Summoning the blues spirit of Ethel

by Jordan Green

Robin Doby’s singing career started with a fight.

“My husband and I were having an argument,” the 50-year-old Doby says. “He said, ‘People say you sing, but I haven’t really heard you sing.’ I said, ‘I’m a singer.’ I said, ‘If you bring me a band I’ll do it.'”

She’s holding court at the end of the bar at the Flatiron on Greensboro’s Summit Avenue, laughing loudly with a cigarette clutched between her fingers and bangles rustling on her bare arm as she works into a state of anticipation. “Lord-a-mercy,” she periodically exclaims as she spots a friend in the crowd and gives a warm embrace.

This rollicking juke-joint band formed in 2006. Many of the players – such as saxophonist Courtenay Wynter, who has toured with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and played in the Apollo Theatre house band back in soul time – are seasoned veterans. For Doby, who is the stage manager at Greensboro’s Barn Dinner Theatre, this is the first crack at the music business.

Doby grew up with her father in Lynchburg, Va. and learned to sing Broadway standards. A drama teacher, poet and activist, her father dragged her along to Democratic Party rallies and got her to perform for the crowds. She came to Greensboro in the mid-1970s to study theater at Bennett College. She didn’t know much about blues music then.

Doby has had this blues connection all along though. She says as a child she never knew her mother, a Waters from Salisbury, Md. Her paternal grandmother had picked another woman for her father to marry, but then he met her mother at college on Maryland’s eastern shore. Then, before Doby was old enough to remember, her father spirited her away to Virginia. It wasn’t until she was a college sophomore that Doby went to visit her mother, covering her tracks with a lie to her father that she was on a chorus tour.

A distant cousin on her mother’s side, Doby says, is Ethel Waters. One of the most popular black singers and actors of the period between the two world wars, Waters circulated in the same blues-pop crossover world as Bessie Smith. In the 1920s she recorded a song called “Down Home Blues” for the Black Swan label.

“Woke up this morning, the day was dawning,” Waters sang. “And I was feeling all sad and blue/ I had nobody to tell my troubles to/ I felt so worried/ I didn’t know what to do.”

A good 80 years later, Robin Doby was doing contract work in conflict resolution with the Guilford County Schools when she met David Bolton, the future bandleader of the Stovepipes.

“When I met David and he asked me, did I want to sing the blues, I said, ‘I don’t know any of those songs,'” she says. “I fell in love like I fell in love with my children and my husband. I fell hard.”

It was a natural fit, like finding a new lover.

“I was free to pursue this,” Doby says. “All my children were grown. It was like finding that wedding dress. There was no pressure, no worries, just all that good stuff, all that mojo. At first, I was asking questions: Is this what I should be doing? The blues? But I asked for it, didn’t I?”

After the band warms up with an instrumental or two, Doby starts almost every gig with a rendition of “Down Home Blues” – but not the one sung by Ethel Waters. This particular version is credited to George Jackson and was likely popularized by Etta James.

Once Wynter shows up, the band starts with some limber jazz-inflected funk and then moves into a classy T-Bone Walker-influenced blues number. Then, after a showy introduction by Bolton, Doby glides onto the stage and the band lights into some rollicking gut-bucket.

Doby sings in what is becoming her trademark style, with a quavering, powerful voice that without shame summons all the raw, intermingled feelings of pain and joy.

“Me and my old man, we gonna fight,” she sings. “Because of the hour I’ll be getting’ in tonight/ I don’t care, I’m gonna do as I choose/ I’m gonna get my head real bad/ And party over these down-home blues.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at