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Arts: Brookgreen concert is prologue for Idol star

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Elise Testone made her mark as a singer and performer at places like Pawleys Island Tavern and the Big Tuna in Georgetown before the rest of the country discovered her on “American Idol.”

She was a must-see at the P.I.T. on New Year’s Eve and usually brought a following when booked at Creek Ratz, Dead Dog Saloon and Ocean Annie’s to play covers of Stevie Wonder, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Black Crows. She occasionally pulled out a kazoo as a tip of the cap to her clarinet training as a child.

Those days are long gone for Testone, but true fans defied last Friday’s steady rain for an encore at Brookgreen Gardens’ “Cool Summer Evenings” and will get another opportunity Oct. 6 when she performs for the Pawleys Island Festival of Music and Art.

“I love coming back here,” Testone said during a telephone interview before her appearance at Brookgreen. “The locals supported me for the last 10 years. This will always be a special place in my heart.”

Just as he had done on “American Idol”, Wallace Mullinax of Litchfield played guitar for Testone Friday at Brookgreen. He was a member of her band, the Freeloaders.

Testone has made Charleston her home and enjoys its music scene and ambiance enough to reject any ideas of moving to Nashville, New York or L.A. to further her career. She recently performed with her band to a sold-out Charleston Music Hall. She opened for blues man B.B. King in Greenville, and a concert at Patriots Point drew 1,300. “Charleston is a better fit for me,” she said. “It’s a top-notch place to be, up and coming, a small New York City. The talent is ridiculous, but so much of it is unknown. They helped me hone my craft.”

She remains grateful for the exposure she got from “American Idol” but has moved on. “Once I got involved with ‘American Idol’ it was definitely a whirlwind,” she said. “Just 24/7. I learned a lot from that about being true to yourself and being true to your instincts.”

Testone will turn 30 later this month — “getting old,” she said, — and is ready to record an album of her own songs, though she did collaborate with pop star Darius Rucker on one. She described them as blues, Americana, pop, country, folk, even R&B, jazz and funk. “I’ve been carrying these ideas around in my head,” she said, “and seeing them come to life is just amazing.”

Her eclectic musical palate was developed by listening to the records from her dad’s jukebox collection when she was growing up in Kinnelon, N.J. She memorized the words to most of the rock group Queen’s songs and gave her first performance at age 6. She got a degree in music from Coastal Carolina University and made ends meet during her early Charleston days by giving voice lessons.

Things began coming together in 2011 when “Elise Testone and the Freeloaders” was voted Funk/Soul/R&B Artist of the Year in Charleston by readers of the Charleston City Paper. She was voted the newspaper’s singer of the year in 2012, and “American Idol” came along soon afterward to change her trajectory permanently.

“I can’t go to the grocery store any more,” Testone said. “There’s always somebody who wants a picture. An employee at Home Depot made me sign a paper. But it’s not bad at all. If I was annoyed or didn’t like that, I’m doing the wrong thing.”

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