The request came at the last minute. In the summer of 2006, guitarist Wallace Mullinax received a call from his cousin who was getting married on Pawley’s Island and needed musicians to play during the wedding.
“He just hit me up and was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got this great singer, you really just need to come, you won’t need to practice or anything, you’ll just be able to get up and do it,'” Mullinax says.
As fate would have it, Mullinax’s cousin was setting him up to play with Elise Testone, a vocalist whose talents would one day propel both of them to a national stage — but Mullinax had never heard her name at the time. They had effectively been set up on a musical blind date.
“You’ve gotta trust your family,” Mullinax says.
Testone says she remembers being assured by Mullinax’s cousin that “your personalities are going to be fine.”
“We met that morning,” Testone says. “I was like, ‘Hey, I’m Elise,’ he says, ‘Hey, I’m Wallace,’ and I was like, ‘Do you know this song?’ and he was like, ‘Not really.’ ”
The bride and groom requested “Ripple” by the Grateful Dead and a challenging song for a guitarist and vocalist (Michael Bublé’s piano-based take on Stevie Wonder’s “You and I”), but they made a go of it, as promised, with no practice. In the years since the wedding, Mullinax and Testone have shared the stage many more times. Testone went on to replace a previous female vocalist in Mullinax’s blues-rock band The Freeloaders, and Mullinax co-wrote two of the songs on Testone’s solo debut album, In This Life, out this year.
But through the years that led to their recent success, they both often felt like they were preparing at the last minute. As stressful as it was, they say the pressure has shaped their sound.
“There’s kind of a running theme of being able to get it together really fast,” Mullinax says.
Testone and Mullinax are freaks of nature in their chosen fields. Testone has done vocal justice to songs originally performed by James Brown and Adele, and Mullinax can bring new life to classic guitar solos by Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. But you can only attribute so much of their success to raw talent.
Testone says she started to sing as a child growing up in New Jersey. “Whenever I got stressed out, I would sing. And then someone told my family, ‘She has a really good voice,’ and they put me in singing lessons a couple of times,” she says. Later, while studying music at Coastal Carolina University, she sang in the gospel choir and concert choir and even learned to sing opera in her senior year.
“I had this vibrato going, and I could control when it came and when it left, and I sang the highest notes I could ever sing in French,” she says.
Mullinax got an early start on the guitar as a young man in Florence, S.C. He says his uncle had him onstage with his band at Columbia’s St. Patrick’s Day festival by age five.
“You start with a love for it,” Mullinax says. “My family, almost everybody plays music. I remember when I hit 10 or 11 years old, I remember riding around in the car with my mom, and she’s like, ‘All right, now, you’re old enough. You have to play an instrument.'”
Mullinax chose the guitar, and he started playing around the time of the dawn of Napster and online guitar tablature. He remembers holing up in his room for four or five hours a day, teaching himself to play like the greats. At one point in high school, he says he logged 13 hours of practice in a single day.
Maybe it was the years of obsessive practice that prepared Testone and Mullinax for one whirlwind musical endeavor after another. After the wedding gig, they started playing together around Charleston with Mullinax’s band The Freeloaders. They found common ground on cover songs they both loved, and they started writing songs together.
The song “I’m Runnin’,” which appears on Testone’s solo album this year, was written in 2009 while Mullinax was living in Columbia finishing up a law degree. They had booked a show together that called for more original material, and the date was fast approaching. Mullinax came to Testone with the chords and, eventually, a hard-hammering Southern rock solo that punctuates the verses. Testone wrote the lyrics, starting with her signature husky growl on the lines, “Water all around / I gotta keep from sinking down / I let loose my original blues / Lord, I just don’t wanna drown.”
Onstage the pair have developed a fine chemistry. Testone is in a constant state of motion, equally comfortable strutting on the stage of American Idol (where she placed sixth in 2012) and on a float at New York City’s Columbus Day Parade. Mullinax, a soft-spoken man who still talks with a pronounced Florence drawl, usually seems content to hang out in the background, even when he’s pulling off astonishing solos at breakneck speed.
Testone says she has only seen Mullinax get angry twice in the span of their friendship. The first time was at a free concert where the venue manager was rude and the sound man was butchering Mullinax’s guitar tone. “The second time, he really wanted us to play Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Bold As Love,’ ” Testone says. “And I put up such a fight about it, because I didn’t feel like I was ready or I could get it. And he really got upset about it, like ‘Come on, I never ask you for much.’ And I was fighting back, and finally I did it, and now it’s one of my favorite songs.”
“I knew you’d love that song,” Mullinax replies. “That’s why I fought for it.”
In 2012, Charleston was watching anxiously as Testone climbed the ranks on Season 11 of American Idol. Her song selection drew heavily on rock (Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen”), funk, and soul (Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”). By the time she arrived at the final six, she was ready to break out “Bold As Love.”
“When I do big life things, I think about all the people that have gotten me there and who have contributed to who I am,” Testone says. “So when I was on American Idol and I felt like it was my last performance, that’s why I chose ‘Bold As Love.’ ”
In characteristic last-minute fashion, Testone convinced the show’s producers to let Mullinax join her onstage and then sent him a text message: “You have to be here at 9:30 in the morning.” Mullinax caught the next flight to Los Angeles.
And there he was on national TV, effortlessly ripping through a faithful rendition of Hendrix’s guitar work. Testone screamed and half-rapped on the verses, belting it out on the choruses. It was a chilling performance, but it wasn’t enough to sway Idol viewers, who voted her out of the competition. Record producer and Idol mentor Jimmy Iovine criticized her song selection on the show, calling her “a great singer who makes bad choices,” but Testone still stands by her decision.
“I think it was right that I didn’t go forward. I think it was right that that was the end of it for me,” Testone says.
“Not to mention we were the only people to ever do a Hendrix song on that show,” Mullinax says.
Even in the glow of Testone’s post-Idol fame, the duo still finds themselves gearing up for shows with little time to spare. In September 2013, they got called to perform at an event for Army troops in Fort Rucker, Ala. called Diamonds and Denim. Mullinax says they didn’t realize what they’d signed up for until they got in the car to drive to Alabama.
“Last minute, we figured out that it was a country gig and that they were expecting a full country setlist,” Mullinax says. “So we were on the way down there trying to figure out these country songs, listening to them, looking at the music on our iPhones and stuff, trying to put this together. We just barely made it happen.”
Throughout their musical partnership, Mullinax says Testone’s flexibility and the band’s capacity for improvisation have helped mold their sound.
“We definitely were not scared to play around with the forms and just kind of try stuff. We really weren’t scared to fail,” Mullinax says.
Despite their penchant for pulling off daring last-minute shows, Testone says one of her favorite musical memories came this year in Charleston — after months of planning and practice.
“Did you see our Zeppelin show?” Testone says. “If you didn’t, you’re in trouble.”
On Aug. 20, Elise Testone & The Freeloaders headlined Whole Lotta Zeppelin, a Led Zeppelin tribute show at the Pour House to celebrate Robert Plant’s 66th birthday. The band knew about the show two months in advance and practiced twice a week leading up to it.
“That’s got to be the most practice we’ve ever put into one show,” Mullinax says.
The result was a polished but emotionally charged performance in front of a packed crowd. Mullinax made his guitar weep with a slide solo on “What Is and What Should Never Be,” and Testone yowled and moaned like a psychedelic queen on “No Quarter.”
Looking back on the show, Testone searches for the words to sum up what a lot of audience members were feeling that evening. Finally she spits it out:
“That was badass.”
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.