Out From The Shadows
By Robbie Woliver - Long Island Press
First things first: Melinda Doolittle should have won this past season of American Idol. Not only was she the most consistently likeable contestant, she had the best back story: the humble, shy backup singer with the killer voice. Oh, yes, there is that killer voice.
But here's the comforting lowdown from Melinda, who is in town to promote her upcoming stint with the American Idols Live tour: Jordin Sparks deserved to win.
"It couldn't have turned out any better," says Doolittle, with a laugh (note to reader: every quote herein by Doolittle, please add "with a laugh.") "I'm a big Jordin fan, this little 17-year-old can do anything [vocally]."
One reason for Doolittle's lack of sour grapes might be Idol's unique ability to make stars of the runners up, as it did with Clay Aiken (No. 2), Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson (No. 6) and Chris Daughtry (No. 4). Immense talent, placing a very strong third and Simon Cowell's statement that she should have won the whole shebang will certainly help her career.
So, why do we like this 30-year-old former backup singer so much? Let's start with the chops. Ever hear her version of "My Funny Valentine"? The classic is a bit worn after decades of being sung by just about anyone with a mic, and here comes this seemingly painfully shy anti-diva from Brentwood, Tenn., who infuses so much life and class into the song that she reinvents it forever. No one else should even bother.
And that was just the beginning. She mastered every song she took on. The honesty in her technique and the skillful way she had with just about any style was impressive. But, alas, America grew tired of perfection. And it took awhile for Melinda's wacky side to come out. As serious as she was a singer, there was also this wild and wicked sense of humor you knew was just lurking on the edge.
"I'm so silly," she admits. "But I try to keep it together."
Doolittle calls American Idol "a slightly traumatic experience that I wouldn't change for the world." But unlike many of the other contestants, she wasn't a regular viewer of the show, so she was at a bit of a disadvantage. She was out on the road busy being a professional backup singer. She didn't quite know what she was in for.
"I never imagined I would be on it," she says. "To be completely honest, I was always confident being a backup singer. I knew I could blend in and sing with other singers, but my friends thought I could do it. I hit the ground running. I never imagined what it would entail. All that work, seven days a week, all day long, but I had to learn how to step out front."
One of the most intensely moving moments on any American Idol episode was the first time Melinda sang in front of the show's own talented background singers. She owned the stage, as if she were a natural frontwoman. Was she surprised that the shy girl so used to being in the dark shadows of the background was able to quickly become the frontrunner and America's (and the judges') sweetheart?
"I was shocked," she says. "I blame it all on Jesus." (Yes, said with a laugh.)
Speaking of Jesus, it was Melinda's gospel-singing friend Mandisa from the previous season who was her introduction to the show. While on the road, after a performance, Doolittle and the other performers would "end our shows and get back to the tour bus and vote for Mandisa."
Mandisa, who came in ninth, currently has a debut CD, True Beauty, that just reached No. 1 on the gospel charts.
"Shocked" is a word Melinda likes to use when describing much of her Idol time, especially when asked about the outpouring of love for her throughout the run of the show.
"I was totally shocked," she explains, "and whenever they complimented me they told me to stop looking shocked. But it was an honest emotion. People really did like what I was doing. It was very humbling."
Being part of the phenomenon that is Idol wasn't all stress and work. She made some very good friends.
Some inside scoop on her fellow Idols:
Jordin is her "best friend" and "lifeline" and Doolittle says she always knew Sparks had a shot at winning. Well, except for that time she said to herself, "Whoa, that Lakisha's gonna go all the way." And Phil Stacey? Doolittle says he has one of the best male voices she's ever heard and that he is one of her "all-time favorite male voices."
As the oldest contestant on Season 6, Doolittle's nurturing instinct came out, and she soon became known as "Mama" to her fellow contestants. Now that the stress of the show is over, Doolittle says they are "having a blast" on the tour where she gets to sing with the other top-10 contestants in different configurations-she even gets to sing with Sanjaya.
Doolittle adds, "Thankfully we still like each other."
The Idols Live tour is the last leg of her incredible journey that included several "best experiences": One was her trip to Africa, where she "fulfilled another lifelong dream" of singing with an African children's choir. The trip was with Laura Bush on behalf of the Malaria No More charity.
So, what's the first thing she wants to do when the tour ends?
"Take a long nap."
And for us fans: record a CD.
She is currently being sent songs to consider, and she's been writing songs as well. She has received some offers for record deals, but smartly, has not yet made a decision on a particular one. And, of course, she says,
"Valentine" will be included.
So, out of a year full of highlights, which was the best? Singing in front of a gazillion TV viewers? Winning the hearts of America? Touring with her BFFs? Hangin' with the first lady in Africa?
"I got to meet the Secret Service," she says breathlessly. "I was so excited, I took all these pictures of them, but then I found myself saying, 'What do you mean I can't put these up on my MySpace page?'"
Besides learning the meaning of "secret" in Secret Service, another, more important, lesson was learned from her Idol experience.
"Personality-wise, you can be normal, kind of shy," she says, "and be at the place where God meant for you to be."
That place, in a short period of time, should rightfully be front stage. This girl deserves to be a star. Laughing all the way to the top of the charts.