Blues singer/songwriter Robin Rogers has been performing professionally for the better part of 30 years and remembers where it was that she first felt the excitement of a live audience: on her elementary-school stage, in the early 1960s, performing an a cappella rendition of "What Child Is This?" for the students' Christmas pageant.
"It really had an effect on me when I heard everyone applaud," says Rogers, with a laugh, during a recent phone interview. "I thought, 'This is kinda cool.'"
And the coolness has no doubt increased exponentially over the past decade. In the years since her 2001 CD debut, Time for Myself, Rogers' talents have been recognized with a second-place citation in the 2007 International Songwriters Competition's blues category (for the civil-rights anthem "Color-Blind Angel") and a 2009 Blues Music Awards nomination for Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year, and her impassioned, smoky vocals have resulted in effusive praise from blues fans and critics alike. The Chicago Blues Guide lauded Rogers' most recent CD, 2008's Treat Me Right, for its "rich and subtle mixture of blues, soul, R&B, and a touch of jazz," while Detroit's Metro News applauded its "cohesive mix of style, substance, soul, and chops."
A Virginia native, Rogers says her early interest in performing was always strongly supported by her mother, who had hoped to be a singer herself.
"She never really got to pursue her dream of music because she started having children so young," says Rogers, who found herself with four younger brothers before the age of 10. "But she's pretty much the one who taught me to do harmony, and she always encouraged me ... . Sometimes I think she lived vicariously through me as a musician."
Yet the young Rogers was also forced to contend with an alcoholic, and physically abusive, stepfather, and at age 13, she says, "I got sent to reform school for truancy because I wouldn't stay at home. I didn't want to stay at home. I really couldn't tell my mom what was going on, and it ended up making me not want to go to school, and not want to stay at home, and also to start doing drugs and drinking."
She was released from reform school in 1968, and opted not to stick around Virginia for much longer; still 13, she ran away from home and hitchhiked to Atlanta. Sleeping in parks and abandoned cars, and earning money by singing and playing guitar and harmonica on the streets, Rogers says, "I was pretty much homeless, but at other times, I had older folks taking care of me. I started singing in bands, and I was always like the baby of the bands. I hate to sound nostalgic, but I mean, we're talking 1968, and it was just a different time, and a different generation - it was just like 'peace, love, dope,' and everybody kind of took care of each other.
"It was just a big adventure," she adds. "Like being a gypsy, you know?"
Performing rock music in the vein of Janis Joplin, Rogers spent her teen years, she says, "writing a lot of protest songs about Vietnam and about our generation - how wonderful we were, and how bad we hated the establishment." She also routinely changed locales in her younger years, making her way to Richmond, Virginia; a commune in Love Valley, North Carolina; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and eventually, at age 24, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
"I just didn't want to live where it was cold anymore," she says, "so I loaded up my car just like the Beverly Hillbillies, you know? I put everything I owned into this little Ford station wagon and drove down to Florida."
It was there, in 1979, that Rogers began recording professionally, singing for "some [radio] commercials and some originals, and some different things for this studio called BRT," she says. "And I did something for Salsoul Records, a subsidiary of RCA, which - I'm kind of embarrassed to say - was a disco thing." (She laughs and explains, "I answered an ad in the paper.")
Yet after 10 years, Rogers says, "nothing ever really happened" in Florida, a stasis partly attributable to her continued dependence on drugs and alcohol. "I wanted to get clean and sober," she says, "so I had to leave that area."
At the tail end of the 1980s, Rogers relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina, and not only began a new, alcohol- and drug-free life - as she proudly states, "I've been clean and sober now for 20 years" - but discovered a new musical passion: the blues.
"I started getting more serious about my craft," she says. "I had always been a rocker, pretty much; when I was young; I did a lot of Led Zeppelin and Janis and stuff like that. And I was always drawn to vocalists like Paul Rodgers [of Bad Company] - people that had that bluesy element in their voice. But I began to research, and I slowly realized that that's where rock and roll came from, was the blues. That's what I was attracted to. And once I figured out what it was, I knew that that was exactly what I wanted to do."
With connections made through the Charlotte Blues Society, Rogers began performing at blues clubs throughout the Charlotte area, and after an unsuccessful marriage, met her current husband and bandmate, Tony, in the mid-1990s. "I was singing at a club and he came by," she says, "and we became friends, and we decided to start up a duo. He came from a rock background, but he can play anything on guitar, from classical to jazz."
With Tony playing guitar and dobro, and Robin playing harmonica, the pair began performing as an acoustic duo, and were eventually approached by producer/musician Jim Brock. "He heard us for the first time," she says, "and I got an e-mail from him that night. He said, 'You guys are great. Have you thought about putting out a CD?'"
Following a year of production, Rogers' debut, 2001's Time for Myself, was released, a contemporary blues album featuring six original songs written by the musician and her husband, and the first of many noteworthy professional successes shared by the artists.
After assembling their current band in 2003 - a musical outfit that includes producer Brock on drums and percussion and Kerry Brooks on bass and mandolin - Rogers and her husband won the 2003 Charlotte Blues Society's Blues Challenge and were among 10 finalists for the 2004 International Blues Challenge; won the "Best Self-Produced CD" Award for their second release, Crazy, Cryin' Blues, at the 2005 International Blues Challenge; and joined the Piedmont Talent roster in February of 2006, embarking on a European tour two months later.
"That was really cool," says Rogers. "We're so used to people yelling and raising Cain over here, and when we went over there, they're just very, very polite, you know? They listen very attentively, they don't talk, they applaud very politely after numbers - almost like a golf clap. I mean, they can be loving you, but they don't want to draw anything away from your performance, and it's an odd feeling if you don't know that. At first, I didn't know what was going on. I was like, 'Do they even like us?'"
Since signing with Blind Pig Records in 2008, Rogers says, "I've been touring more nationally," and her talents have begun to be more appreciated on a national level, with the band's success reaching a high-water mark with last month's nomination - and stage appearance - at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis. "We've been going there six or seven years just as spectators," she says, "so to actually be on stage this year was incredible for us. It's like I'm pretty much meeting everybody these days."
Rogers says, though, that the fame she's enjoying wouldn't mean much without the collaboration she shares with Tony. "I'm more heavy on the lyrics, and he's more heavy on the music. But sometimes if I get stuck lyrically, he'll throw something in, and if he gets stuck musically, I'll hum something and it'll help him figure out a chord. So we work together well, and have been for 13 years.
"Of course, I kind of pulled him into the blues a little heavier than he'd been in it before, and now he's ahead of me," she adds with a laugh. "He knows more stuff than I know. So, you know, he's been a great student."