Willis Clan moves on to next round of ‘America’s Got Talent’

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The 12 brothers and sisters began by melding their voices, a cappella-style.

Then the Willis Clan launched into a Appalachia-inspired take of the pop song “Fireflies.”

The group impressed some ofthe judges Wednesday on “America’s Got Talent.”

“With an act like that, you can’t help but smile,” Shock jock Howard Stern said after the Willises performed their rendition of the Owl City song, “They are the cutest damn act ever.”

The lone dissenting judge, Heidi Klum, said, “vocally, they’re not strong enough.”

But the band moved on to the next round at Radio City Music Hall. Performers are vying for a $1 million prize. The Willis Clan will appear on the show again on Tuesday, performing live from the storied New York City theater.

The judges didn’t mention the family’s tragic backstory.

The members of the Tennessee-based band are the grandchildren of the Rev. Duane and Janet Willis, who lost six of their children in a fiery van crash in Wisconsin. Their immense loss nearly 20 years ago became a tragic symbol of the licenses-for-bribes scandal that led to the downfall of former Gov. George Ryan. The band members’ dad, Toby Willis, was not in the van.

On Wednesday, the siblings — whose ages range from 3 to 22 and whose names all begin with the letter J — appeared on the talent show for the second time.

Brenda Willis, the mother of the band members, told the Chicago Sun-Times the family followed the advice Spice Girl Mel B gave them the first time they performed for the judges.

“This piece starts off with a whole a cappella chorus,” said Brenda Willis, who is married to Toby Willis. “We did what she asked for. We gave her a really strong harmony section.”

The performance for Wednesday’s show — judgment week —was not broadcast live. Instead, the group played in front of the judges, with no audience to cheer them on. The judges had to whittle down the performers to 48.

“They just really wanted to know who is good enough to go to Radio City Music hall,” Brenda Willis said.

The Willis family earlier this summer told the Sun-Times that Duane and Janet Willis, who now live in Tennessee, are “proud grandparents” who try to keep a low profile after years in the public eye.

In November 1994, a piece of an 18-wheeler’s rig fell onto a Milwaukee-area expressway and into the path of Duane and Janet Willis’ minivan, which ignited and killed six of their children, ranging in age from 6 months to 13. Duane and Janet Willis survived the crash with severe burns. Toby Willis and two siblings were not in the van.

It was learned that the driver of the truck, with the help of an intermediary, obtained his trucker’s license by bribing a corrupt worker at an Illinois state licensing facility.

The federal investigation into corruption at Secretary of State facilities in the bribes-for-license scandal eventually ensnared the governor, who was convicted of racketeering and fraud. More than 75 people were convicted in Operation Safe Road.

Ryan was not charged in the crash that killed the Willis children, but his trial included testimony about how he put an end to an investigation into the role corruption played in the children’s deaths when he was secretary of state.

Ryan was released from prison last year and declined to comment earlier this month on the band, though he said he knew of them.

The former governor told Sun-Times Columnist Michael Sneed that he prays for the dead children “daily,” though he feels no responsibility for their deaths.

“It was a terrible, heartbreaking thing to have happened to the Willis family,” Ryan said.

The Willis family, meanwhile, has not forgotten the relatives they lost, but they have moved beyond the tragedy.

Brenda Willis said they want to show the “beautiful things that have come since then and how the family is strong and together and has been able to pick up the pieces and go on.”

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