W hen “American Idol” airs tonight, you can expect to find Melinda Doolittle glued to the tube, rooting on her favorite finalists.
Doolittle, a finalist on the popular Fox show in 2007, has been faithfully following Season 10 since day one.
“I get so attached,” the 33- year-old singer admitted with a chuckle. “I’m like the first person to start crying during a performance.”
With her warm, rich alto voice and dynamic stage presence, Doolittle has become a household name since appearing on the sixth season of “American Idol.” She’ll perform Saturday in San Luis Obispo as part of her latest tour, “Love 101.”
“It’s such a fun show,” she said.
Practice and prayer
Born in St. Louis and raised in Brentwood, Tenn., Doolittle struggled with tone deafness as a child.
Choir directors would tell her, “ ‘Oh, we love your charisma… Stand in the middle and move your mouth but don’t let any sound come out,’ ” she recalled. “I loved music so much that I was like, ‘OK. I’ll just sit here and move my mouth.’ ”
Even then, Doolittle couldn’t resist the siren call of the stage.
“I remember the first time I told my mom I wanted to be in a gospel group, she said, ‘Baby, you’re going to have to pray hard,’ ” Doolittle said. “I practiced and prayed with all I had.”
After graduating from Nashville’s Belmont University with a music degree, Doolittle became a professional backup singer for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Michael McDonald and Aaron Neville.
“I loved it,” she said. “You get to be part of a great show and you’re onstage every night and
you’re meeting a lot of great people. … I wore my PJs to work half the time.”
Doolittle would have been happy to remain in the background forever. Luckily, a friend coaxed her into auditioning in Memphis, Tenn.
After wowing the judges by singing Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life,” Doolittle was well on her way to becoming an “American Idol” finalist.
Despite her years of professional experience, the singer, then 29, said she struggled with finding her own voice.
“Coming into it as a background singer, I was used to…blending in,” she explained. “Trying to figure out how to stand out and make a song my own was a challenge for me. It was a learning process for the entire show.”
Doolittle also had to adjust to “American Idol’s” grueling schedule.
“There are no days off,” she said. “You’re working 12-to 16-hour days. You’re exhausted. It’s so hard to concentrate.”
Doolittle ultimately came in third to Blake Lewis and eventual winner Jordin Sparks.
“That was just huge for me,” she said.
Doolittle released her debut album, “Coming Back to You,” in 2009 and published an autobiography, “Beyond Me,” in 2010. She’s currently working on her sophomore album, due to hit store shelves later this year.
According to Doolittle, the as-yet-unnamed album represents her first foray into songwriting.
“I love real-life stories,” she said. “Once I get on-stage, if I have a song that doesn’t tell a story, then I’m bored and the audience is going to be bored.”
She’ll share some of those stories during “Love 101,” which touches on “the good and the bad and the ugly of love,” she said.
The set list features such classics as “At Last,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Blues in the Night,” as well as newer favorites.
Doolittle described one original song, “Feels Good,” as “a groovy dance song.”
“It feels good for me to be able to be myself and just live and not care what other people think,” said the singer, who counts R&B legend Gladys Knight among her inspirations. “That song is my anthem.”
In addition to spreading her lyrical wings, Doolittle has been branching out as a performer. She makes her acting debut this month in the animated children’s movie “VeggieTales: ’Twas the Night Before Easter.”
“It’s awesome. It’s been a dream of mine to be a Veggie,” said Doolittle, who voices singing sensation Cassie Cassava.
According to Doolittle, none of her success would have been possible without “American Idol.”
“It definitely gives you a leg up because people have seen you and know you there,” Doolittle said, describing the show as “a boot camp for singers.” “It gives you such an amazing platform, and there are so many amazing opportunities that come out of that.”