After Elise Testone finished singing Queen's "I Want it All" on last Wednesday's episode of American Idol, she told Ryan Seacrest that she wanted to just be herself and really own her songs that week. When the City Paper spoke on the phone with Testone in Hollywood last week the day before the performance, the soul singer expressed the same sentiment. "The songs I'm singing tomorrow, I'm owning those songs," Testone said. "And I think that's very important to own what you're singing, because people can tell, and even if they can't point to a specific thing, anytime they've given me negative feedback, I haven't owned it as much."
While the judges unanimously loved her performance of the Queen anthem, they were split when it came to Testone's second song, the Jimi Hendrix classic "Bold As Love." But for anyone familiar with the Charleston music scene, the performance was perhaps the coolest moment of the show since she was joined by Wallace Mullinax, her bandmate in the Freeloaders.
Last year, Elise Testone and the Freeloaders received the City Paper Music Award for Funk/Soul/R&B Band of the Year, thanks in part to Testone's vocals and Mullinax's ax skills. He's clearly one of the best guitarists in town, and onstage last week in Hollywood, he effortlessly channeled Hendrix on a red Fender.
When we spoke to Testone before the show, she let it slip that she would be having a guest musician from Charleston playing with her. After saying this, Testone quickly stopped herself, asking the Idol publicist who remained on the line with us for the entire 10-minute interview, "Was I allowed to say that?" The publicist, who took her babysitting duties very seriously, explained firmly, "Yes, but that's all we're going to say."
After Testone screamed and cooed her way through "Bold As Love," Seacrest pulled Mullinax over, saying, "I met Wallace over here. [Testone] called to ask him, 'What key do we usually sing that in?' and he said, how about I come out there and do it with you." A beaming Mullinax replied with his refreshingly laid back, extremely-not-L.A. drawl, "How y'all doin, great to see y'all." As fans of real working musicians and down-to-earth people — who in this case happen to be incredibly talented — it was great to see the controlled sterility of the show momentarily broken with a real smile.
The judges were divided. Jennifer Lopez loved the song, Steven Tyler had mixed emotions, and Randy Jackson, well, displayed the narrow-minded thinking that guides the show. "I love the Janis Joplin about you and I always have, and I love the Jimi because I'm a child of the '70s," Tyler said. "But you've got to do songs that people know. You can't pick the cherries with your back to the tree, you've got to sing a familiar song," to which a somewhat hurt-looking but always plucky Testone responded, "I thought everyone knew that song!"
However, when the next performer, Dave Matthews wannabe Phillip Phillips, sang the truly obscure "The Stone" from Matthews' 1998 album Before These Crowded Streets, Jackson praised him for being "Phillip Phillips," which apparently means channeling another, far more talented performer. Jackson's hypocrisy was enough to make us wonder if he even listens to the songs or if he's too focused on breaking the record for the number of times one can say "dude" in a two-hour period.
As you all know, Jackson's opinion is irrelevant. He doesn't ultimately decide if a contestant goes home. That charge is in the text-happy hands of the 12-year-old girls of America, who haven't heard the song "Bold As Love" before and probably have no idea who Jimi Hendrix is. To make matters worse, those voters have never really taken a shine to Testone, who, at 28, is seven years older than the next oldest contestant left in the competition.
Before Tuesday's performance, Testone was upbeat. "No matter what happens," she told me, "I'm always gonna be myself and I'm going to use what I've gained, the stature I've gained, for good. There are so many things I want to do. I want to make an album, a great album with musicians who've inspired me. And I really want to play some festivals and maybe at one point organize a festival in Charleston with people who are so amazing to play with."
Those plans will have to wait, because for the next half-year, Testone will be tied up with the Idol tour, which will hit the North Charleston Coliseum on Aug. 6. (Tickets go on sale May 11 at 10 a.m.) But while her name is everywhere now — Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone — Hollywood has not changed the Holy City singer's caring demeanor. In the real world, she's not only a seasoned performer, she teaches singing lessons at Mt. Pleasant's Music Unlimited. "I just want to bring a positive influence to the world through my music," Testone says. "When I was teaching, I started to feel this responsibility to help steer the youth or something, to be a role model for them, the younger generation, and what they're going through. And maybe I could be that person that they can look to for guidance or to make them feel better. But I also connect so well with the older crowd that I just feel this responsibility to get myself out there."
When it comes to all of her American Idol highlights — making the Top 24 and then the Top 12, busting out a truly rocking rendition of the Led Zeppelin classic "Whole Lotta Love" — one moment in particular stands out: meeting Stevie Nicks. "I definitely felt like she and I were old friends and clicked right away," Testone said. During their meeting, the two singers joined together for an impromptu duet, after which Nicks said, "If I needed a singer, I'd hire her in an instant."
Testone was taken aback. "She was so passionate and sincere with her advice when she spoke to me," she said. "That was the most incredible mentor for me we've had so far. And I hope she calls me to be her backup singer."
A backup singer? Testone is destined for more than that.
On Thursday night, we learned the results. Testone was going home. It was not a shock. Week after week, American Idol voters had placed the Charleston singer in the bottom three. Each time she had managed to escape. This time she didn't. And, without a truly seasoned adult performer, the competition is now worse off after Testone's ouster.
We know Testone would have liked to win, but the truth is we all knew from the get-go that she was better than this show. We all knew the tweener text-a-thon wasn't her game. Her goal, which she has repeated several times, was to get herself out there to as big an audience as possible and have a positive influence on people's lives. She's done that. And she will do much more of it.
Elise Testone will be able to use Idol as a stepping stone into the music biz, a foot in the door to the palace of her future. And anyone who knows her knows she doesn't mess around. Once in, that foot ain't going anywhere.
1. "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" duet with Phillip Phillips
This performance was a hit with the Idol judges and the public, but while Elise Testone commanded the stage, her partner, Dave Matthews-clone Phillip Phillips, did not. When Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty sang this classic rock standard on camera or on stage, they looked at each other, acting out the emotions of the song. Throughout the performance, Testone attempted to engage Phillips in the cat-and-mouse, look-me-in-the-eye-goddammit style the song requires, but the former pawn shop worker Phillips didn't even seem to understand the meaning of the words. With the exception of Idol's Skylar Laine and Jessica Sanchez, no other contestant has been able to take a single performance and turn it into art. But that's something that Testone did with not only with this song, but nearly all of the others.
2. "Let's Get It On"
We honestly don't understand why the judges criticized Testone for her performance of this Marvin Gaye classic. It was sultry and funky, and during it, the Holy City resident proved she had personality to spare. And it didn't hurt that she sang it really well — something she did on every song she sang except for her nearly disastrous cover of Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is." During "Let's Get It On," Testone growled at all the right times, but she showed restraint on the stage, something that had been difficult for the singer to do on her Idol journey. The song had the right combination of sass and maturity.
On this deep cut from Billy Joel's 1977 album The Stranger, Testone once again showed restraint. "Vienna" is a challenging song, and the result was really pretty, but not in Testone's usual belt-it-out fashion. It was soft and delicate, but it was still Testone. So when the time came for the singer to inevitably erupt, she once again showed the great level of control she has over her voice. Idol does its best to take that control away from the artist, which just makes us excited to see what a shackle-free Elise Testone can pull off.
4. "It's a Man's Man's Man's World"
On the 49-second clip of the performance that got her into the Top 24, James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," Testone's singing is off the charts. It's not even fair. Later in the show, the judges pushed Testone's rocker side while ultimately rejecting her Hendrix interpretation. But as everyone in Charleston knows, Testone is best when she's belting out funk and soul.
5. "Whole Lotta Love"
Like there was ever any question. There were a few moments during the competition where the sheer power of Testone's voice and personality fully came through on television like it does onstage at the Pour House. Her cover of the Led Zeppelin classic did that. The force of her stage presence and the shivery concoctions of her voice were unrivalled by the other contestants. Not only was this her best Idol moment, it was the only performance from any contestant where we actually forgot we were watching American Idol and stood up and stomped our feet.