Likened to a modern-day “Partridge Family,” The Willis Clan wowed the judges on “America’s Got Talent” last week, but it’s the act’s back story that transcends a television variety show.
The 12-member band from Middle Tennessee got its big break Tuesday, nearly two decades after the members’ grandparents suffered a tragedy so horrific it dominated headlines and political debates across Illinois for years. The act is made up entirely of the Willis siblings, the grandchildren of Pastor Duane “Scott” and Janet Willis, who lost their six youngest children in a fiery 1994 crash, which came to symbolize the bribes-for-licenses scandal that led to former Gov. George Ryan’s downfall.
The talent competition did not mention the band’s ties to the tragedy during last week’s show, as the children performed an Appalachian-infused version of “My Favorite Things” for an appreciative judging panel. An NBC spokeswoman confirmed that they are Scott and Janet Willis’ grandchildren.(See clip of show HERE)
The Willis children – who range in age from 21 to 3 and all have first names beginning with the letter “J” – played their own instruments and won praise for their harmonizing abilities. The youngest member, 3-year-old Jada, performed an Irish step dance during one part of the performance.
“This is exactly what America’s Got Talent loves,” judge Howard Stern said. “I’m thinking, (you’re) like the Osmonds – except so much more talented.”
The family so far has shown no desire to have its tragedy be part of the backstory on the talent show. Reached at his home in Tennessee, Scott Willis declined to comment.
Scott and Janet Willis were on their way to Wisconsin to celebrate family birthdays in November 1994 when their minivan erupted in flames after striking a piece of debris that fell from a truck whose driver had paid a bribe to obtain his license from one of George Ryan’s secretary of state offices.
Toby Willis, the father of “The Willis Clan” members, and two other siblings were not in the minivan at the time of the accident.
At least nine people died after crashes involving truckers who got illicit Illinois driver’s licenses in the bribes-for-licenses scandal that bolstered Ryan’s campaign coffers. A federal investigation led to 75 convictions, including that of Ryan in 2006 for racketeering, conspiracy and fraud.
The former governor spent more than five years in prison before being released last year. Ryan finally acknowledged the Willis family’s “unimaginable pain and loss” when he petitioned for clemency in 2008.
Scott and Janet Willis received $100 million in an out-of-court settlement from several firms involved in the manufacturing and operation of the truck that caused the crash. They now live in Tennessee, about an hour away from their musically inclined grandchildren.
The family’s act was also featured in a reality show called “The Willis Clan” on the Great American Country cable network last year. The program chronicled how the family juggled life with a large brood that – in addition to having gifted singers – includes internationally ranked Irish dancers, national swing dance champions and wrestling champions.
The children will be making another appearance on America’s Got Talent, as they were selected to move on to “Judgment Week” in July. The acts are vying for a $1 million prize.
“I am getting excited about Season 9 now,” Stern said after their performance. “Now we’re on to something.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun