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Distinctive voice puts Rogers on map

Robin Rogers has a voice that stops you in your tracks.

Walk into Longitude 81 in Fort Mill, S.C., on a Thursday when she and husband Tony are playing blues, or grab a drink at Fairview Grill on Mondays when she's showing off her funk and R&B side with Bobby Donaldson and Friends. Chances are mouths will shut and heads will turn as soon as she lets the first notes fly.

“She just nails every single note,” says Mike Taylor, a computer technician and musician who has been watching Robin and Tony at Fort Mill haunts for years. “I've never heard her sing a wrong note.”

That voice has caught the ear of Blind Pig Records, a 31-year-old blues label that's released albums by Nappy Brown, Popa Chubby, Muddy Waters and Bob Margolin. It signed Rogers last spring and released her new disc, “Treat Me Right,” in June.

“Treat Me Right” isn't her first foray into the business. Her second album, “Crazy Cryin' Blues,” which won Best Self-Produced CD at the International Blues Challenge in 2005, was released on the now-defunct 95North Records. And she's worked with Piedmont Talent since 2006 as the Charlotte-based international blues booking agency's only hometown artist.

Like many of Rogers' local fans, Piedmont Talent director Steve Hecht was drawn in by her voice.

“I was walking through a parking lot and heard her singing in a sushi restaurant,” he says. He went in, sat down and started yelling out requests.

“It wasn't clichéd blues,” he says. “She really takes material from her personal life, which makes it a lot more relevant.”

Rogers calls herself a “child of Woodstock” who grew up listening to Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers Band. She says she ran away at age 13, did a stint in reform school, and played and sang on street corners for change.

“It gave me confidence … made me self-sufficient,” she says. She joined bands to make a living singing funk, Top 40, and country. Now 53, she says she can't recall working a nine-to-fiver. “I found my calling in blues.”

She says she conquered cocaine and alcohol addiction in 1989 and moved to Charlotte from Fort Lauderdale to start fresh. She celebrates 20 years of sobriety in February. “I don't recommend anyone having a hard life (to help them sing). But there's something to be said for it. It's from my gut,” she says.

But Rogers uses other influences as well. She wrote “Color-Blind Angel,” a track that won second place in the blues category at the 2007 International Songwriting Competition, after seeing a documentary about slain civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo on the History Channel. The 39-year-old white mother of five joined the civil rights movement in Selma, Ala., after witnessing injustices in the news. In March 1965, she was chased, shot and killed by Ku Klux Klan members while shuttling marchers from a protest.

After a friend of the Liuzzo's family heard Rogers' song on WRFG's “Good Morning Blues” show in Atlanta, Rogers began receiving e-mails from Liuzzo's family.

“I think I have listened to your song at least 100 times,” wrote Liuzzo's daughter Sally Prado, who was 6 when her mother was killed. “My family has fought for a very long time to see that she is never forgotten and that people know the real Viola.”

Rogers plans to join the Liuzzos on a civil rights bus tour in Atlanta in March, she says. It's one of many stops she'll make as her tour itinerary picks up steam next year. Piedmont plans to send her to U.S. blues festivals as well as to Europe.

“Robin has gotten to where she is because she's a woman that won't be denied. She's proactive. She's going to go out and make things happen,” says agent Hecht. “She drove to Chicago (to meet with Blind Pig) essentially for an audition all at her own expense. I don't know many people that would do that, but it worked.”