‘American Idol’ Stars Stunned by Death of Former Castmate: ‘Heartbroken’

Tribute to American Idol coach

Heavy Stars are paying tribute to former "American Idol" vocal coach Debra Byrd

Some of the biggest stars to come out of “American Idol” are mourning the unexpected death of Debra Byrd, a beloved vocal coach who appeared on many episodes of the show while working with contestants including Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, and Chris Daughtry throughout the series’ first decade on Fox.

Described via Instagram by season 2 winner Ruben Studdard as “our LA mom,” Byrd died on March 5, 2024, at age 72, according to Deadline. No cause of death has been given.

In addition to her time on “American Idol,” Byrd spent many years singing backup for dear friend Barry Manilow, who tweeted on March 6 that he was struggling to “wrap my mind around the fact that Debra is no longer with me.”

Many other tributes have poured in from “American Idol” stars as well as contestants on other competition shows she worked at over the years, from “Canadian Idol” to “The Voice,” and students who learned from her at the Music Institute, where she was named Vocal Chair in 2013, per Billboard.

Here’s what you need to know:

After Debra Byrd’s Death, ‘American Idol’ Stars Credit Her With Bringing Out the Best in Them

An impressive number of “Idol” alums have paid tribute to Byrd since news of her death broke on March 6, including Hudson, who placed seventh on season 3 but went on to have a massive career as a singer, actress and talk show host.

Hudson wrote on Instagram, “Heartbroken over the passing of Debra Byrd, the vocal coach on American Idol. She encouraged and supported us from the very beginning ! I am so grateful for everything she taught us. She will be dearly missed, but her legacy lives on through the music of countless artists she influenced during her lifetime. Rest in peace, Debra.”

Hudson learned of Byrd’s death from “American Idol” alum Justin Guarini, the runner-up to Clarkson on the first season of “Idol,” after he posted a lengthy tribute to Byrd on Instagram, calling her death an “immense loss.”

Hudson wrote, “OMG what happened…” and Guarini replied, “will@let you know what I find out ❤”

In his tribute, Guarini wrote that Byrd was “THE reason why 99% of the kids on the formative years of American Idol made it through with our voices, our passion, and above all our SANITY intact.”

“Debra Byrd made me feel like I could do anything,” he continued. “She was the encouragement and the empowerment that I needed most when I thought I had nothing left to give.”

Tamyra Gray, who placed fourth on the first season of “Idol,” responded, “She was the light of my life during our season!!”

Season 7 finalist Brooke White replied to Guarini by writing, “So well written and shared Justin. I would say without hesitation that there is no way I could have made it a day thru Idol without this most wonderful woman and her wisdom and encouragement. Lessons learned she shared with me in some of my most vulnerable moments that I still hold closely today. We really lost a good one. Fly high beautiful Byrd 🥺💔”

Randy Jackson, one of the original “Idol” judges, shared Guarini’s post in his Instagram Stories on March 7 and wrote, “Yo, RIP the great Deborah Byrd … Your light and talent helped so many idols soar”

Melinda Doolittle, who placed third on season 6, also paid tribute to Byrd on Instagram, writing specifically about how her coaching helped her from the first day on “American Idol.”

“Byrd, what you gave is immeasurable,” she wrote. “You have always been the most amazing gift. What you poured into so many will always remain. I can still hear your voice coaching me when I go to sing certain songs. You will be so missed. Rest in sweet peace.”

Debra Byrd Called Herself Someone ‘Who Loves Life & Who Loves to Work With Singers’

During an interview on The Paul Leslie Hour podcast posted in 2018, Byrd described herself by saying, “At heart, I believe I’m creative, a creative being, a blessed being. I’m just a person who loves life and who loves to work with singers.”

Byrd said on the podcast that one of her favorite parts of working behind the scenes on “Idol” was rehearsing duets with contestants including Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia Barrino and Adam Lambert.

“I mean, it’s so thrilling to be in the energy and to sing along with,” she said, also mentioning that recording duets with Manilow and Bob Dylan had been career highlights.

When asked, Byrd included Clarkson on her short list of the world’s best singers, based on “tonal quality and sensibility and phrasing.” Others on her list included opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, Aerosmith lead singer and former “Idol” judge Steven Tyler, Rosemary Clooney, Gladys Knight, Michael McDonald and Aretha Franklin.

When Leslie asked what parting message she had for listeners, Byrd replied, “Be true to yourself. Be respectful of others. Always say thank you. Have an open heart. Don’t let the world grind you down. Always have a Plan B. And lastly, keep you hand in God’s hand. That’s what I would like to say to the world.”