The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette will update readers on some of the most memorable people we covered in 2016. Here is the fourth story in our “Where are they now?” series.
The first familiar notes thump out of a keyboard and drum set at the back of the stage, but it’s Lee Jean Jr.’s voice that rings out through his high school auditorium.
“The warden threw a party in the county jail. The prison band was there and they began to wail. ...”
Lee, who brought fame to Bluffton last spring when he placed 8th in the final season of “American Idol,” is singing Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock.”
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The venue on this November night is a departure for the 17-year-old. Rather than the state-of-the-art set of the reality TV music show or a small, outdoor stage in Bluffton, Jean is performing in the auditorium of his new high school in Edgewater, Md., where he moved in August. The stage is lined with lights for the “Rock and Soul Revue,” an annual event produced by the South River High School theater company.
Presley’s 1950s rockabilly hit is also a change of pace from Jean’s folksy acoustic style. He was known as “the Ed Sheeran kid” at Bluffton High School, where classmates would make daily requests of Jean from the English singer’s roster.
But perhaps the most unusual thing about this performance is that it’s Jean’s first time singing to a crowd in months.
After being eliminated from the reality TV music show in March, Jean returned to Bluffton something of a hometown hero, easily drawing hundreds of people to shows at Coligny Plaza, Southern Barrel Brewing Co. and Old Town Dispensary.
Even before “Idol,” Jean was a recurrent local act at bars and restaurants across southern Beaufort County.
But he’s kept mostly quiet since moving to Edgewater, a small town on the Chesapeake Bay just 15 minutes from Annapolis and an hour from Washington, D.C. Nearly all of his music is contained to his bedroom, even though part of the reason he and his dad moved was to get closer to musical opportunities in D.C. and New York.
And that can be a scary thought for Jean.
“I feel like I’m relaxing and I’m just living my life as who I am right now, but I feel like, on some level, I’m not performing enough or doing enough,” Jean said in a phone interview Dec. 2. “That’s just constant for me. I never feel like I’m doing enough.”
But the past three months have been anything but quiet.
He’s adjusting to his new home in Anne Arundel County, Md., whose population is three times that of Beaufort County but has nothing on the Lowcountry’s scenery.
He’s stretching himself in school — twice the size of Bluffton High — and in a theater class that focuses heavily on dance techniques in ballet and jazz.
And he’s writing new songs, filling his brown notebook with lyrics and his phone’s recording app with melodies that will eventually fuse together.
“I just have a lot of songs on the drawing board,” Jean said. “Some are closer to being finished than others.”
He keeps them private for now but tells fans they should “expect the unexpected.”
He’s also grappling with the same challenges as many high school seniors, let alone those starting fresh somewhere new — looming deadlines for college applications, the struggles of a long-distance relationship, making friends when you’d much rather sit in your room and play FIFA on Xbox.
The way Jean saw it, he didn’t need the added stress of his “Idol” fame following him up north. So when he began school at South River High, he didn’t plan to tell anyone about his seven-week run on the show.
“By word of mouth, everyone found out,” Jean said with a laugh.
His principal even planned to mention him on the morning announcements, but someone stopped him.
“I would have been sinking in my chair as fast as I possibly could,” he said.
Jean’s hiatus, though, may be coming to an end.
He has calls out to venues across Maryland and D.C., and he plans to visit New York for the first time next month.
“I miss doing the shows and, hopefully soon, I get to do some more around here,” he said.
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WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
HOW WE KNOW THEM: At 16, Lee Jean Jr. left his Bluffton hometown for a seven-week run on the final season of reality TV music show “American Idol,” winning hearts and votes with his folksy acoustic style.
WHAT'S NEW: Jean has moved up north to be closer to family and big-city musical opportunities.