Robin Rouse sings the blues at last minute and wins

April 10, 1995|By Suzanna Stephens | Suzanna Stephens,Contributing Writer

Billie Holiday's songs are characterized by passion wrought of love and most often struggle. For Robin Rouse, the winner of the annual Billie Holiday Vocal Competition, the passion is for performance, the love for her supportive husband Darryl, and the struggle was healing her voice in time for Saturday's competition after suffering a sudden illness the preceding night.

Mrs. Rouse and 12 other competing amateur vocalists honored the legacy of the Baltimore-bred singer on Saturday, the day after what would have been her 80th birthday. The competition was part of Downtown Baltimore's "Really Big Show."

As the winning finalist of the competition, Mrs. Rouse will receive $1,500 and will be a featured performer at ARTSCAPE '95 in July. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke presented the awards along with gardenias -- Holiday's signature flower -- to Mrs. Rouse and the two other winners. Winning the $1,000 second prize was Baltimore Opera Company's Antonio N. Adams, the first male winner in the six years of the contest. The third prize, $500, went to Sandra Spears of the Spears Sisters Trio.

Mr. Adams performed "Strange Fruit" in the final round of competition. Ms. Spears sang "Willow Weep for Me." Mrs. Rouse performed "Good Morning Heartache."

Having suffered from a virus the night before, the 35-year-old Mrs. Rouse nearly didn't make it to the competition. She called to cancel after the contest already had begun. "I started at 5 o'clock in the morning trying to find my voice, and I couldn't, so I gave up. After I called [to cancel], I got 'The Talk' from my husband, and I said, 'All right, all right. I'll go.' "

The announcement of her recovery met with enthusiastic applause from the packed audience in Graham Auditorium at the Walters Art Gallery. Mrs. Rouse first entered the contest last year, taking third place.

A Billie Holiday fan since she saw the film "Lady Sings The Blues" as a teen-ager in upstate New York, Mrs. Rouse moved to Baltimore at age 26 and has performed locally in various bands and on Lady Baltimore Cruises. She now lives in Woodlawn.

Winning was a surprise for Mrs. Rouse, who said she felt like she hadn't given her best performance. "I'm kind of stunned, because . . . I didn't feel like I brought my voice with me," she said. "When third went by and second went by, I just thought 'Well, there's always next year.' So when they said [I had won], I really almost hit the floor. I wasn't expecting it, not at all."

Her husband said that while her performance Saturday was not her best ever, it was more than good enough. "I know her voice. It's very powerful," he said. "I think every body knows that from her [performances] around Baltimore. They know she's talented, and that she worked hard. She did everything right. She did the best she could."

Mrs. Rouse, a computer programmer, said it is not fame or money that fuels her passion as a singer. "I really have no interest in being a star," she said. "I just want to work with good people, good musicians -- if I could do that on a regular basis, I'd be happy . . . [The money] isn't really what it is for me. It's something in [my heart] that I have to do. I have to do it."

But, she said, it's the support at home that keeps her going. "I probably would have stopped a long time ago if it weren't for [my husband]. Everybody who ever makes it has somebody like him behind them."

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