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Lee equipped me to know how to work really hard, to know how to sing for a long time, to know how to stay focused, to have poise and calmness in my stage presence. I've taken so much from Lee and it's made me who I am now."

Clark Beckham had already enrolled in grad school at Lee University and was set to be the student director of Lee's Campus Choir when he auditioned for "American Idol" in Nashville last summer.

But after judges handed him one of "Idol's" golden tickets to Hollywood, he postponed campus life in Cleveland Tenn., to follow his dreams in California.

"It was a very difficult decision," Beckham said in a phone interview from Hollywood. "But I know with all my heart that God called me to do exactly what I am doing now. I realized I had to chase what I had dedicated everything I had to, and run as hard as I could toward it."

Beckham is one of the nine finalists who will sing on tonight's episode of "American Idol" with hopes of advancing to "Idol's" Elite Eight. The season 14 winner will be crowned May 13.

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The singer is the fourth Lee student to make it to the Hollywood rounds or farther on Fox network's juggernaut reality TV talent show. The others are Phil Stacy, who placed sixth in season six; Chase Guyton, and Jermaine Purifory, who advanced into the Hollywood rounds.

About Clark Beckham

* Age: 22
* Hometown: White House, Tenn.
* Parents: Virgil and Teri Beckham, both musicians
* Education: Bachelor's degree in history from Lee University, minor in biblical studies
* Campus activities: Officer of Lee Campus Choir; member of Power Unlimited, a small worship ensemble from within Campus Choir; cast of "Big River" and "Much Ado About Nothing;" wrote songs for a production by Ocoee Theater Guild in Cleveland
* Employment: Street performer in Nashville's South Broadway neighborhood
* AI team hashtag: #BeltItLikeBeckham
* Musical influences: Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Michael Buble
Source: Clark Beckham, www.americanidol.com

Tune In

"American Idol" airs tonight at 8 o'clock on the Fox network. Kelly Clarkson, the first American Idol, is tonight's celebrity mentor. The nine finalists will sing songs she has made famous.

Dr. Paul Conn, Lee University president, says having the university's students repeatedly garner this national recognition is "beneficial simply because of the positive name brand recognition."

"Clark came by my office to see me when he was preparing to go on television, just to tell me he wanted to represent Lee well and he wanted all of us here at Lee to be proud of him. He is the kind of young man you want to see do well, and it's really been rewarding to watch his success on 'Idol,'" Conn said.

Beckham, 22, is the son of musicians Teri and Virgil Beckham of White House, Tenn. The singer grew up listening to the Motown sound and was heavily influenced by the soulful singing style and instrumental talent of his father.

"My dad was a professional guitar player and singer for the Righteous Brothers, Dolly Parton and a lot of people," Beckham said. "Music was always around and there were always guitars around the house. I would hear him sing and he just sounded so good on everything. I sing just like him -- the same riffs, the same gravel in my voice. It's from growing up hearing him and taking what he has shown me."

After receiving a degree in history from Lee in May, he spent last summer busking on the streets of Nashville's South Broadway. In his audition, the celebrity judges split their vote as to whether he would advance to Hollywood. Judge Keith Urban said yes, Harry Connick Jr. said no, and Jennifer Lopez broke the tie in his favor.

Beckham said that close call left him feeling he had something to prove to Connick when he arrived in Hollywood. But, he said, he only began to improve when he stopped obsessing over Connick's opinion.

"The moment I let go trying to impress Harry and focused on playing the music is when I started doing better. That's when Harry started giving me more affirmation and comments that he was impressed."

Since then he has drawn positive reviews from judges for his control of his strong tenor voice, his instrumental talent and especially for the musical arrangements he writes for his performances. Fans of the show heard one of those arrangements last week when he sang Sting's "Every Breath You Take."

"His ability to write arrangements is one of his strengths," says Jimmy Phillips, director of the Lee Campus Choir. "And the fact he is quite an accomplished musician is a great strength, too; he plays piano and guitar. Many of the folks on 'Idol' haven't played instruments for themselves this year. It's a brave thing to do when you could have 'Idol's' orchestra behind you."

Even AI host Ryan Seacrest called Beckham "cool, calm, collected and under control" after one of his performances.

Beckham said participation in Lee drama department productions, diction training from theater professor Dan Buck and musical training from Phillips prepared him for this shot at stardom.

"Lee equipped me to know how to work really hard, to know how to sing for a long time, to know how to stay focused, to have poise and calmness in my stage presence. I've taken so much from Lee and it's made me who I am now."

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.

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