Archie Williams became one of the standout stars of this season of America's Got Talent from the first moment he took the stage Tuesday. ET is breaking down everything you need to know about the performer.
The soulful singer wowed the judges, audience and viewers during Tuesday's season 15 premiere with his impressive vocal talent and his triumph over injustice.
Williams' appearance on the NBC reality competition series comes just over a year after he was exonerated and freed from prison after serving over 36 years for a crime he didn't commit. Now he's inspiring people with his perseverance and dedication.
Here's a look at what happened to Williams, how he's become one of the season's biggest stars already, and the impact his story has had on others thus far.
Why Did He Get Sent to Jail?
In 1983, at the age of 22, Williams was convicted of aggravated rape and attempted murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, he maintained his innocence throughout the trial and his time in prison.
The crime was committed in December 1982 in Louisiana, and soon after, Williams was arrested and prosecuted, despite the fact that physical evidence, namely fingerprints, did not match his own, and there were witnesses who testified that he was at his own home the night of the attack.
"He was just walking down the street one day when the police snatched him up, and ended up putting his photograph in a photo array that was viewed by a woman who had been attacked in her home," Williams' attorney, Vanessa Potkin, told NPR last November. The victim did not at first identify Williams, but was repeatedly shown his picture and eventually named Williams as the man who'd attacked her.
"I knew I was innocent, I didn't commit a crime. But being a poor black kid, I didn't have the ability to fight the state of Louisiana," Williams said in a segment on AGT. "They wanted somebody to pay."
How Did He Develop His Musical Talent?
Williams was sent to Louisiana State Penitentiary, an infamously brutal prison sometimes referred to as the Alcatraz of the South.
"You had the choice to be either strong or weak, because you will be tried, and tested," Williams said on AGT. "Days turned into weeks, into months, into years and into decades. It's like a nightmare."
To deal with his incarceration, Williams started a band in prison, where he started to sing gospel music. Speaking with NPR, Williams said it was the first place he'd been able to explore that talent, and finding music, despite his circumstances, "Was like a new birth there."
"Freedom is of the mind," Williams told AGT host Terry Crews. "I went to prison but I never let my mind go to prison."
How Did He Get Exonerated?
After 12 years of being incarcerated, Williams reached out to the Innocence Project and asked it to look into his conviction. The organization began investigating, but was reportedly met with opposition by the state, which repeatedly refused to give it access to forensic evidence or case files.
This went on for nearly two decades, before a new state commissioner ordered the fingerprints found at the scene of the crime to be run through a database, which didn't exist at the time of Williams' conviction. The prints were matched to a serial rapist, and his conviction was overturned.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III told Williams during a court hearing, "As a representative of the state, I apologize." Williams was finally released after more than 36 years in March 2019.
Why Did He Want to Compete in a Talent Competition?
According to Williams, he would watch AGT while in jail, and the dream of showing the world his talent helped him get through the experience.
"I watched America's Got Talent while in prison, and I would visualize myself being there," Williams said. "I always desired to be on a stage like this, and now I'm here. Thank God."
Back in November, just months after being freed, Williams made it through several rounds of the famous Amateur Night competition at New York's Apollo Theater, where he wowed with his powerful vocals, and was delighted at the positive response to his story and his talent.
"It makes me feel wonderful," he said about singing onstage. "People accepting me and my gift and knowing that I can touch people."
What Did He Perform on America's Got Talent?
When it came time to take the stage and sing his heart out on the America's Got Talent stage, Williams turned to a classic Elton John tune, "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," which took on a new level of gravitas and importance given his own backstory.
Judge Simon Cowell said after the performance, "I will never, ever listen to that song the same way again," and that the tune "took on a whole different meaning."
How Did His Performance Go?
Williams' performance brought all the judges to tears, earned a standing ovation from everyone in the theater and was met with universal praise during the judges' feedback.
"I don't cry for a whole lot of things, but that really did it to me, I have to tell you," Heidi Klum said, adding that the number was "very powerful."
"Even though you did 37 years, it was 37 years that didn't break you," newcomer judge Sofia Vergara shared. "I can picture you watching the show, hoping, hoping, holding on to something. And now you're here, and we love you."
Cowell was equally effusive, telling Williams, "You're a very, very courageous person… and you have a really good voice. You really, really do."
"This is an audition I will never forget for the whole of my life," Cowell added, before he and his fellow judges all unanimously voted to move Williams on to the next round of this season's competition.
What Has the Feedback Been Like?
America's Got Talent released William's segment from Tuesday's show on YouTube several days before the premiere, and the video has racked up over 2.2 million views in a matter of days.
One of those views apparently came from Elton John himself, who had nothing but praise for Williams' rendition of his 1974 hit.
"I was moved to tears when I heard Archie’s story and saw him perform 'Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,'"John tweeted hours before the episode aired. "The courage and forgiveness shown by him is truly inspiring. The same spirit that the world found so inspiring with Nelson Mandela."
I was moved to tears when I heard Archie’s story and saw him perform "Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me". The courage and forgiveness shown by him is truly inspiring. The same spirit that the world found so inspiring with Nelson Mandela. Love, E xx https://t.co/oYxM3IyvWB— Elton John (@eltonofficial) May 26, 2020
Additionally, his story has inspired Cowell to become an ambassador for the Innocence Project. The organization announced his involvement Tuesday, and Cowell explained, "Archie’s performance is probably the single most important one in the history of America’s Got Talent. What happened to Archie is tragic. While Archie’s voice is extraordinary, unfortunately his experience of being sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit is much more common than most people realize."
"There are thousands of innocent people in jails and prisons. I’m honored to become an Ambassador for the Innocence Project and want to do what I can to help more people like Archie," Cowell added.