Melinda Doolittle

MELINDA DOOLITTLE She was the little engine that could on the sixth season of "American Idol," her prodigious talent and sincerity getting her only so far in the face of Blake Lewis' novel approach and Jordin Sparks' teen appeal. But now is the time for listeners to remember that this gospel-bred former backup singer has an earth-shaking gift, one that places her beyond trends and television watchers' whims. Doolittle might have stuck with praise and worship music or tried to update her style with hip-hop beats. Instead, she went with vintage soul, and man, does it work. Her solo debut, "Coming Back to You" (coming out in February on Hi Fi Recordings), connects her to venerable elders like Gladys Knight and, yes, early Aretha, but instead of sounding trapped within an antique box, Doolittle comes across as vital and vibrant. Producer Mike Mangini helped Joss Stone launch her career, and with Doolittle he's found a partner who delivers not only on technique but also with powerful emotion. The retro-soul trend has primed listeners to appreciate the warmth of live instruments and a strong voice, so Doolittle has a chance to find her place among the airbrushed pop queens of the mainstream. -- Ann Powers
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