Seattle Times arts writer and "American Idol" fan Misha Berson makes a case for contestant Joshua Ledet. "Idol" will be on Fox at 8 p.m. Thursday.

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Can a genuine soul man win the crown on “American Idol”?

Joshua Ledet, a 20-year old powerhouse singer from Westlake, La., has a better chance of doing that tonight (8 p.m. on Fox) than any other R & B-styled male singer (and any other African-American “AI” contestant) in years.

Ledet has far more stage dynamism than the other two finalists he’s facing, the very gifted but less-distinctive teenager Jessica Sanchez, and the boyishly appealing but vocally limited Phillip Phillips.

Ledet’s gospel-tooled voice flourishes in songs ranging from India.Arie’s “Ready for Love” to his throw-down top-4 performance of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World,” glides up and down the scale in melismatic riffs, barks, squeals, shouts, croons, pleas. It’s an earthy voice, a sweaty voice, full of tricks and tenderness.

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Though he’s young enough to be their grandkid, he’s in the same musical bloodline as Brown, Otis Redding, Al Green, Jackie Wilson. But he’s not a slavish imitator of any of them. And he has something his two remaining competitors lack: his own stamp of grit and funk.

So what’s to stand in the way of this son of a preacher man, gushed over by the hyperbole-prone “AI” celebrity judges, from taking it all?

Maybe a legion of pre-teen viewers who vote for their crushes rather than the singer with the most vocal prowess. (Phillips has that market cornered.) But Ledet faces another hurdle: the notion that classic soul is old hat, passé, not commercially viable in a recording industry that has more or less narrowed into two dominant genres — country pop-rock, and heavily synthesized, hip-hop inflected dance music.

Ledet is a good ol’ singer of songs — songs with melodies, hooks, drama, space to improvise and interpret. He does not need computerized auto-tuning. He needs pliable material, of the sort that exists out there but isn’t being scouted or snapped up by record companies.

What’s sad is that TV viewers voting in the annual contest may buy into the idea that a musical artist can only be “current” by doing what the urban superstars (Usher, Beyonce, Katy Perry, whomever) on the Billboard charts are doing. What happened to an American musical scene rich in variety, filled with crossover artists with broad-based appeal and classic chops?

What would the industry do today with a Ray Charles? An Aretha Franklin? A Van Morrison? Their music transcends narrow-casting. Yet it seems like a miracle now when a blue-eyed-soul singer-songwriter like Adele breaks through. (And it’s no coincidence that her career took off first in her native England, with its enduring fondness for classic R & B.)

Win or lose, Ledet will score a record contract. And if he does win, and stay his own course, what a boost for a brand of ageless African American music that shouldn’t be written off as yesterday’s rhythm and blues.

Misha Berson:

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