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Saturday, Nov. 15, 2008 | Dorothy Mae Whitsett may be retired, but she is far from tired. She ascended to local stardom in her 60s, belting blues and rock in clubs as the front woman of Lady Dottie and the Diamonds, a multigenerational, multiracial band that reinvents Muddy Waters and James Brown for bopping crowds of barflies from Ocean Beach to Valley Center. One band member has likened her to a streetwise Etta James.
“I feel like I’m 25,” Whitsett said before sauntering up to the stage in white high-heeled boots alongside her band mates, younger men with long hair and plaid shirts who wail on the harmonica, electric guitar, keyboard and drums.
Thumping a white tambourine shaped like a bird in flight, she goads wallflowers to get up and dance, and unleashes a torrent of ferocious, heartfelt and even playful vocals that have won honors from the San Diego Music Awards year after year. voiceofsandiego.org snagged Whitsett before a raucous gig in the Gaslamp to talk about her life and love of the blues, and followed up on the telephone later to get the details that got lost on the dance floor.
Tell me about how you started singing the blues.
Well, I grew up in church. And from my age of 10 years old ’til I was 20 I was singing gospel. And so after 20 years old, I left home. And the devil got a hold to me. (Laughs.) You know? It’s like that. The Lord brought me through. And that’s why I started singing in clubs all over, doing songs for different people. And that’s what led to singing the blues. I’ve played with Kool and the Gang. I’ve sang with Clarence Carter, he’s from my hometown, he went to my same school, I sang with him. And I sang with a lot of different musicians, people that sing the blues and stuff.
What do you like about the blues?
Well, the blues ain’t nothin’ but a good woman lovin’ a married man. And that’s what it’s all about, if you want to get down to real brass tacks about the blues!
A lot of your music is about love or sex or something in between —
No. It’s not about love and sex. It’s about everybody being happy. You know? Because we have all kinds of sadness in this world and blues makes you feel like you’re really alive. You know? Because you can be sad and happy at the same time.
What are all the different places you’ve lived?
I started out in Alabama, in New Jersey to Atlanta, from Atlanta to California, from California — San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, New York, New Jersey. I been to all those places.
What’s your favorite job you’ve ever had and your worst job you’ve ever had?
Ooh! My first job I had was cooking in the restaurant. Well, my first job was really cooking at home for my 13 brothers and sisters. So I never stopped cooking. And I never stopped singing. So those were my two main jobs, was cooking and singing. I never stopped either one of them. I love them both. I couldn’t say one was best or worst. Both of them was my best.
Your stage name changed from Miss Dynamite to Lady Dottie. Why did you make the change?
Well, I was Miss Dynamite back when I was in New Jersey, before I came to California. I was a little hottie in the party, and people would say, “She’s dynamite!” It just came up like that. However you present yourself that’s how people pick you as. Then I worked with an old man used to work in San Diego … and he came up with the name, Lady Dottie. All his ladies that used to sing with him, he named them Lady because he was such a proud man, a loving man, a sweet man. He would call me, “Lady Dottie!” He had the biggest smile on his face when he called me onstage. So I kept it just like that. He even told me, “You’re going to go a long way.” He died about 10, 12 years ago. So I’ve had the name at least about 16, 17 years.
Where did you grow up?
Was your family musical?
Oh heck, yes. My whole family is musical, gospel, all of us sing. I have some ministers in my family. My father, he was in ministry. My mother, she was in ministry. So I was the one home taking care of all the kids. So that makes me a minister, too! (Laughs.)
Minister of the kids, huh?
Who inspires you as a musician?
Well, Big Mae Bell. She was the first one, years ago, Big Mae Bell. Gladys Knight. Aretha Franklin. Tina.
Yes, and Betty Wright. Ella Fitzgerald. Diana Ross. All those old singers, they inspire me. That’s what I grew up with.
Do you have any good-luck charms? Anything that you always do before you go onstage?
Yes. I always pray. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. And I know he’s the one that kept me through this. That’s all I depend on is him.
What’s the craziest thing that has ever happened at a gig?
Well … oh, there’s so many. So many things that happened. But they was all good. I haven’t really had a tragedy in my life. Yes, I was blessed. I didn’t have any kids, my mama had 13, so she had enough for both of us. That’s what I say. So I’ve been blessed to be alive and well. What can I say?
(I called Whitsett back the next day to press her on this question. It took some cajoling but I’m glad I did!)
Well, I don’t want to exploit nobody. (Laughs.) We do have a great time together. We’re a family. We keep it real. We try not to do anything to hurt anybody’s feelings. But sometimes they’re wanting to get up on stage on us and take the mic! One time there was a guy in the audience — we were taking a break and he started playing the drummer’s drum — and the drummer, he snatched them up like a bird and throwed him off the stage! That was really awesome, like in a movie or something. Then they was all over the guy, everybody jumped on him! I thought we was in a movie. Yeah, that was awesome. I mean, he could have asked him nicely, but he just picked up them and threw him off like a piece of rubber ball!
Would you ever consider moving on to Los Angeles for your career?
Oh, I’m footloose and fancy free. That’s a yes.
How do you feel about being famous in San Diego?
I didn’t know that! I didn’t know I was famous. But I know I’m blessed.
Is music a spiritual thing for you?
How is singing blues music different than the gospel you grew up with?
Well, if you can convert the gospel and the blues together, hey, what more can you ask for? It’s all the same thing. Either you feel it or you don’t. You can feel the blues and you can feel the gospel all at once if you’re a true believer. That’s how I feel. The Lord has giveth and he’s taken. He’s blessed me to give. So I feel like I can give. The more I can give, the more comes back to me.
What’s different about playing with Lady Dottie and the Diamonds than other musicians you’ve played with?
Well, I’ve been singing with a lot of bands over the years. And truly with this band here, it’s different. I wouldn’t try this at home, in Alabama, you know what I mean? I wouldn’t because I don’t think the people in Alabama would really relate to what I’m doing in California.
Do you mean a band with all different ages, different races?
Yes, with younger people. And especially, they’re not black! You know what I mean?
Do you ever look at the audience and get surprised by all these white people getting down to the blues?
No. I do not. Because I’ve come a long way and it’s about all of us. I just look at — one. We’re all one. All of us.
That’s a beautiful thought. What advice would you give someone who wants to sing the blues? Maybe a little girl who wants to do the same thing?
She really has to have it in her soul, coming from the heart deep down below. You got to have it. If you don’t have it it’s going to be hard learning, that’s for sure. Sometimes when I sing a lot of stuff comes out of there I don’t even know is coming! But I know it’s right. A lot of people don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong. But once you got it in your soul, it’s right.
So you feel like it was always there?
Yeah, it’s always been there. They just know how to bring it out.