Carolina Characters

Stage-shy singer takes you from ‘Crazy’ to ‘Billie Jean’

A voice – honey-dipped bittersweet, saxophone-sassy – rises in crescendos above the buzz of bar talk and gets folks’ attention.

The crowd at Aspen Grille is not oblivious to the smooth music Bobbie Leigh Rowe-Holt is making, although good wine and fabulous appetizers are in front of them. As they eat and drink, Rowe-Holt does her thing and isn’t perturbed at all by the constant chatter of family, friends and strangers. Seconds go by, then minutes, and finally the boom hits. Like an earthquake that sends tremors through the ground, the sound of Rowe-Holt’s voice shakes people to their core. They realize after a little while that Aspen Grille is hosting a talent worth touting.

Rowe-Holt’s voice is silk floating across water. It can calm nerves and brighten dark moods. Her breezy, effortless vocals are defined by gravitas and grit.

“She is excellent,’’ said Judith Pfeffer, in a distinctive Northern accent that traveled from Warrington, Penn., to visit Myrtle Beach. “She sounds as good as Norah Jones, who we saw in concert. She is just as beautiful as Norah Jones, too.”

Her husband, Philip Pfeffer, nodded in agreement and they both lingered by the hostess stand and listened to Rowe-Holt before finally leaving the restaurant that specializes in fresh Carolina cuisine.

The couple is first-time visitors and regulars that frequent Aspen Grille each week for Wine Down Wednesday, when fine glasses of wine and divine appetizers are 50 percent off. The extra treat, however, is in the form of a shy brunette who knows how to stir souls in a cropped black top, a white-and-black striped puffy skirt and ‘So Kate’ Pointy Toe Pumps in black by Christian Louboutin. Yes, Rowe-Holt is lovely, and her voice is black coffee – it wakes you up, perks you up, and is strong. Yet, there is gentleness to her talent that any music aficionado can snuggle in and enjoy like a blanket on a winter day.

“She is really versatile,” said Curry Martin, a chef who co-owns Aspen Grille with his wife, Jennifer. “She can sing the standards and pop singles. She is able to cover a wide variety of music.”

Another one of her biggest fans is her nearly 7-year-old daughter, Brennan.

Her blue eyes sparkle when her mom sings.

“I like her voice,” said Brennan after her mom sang “Crazy” by Patsy Cline. “I think it’s pretty.”

No one but God knows for certain when Rowe-Holt was bestowed with her talent. However what can be proven without debate is that Rowe-Holt is a singer who knows how to work her mojo with music.

“I’ve been singing all of my life,” Rowe-Holt said one Wednesday before starting her set, which lasts from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. “My dad was a professional musician by the time he was 9 years old. He was going to open for Elvis one time, but that was when Elvis got drafted.”

Rowe-Holt, who grew up in Conway, wasn’t even on the radar then, but the love of music was certainly in her molecular makeup, thanks to Tommy and Cindy Rowe, her parents.

Her dad, in particular, was that dude in his day. He could sing secular and spiritual music with equal aplomb.

“He had a come-to-Jesus moment,” Rowe-Holt said. “He would rewrite top 40 songs into gospel tunes.”

Her daddy, the associate minister of contemporary worship at First Baptist Church in Conway who spent 25 years as a professional entertainer and musician before being a minister of music for Jesus Christ, knew his girl had talent early on. So, he went about nurturing it, to her dismay. She didn’t want any spot she was standing in to shine any light on her. Rowe-Holt was perfectly fine with being in a dimly lit corner somewhere unseen, but heard.

“I loved to sing, but I had horrible stage fright,” said Rowe-Holt, who began singing at Aspen Grille more than eight weeks ago. “I still do. I will sing. I love to sing, but I would rather sing from behind a curtain.”

Singing was a rite of passage for Rowe-Holt, and she took the typical steps to get where she finally arrived.

She would sing in the shower. She would sing in the mirror, with her hairbrush in hand. And of course, she would sing in front of her dolls.

Yet with all that singing, she still didn’t want to sing. Her dad, however, refused to let her hide her talent. He kept nudging her, but she didn’t budge. That’s when he decided to push.

“When I was 15, he sat at the piano and made me sing,” she said. “It was a battle because I didn’t want to sing. When I finished singing, I said, ‘Are you satisfied now?’’’

Time went on, and before Rowe-Holt knew it, she was enjoying making music in the introverted skin she was in. She studied music at Coastal Carolina University, where she met her husband, Aaron Holt, 37, who helped her write the songs on her CD called “Move On,” which features country, blues, folk and jazz music.

“Bobbie Leigh has a soulful, bluesy voice that has a little bit of country mixed in it,” said Shea Clayton, Rowe-Holt’s first cousin who is like a brother to her. “If you had a drink made out of soul, blues and country, it would be called Bobbie Leigh.”

Aretha Franklin, Loretta Lynn, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Joni Mitchell, Whitney Houston, Carole King, Anita Baker and Amy Winehouse are among Rowe-Holt’s favorite artists.

Her diverse and vast taste in music shows up effortlessly when she sings, which is every single day. She sings while driving, folding clothes, showering and while working on her artwork in her garage. She is singing, and singing is she.

Just watch and be amazed.

One night, she sung Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Her vocal interpretation caused listeners to envision and interpret the song in an entire different way. Instead of moonwalking, they sat still and let the cool vibrations flow from your head, hit your heart and flow down to your feet. Those feet started tapping, and remained happy feet long after the music Rowe-Holt made ended – they couldn’t stop swaying from side to side. Their heads were still bopping too.

Contact Johanna D. Wilson at JohannasCarolinaCharacters@gmail.com or to suggest subjects for an upcoming column.

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