Before Lee Dewyze was singing Elvis Presley and Shania Twain hits competing on "American Idol," he was making up his own songs in his spare time while working at a paint store in his hometown of Mount Prospect.
"Mostly Sundays, he'd take out his guitar and jam out a tune, off the top of his head. He'd change it and twist it and turn it," Mt. Prospect Paint owner Bill Lagattolla said Tuesday, between waiting on customers and answering the phone.
These days Dewyze finds himself one of five remaining contestants on the Fox singing competition. The 24-year-old has support in the northwestern Chicago suburb with a sign outside the red and white corner paint store that reads: "Mt. Prospect Paint congratulates its very own American Idol Lee Dewyze. Vote for Lee."
Inside, dozens of neon yellow and pink "Vote 4 Lee" T-shirts sit for sale on a counter with painter pants stocked below. Lagattolla said some days the phone rings between 500 and 600 times with people inquiring about Dewyze, some asking, "Is that the kid who mixed my paint?"
On Tuesday nights, Lagattolla said crowds of Dewyze fans pack the downtown Mount Prospect restaurant Blues Bar to watch their hometown idol. When the show's over, "then they vote their fingers off — groups of tables just texting and calling and voting for Lee," he said.
Lagattolla said he hired Dewyze to work at the decades-old paint store because he was so persistent, checking up after putting in his application to see if the store needed any more information. He describes Dewyze as a neighborhood kid who is personable, eager to work and self-driven.
"He was one of our top sales guys, too," Lagattolla said. He has one of the singer's business cards, with its rainbow "Mt. Prospect Paint, Inc." logo and "Lee Dewyze Sales Associate" printed below.
On Tuesday, customers came in the store to buy the "Vote 4 Lee" shirts. The money goes to the local Prospect High School. Betsy Khamdiev, 48, of Mount Prospect bought two T-shirts, one for herself and one for her daughter. Khamdiev said she votes for Dewyze, who Lagattolla said grew up down the street from the store.
"I really like his music style," Khamdiev said. "Something about his voice quality, the way he translates the song."
Dewyze attended both Prospect High School in Mount Prospect and Forest View Alternative School in nearby Arlington Heights. Pat Monti, a dean at Prospect High School, said students are excited about the singer's success and every Tuesday is "Vote for Lee Day."
"The kids are very excited about someone who sat in the same chair they sat in doing so well in such a difficult competition," Monti said.
Dewyze has earned kudos from the "American Idol" judges, too. The week the scruffy singer crooned Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer," Randy Jackson declared him a "great artist ready to make great music," while Simon Cowell called his performance "sincere."
Back at the paint store, Lagattolla said he wants his employee to pursue his music career and is happy Dewyze has the opportunity to share his musical talents on a show with the magnitude of "American Idol."
"He didn't go out there to lose," Lagattolla said.