By Heather Gale
David Bankston never used to watch “American Idol.”
“I was never attracted to the show, but now I watch it every Wednesday and Thursday night,” the Coastal Carolina University music professor said.
But it wasn’t just the talent level or the celebrity judges which caused him to jump on the talent show bandwagon and become a huge fan overnight.
Instead, one of his former students, Elise Testone, has been the draw, performing her heart out and earning a spot in the show’s Top 10.
Fellow CCU professor and local musician Dan O’Reilly said this is the first season of “Idol” he has watched as well.
“I don’t watch a lot of TV but I make it a point to watch Elise,” he said.
After performing around the Palmetto state for years, the 28-year-old CCU graduate has taken her show on the road, competing on the 11th season of the famed Fox television show and her friends and teachers couldn’t be happier for her.
The blonde haired, brown-eyed Testone grew up in New Jersey before relocating to the beach to attend Coastal. There, she earned a bachelor’s degree in music, honing her craft and continuing to develop the jazzy, smoky vocals that have drawn big praise from “Idol” judges.
After graduating, she moved to Charleston and began performing around town with a variety of rock, pop, funk and blues musicians. Most recently, Testone fronted The Freeloaders a Soul- and Blues-influenced rock group which has performed often along the Grand Strand.
The Freeloaders bassist Oliver Goldstein said he couldn’t be more proud of his bandmate. (Read our past feature on The Freeloaders)
“We have played together for the past six years and so it is amazing to see the woman who used to sit next to me and sing on national television and doing such a great job,” he said. “Everyone is super happy for her and believes she can do this.”
Goldstein said Testone definitely has the “stuff” to make it in the entertainment business.
“Someone with her level of talent is going to make it in the business,” he said. “We talked about it a lot and never doubted that she would make it.”
Bankston agrees saying that Testone has the talent and the drive to succeed.
“Nobody deserves this like Elise does,” he said. “She is a phenomenal person and this is more than I could ever have hope for her.”
Not hiding his bias, Bankston said more than any other contestant on the show, Elise has won the respect of the judges and could win the show.
“Without trying to make her out to be a Mother Teresa type, Elise has a self confidence that no one else has and it is tempered by humility and a way to express herself and her kindness in her music,” he said.
O’Reilly, who he taught Testone for eight semesters, agrees.
“I couldn’t be happier for her success,” he said. “She has worked hard for many years.”
When O’Reilly first met Testone, he said he could tell she had something special as a singer and entertainer.
“She stood out from the pack very early on,” he said. “I have been teaching music for a long time and some are good, but some have that little something extra and Elise has had it from the beginning.”
O’Reilly said he has seen Testone continue to grow as an artist both during her time at Coastal and since graduation.
“She has taken every opportunity to work to become an artist,” he said. “She was always prepared in school, she performed any time she could and has done well as an artist.”
One of the aspects of Testone’s talent that seems to have her friends, teachers and fans of the show enamored with her singing is her connection to the music.
“When I heard Elise singing the song by Adele last week, I just knew she was going to get emotional because that is what she does. She connects with the music and expresses herself through it,” Goldstein said. “I said to myself, ‘come on Elise, keep it together’ and she was able to pull it together and do a great performance.”
Bankston said Testone makes songs her own.
“That is why she has the respect of the judges,” he said. “She makes me very proud and has our love and our respect and you can’t say much more than that.”
O’Reilly said just like Frank Sinatra, Testone is the best friend a song could have.
“It was always said the Sinatra was the best friend a song could have and I think the same thing with Elise,” he said. “When she is performing you can see her soul. There is no disconnect, there is no performer mode, she is not faking it on stage but rather showing everyone who she is and how she gets to the heart of the song.”
Diane Fabiano, a friend and classmate who performs with Testone on occasion, went with Elise to the American Idol audition in Charleston.
“She has worked really hard her entire life to make it this far,” she said. “She has really put her heart and soul into making it in the industry. She has worked harder than anyone I know and I think the show has given her the opportunity to show America what she can do.”
In addition to her singing, Fabiano says, Testone plays drums, piano, guitar and tambourines “like no one else I've ever heard” and writes her own jazzy, bluesy songs.
“Now is her moment, and she deserves it,” said Fabiano. “I get so emotional when I watch the show. She has wanted this for a long time. I hope a lot of people vote for her. She definitely has a change to win the whole thing if people rally around her and she continues to do her best.”
Testone couldn’t be reached for comment at this time. “Elise is not available for interviews, but will keep [the publication] posted when she is,” said “Idol” producers via e-mail.
Gale is a reporter for the Horry Independent in Conway. Read more of her work online at myhorrynews.com.
American Idol is shown Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Fox. To vote for Testone, call the number on the TV screen when she performs or log onto www.americanidol.com. Keep up with Testone by following @ETestoneAI11 on Twitter.