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Doolittle finally finds a perfect fit

February 27, 2009|ANN POWERS | POP MUSIC CRITIC

Melinda Doolittle had many reasons to let nearly two years pass between the end of her "American Idol" stint and the beginning of her solo recording career. The Season 6 third-place runner-up spent time mulling over the styles that she'd already mastered during years spent as a background singer: She could handle gospel, standards, blues, rock and R&B, and had a hard time choosing which of those would be her focus. In addition, she needed to put together a management team and find the right record label.

Doolittle wasn't waiting for Barack Obama to be elected. But the timing works in her favor. Like the nation's newly minted champion of hope, Doolittle has a particular gift for conviction.

In performers, as with politicians, conviction enables even innocuous statements to seem profound. So when Doolittle, sitting in a Burbank dressing room one February afternoon after appearing on a popular talk show, said, "I just love . . . people," it didn't induce a cringe. Instead, it illuminated the performance style of an artist known for actually fulfilling the cliches the judges on "Idol" spout: She's authentic, she always works it out, she makes songs her own.

"Talking to people from the stage is not hard for me anymore," said the 31-year-old Nashville resident. "I realize that people are along for the ride. Once I put together a story line with songs, the show is so much fun for me. It makes it a journey for all of us."

On "Idol," Doolittle developed a reputation for being too staid -- an insult that stung but that she's now transformed into the more fashionable "retro." Her debut, produced by Joss Stone's early mentor, Mike Mangini, fits into the growing niche of young artists retracing the steps of R&B. Doolittle cites Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Adele, Raphael Saadiq and Robin Thicke as inspirations.

"When we got ready to do this record, part of me heard people saying in the background, 'But that's old-fashioned,' " she said. "But if I did anything else it wouldn't be me. And I'm seeing artists all across the spectrum doing this, which is really exciting."

Her recently released album, "Coming Back to You," is old-fashioned in one informative way: It collects songs that others have performed, allowing Doolittle to put her own spin on a range of sounds. This approach echoes the classic pop era that preceded rock's anointment of the singer-songwriter. It also recalls the structure of "American Idol" itself.

"The album is kind of like experiencing a season with one of the contestants," said John Titta, a music industry veteran and president and chief operating officer of the Music Publishing Co. of America (MPCA), the independent music publisher whose affiliated label, Hi Fi Recordings, is Doolittle's new home. "It's exposing great songs from different styles through a person, interpreting them through a style of music that links them all together."

Doolittle calls Titta her "resident genius." He came up with a playlist that Doolittle could easily embrace.

"When he came to Nashville with [MPCA Chairman and Chief Executive] John Hecker, we sat down and he said I want to play you these songs -- you might like two or three and we can go at it again. After the meeting I was like, I want to do every single one. He had taken the time to get to know me and know my heart, know what I love in music -- the melody, the strength behind songs."

Titta's song mix proved that Doolittle's decision to sign with Hi Fi was a wise one. The label's artists have access to MPCA's rich publishing catalog, which features the work of top performers across the pop spectrum, from cowboy country to contemporary Christian music.

The riches Titta presented to Doolittle for "Coming Back to You" included two blues classics by Robert Johnson and three standards by Sammy Cahn, as well as more current songs previously recorded by the likes of Celine Dion, Aretha Franklin and Bonnie Raitt.

"I was most nervous about Celine and Aretha," she said. "But they weren't huge covers; they were obscure." The Franklin tune, "Wonderful," comes from the soul empress' 2003 album, "So Damn Happy," while Dion's "Declaration of Love" is a 13-year-old album cut.

Other songs on "Coming Back to You" have a strong gospel feel, reflecting Doolittle's other main source of inspiration (and income): Christian music. As a background singer, she's worked in both major Christian pop arenas -- the gospel-grounded strain led by family groups like the Winans and Anointed, and the Christian contemporary music scene that has produced stars like Michael W. Smith.

"Coming Back to You" features many songs that could be interpreted as sacred or secular. It's another of her classic pop moves, connecting Doolittle to the very beginning of rock 'n' roll, when artists like Ray Charles blurred the line between love for the Lord and more carnal pleasures. The gospel throwdown "It's Your Love" is the album's prime example.

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