. 

Union closed the festivities with a hug and one more bit of praise: “You just changed the world!”

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