‘American Idol’ success story Testone brings bluesy voice back to Conway

Conway’s “Idol” is coming home.

Elise Testone, who finished sixth last season on the popular Fox TV series “American Idol,” will be performing at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Wheelwright Auditorium on the campus of Coastal Carolina University, from which she graduated in 2005.

The 29-year-old New Jersey native who now lives in Charleston plans a show in stark contrast to what fans saw last year as she survived from week to week in front of millions of TV viewers. Although plans for the performance were only finalized recently, it’s something Testone has been thinking about even before her television success.

“I was always kind of planning [before I graduated] on coming back,” she said Friday from Los Angeles. “We’re going to be doing something totally raw. It will be stripped down to acoustic and have some original work. I will come back again and do a plugged show.

“When I was in school I always tried to create something that’s not predictable.”

It’s her time at Coastal Carolina that has cemented a strong bond between the budding star and Conway. The former Mount Pleasant resident often uses some of her former professors in her performances in Charleston, and Diane Fabiano – one of those Charleston performers who also took part in several concerts with her at Coastal – works at the school as a program assistant in alumni relations.

“I still keep in touch with teachers who impacted me a lot,” she said.

Some of those she remains close with will also be performing with her during Wednesday’s show. One will be David Bankston, who was her vocal coach at CCU. She credits him with teaching her the classical and theatrical genres and introducing her to the “Louisiana Americana vibe.”

Another professor who had a big effect on her life was Dan O’Reilly. She credits O’Reilly with educating her on the many facets of the pop culture music world, and she even received a scholarship to teach in that class during her final year in Conway.

Those bonds have had Testone and the school collaborating on a time she could return for a performance since her run on “American Idol” ended.

“That’s the thing that really makes us proud, that she’s so grateful for the training she got at Coastal,” said Jean Ann Brakefield, director of alumni relations at the school. “She believes it’s a big part of who she is today so she wants to give back and that says a lot about our faculty and programs and who we are at Coastal.”

Testone’s character and humbleness come as no surprise to Barbara Whitley, part of the ownership family and dessert maker extraordinaire at Crady’s Restaurant in Conway. Testone worked at the eatery during her time at Coastal and made a big impression on the woman for whom the restaurant is named.

Whitley, who always began working much earlier than Testone so that food could be prepared, recalled the singer always fixing her a cup of coffee when she first came to work. She doubts anything has changed with her former employee’s fame.

“She was always so sweet and definitely down to earth,” said Whitley, who proudly claims to have followed every show Testone was on last season. “She was always a lot of fun to be with. I would think [nothing has changed]. She didn’t seem like the type that would not be true to herself.”

Testone raved about a vanilla bean marinade on swordfish that she said epitomized the eatery’s creativity and originality, but wasn’t sure if her schedule would allow her to visit her old haunt during Wednesday’s visit.

Although one could certainly understand her success on “Idol” resulting in more of a demand on her time, Testone says it’s exactly the opposite. Before the show, she said felt crazy because she was “probably was playing too many shows in one week.”

Testone said she felt she was juggling millions of things at once, not having any time to be creative. She said the “Idol” success has given her time to focus on artistry, writing and recording. Testone hopes to parlay her newfound focus into an album some time next year.

“My goal is before May,” she said. “I’m trying to have some songs ready to go, walk in the studio and lay them down. Right now I have 11 songs, although all of them probably won’t work.

“I’m trying to get Steven Tyler on a duet, which might happen. Hopefully we can do it … I have a song in mind, kind of blues/rock.”

Tyler, of Aerosmith fame, was one of the judges on the TV show and raved about Testone the night she was eliminated, calling her a “great, great singer. A great blues singer” who sang with wild abandon and had a special place in his heart.

Testone got a tuneup for her Wednesday concert by singing the national anthem at Saturday’s Major League Soccer Cup match in Los Angeles. The event is equivalent to the Super Bowl in football, and meant a lot to Testone, who planned to keep her rendition of America’s song true to its roots.

It wasn’t the first time she had performed the song in public. Testone also sung the “Star Spangled Banner” at a Coastal graduation in front of about 10,000 people. Although Saturday’s crowd was much larger, she said the more the merrier.

“I’m a better performer with more people,” she said. “The more the better … the more comfortable I feel. At graduation I thought I would be nervous, but as soon as I looked around I was so honored that all those people were going to listen to me.

“I was so calm and honored and was really excited about it.”

Wednesday’s event will be a more private affair. Only 250 of the 700 tickets remained despite no advertisement of the event because of a last-minute scheduling solution reached. Brakefield said students – who will be attending their final day of classes before exams – have been excited at the chance to see their famous alumna.

“There’s definitely been a buzz around campus,” Brakefield said. “A lot of us followed her on ‘Idol.’ … We had viewing parties and did what we could to make sure she got her votes.

“A lot of her former faculty are tickled to have her come back and have her perform in a more intimate environment.”