Whether she's singing gospel, blues, R&B or high-octane rock 'n' roll, Lady Dottie says she has to feel it in her soul.
"It seems like I got another body inside when I'm singing—and I feel like other people can feel like I am feeling," she says. "I hope I am communicating the joy and pain of life when I sing, and maybe that will touch some people who hear it."
With her San Diego-based group, the Diamonds, Dottie plays an unrelenting hybrid of rock, soul and blues. Even if you're simply listening to one of the band's two CDs, it's hard to pay attention to anything else when Dottie's at the mic. The band's sound has been described by a former member as "MC5 backing up a street-version Etta James."
Lady Dottie and the Diamonds will play Saturday night, April 16, at the 92.9 The Mountain Stage at spring Club Crawl®, sponsored by the Tucson Weekly.
Dorothy Mae "Lady Dottie" Whitsett, 66, was born in Talladega, Ala., one of 14 children. She grew up singing gospel in church, but eventually "got the devil in me and started singing the blues," she says.
"Ain't nothing but the blues when there are 14 kids in the family, and you are the eldest girl. You're the one taking care of everybody."
At 19, Dottie left home to perform in New York and New Jersey. "I played with Muddy Waters, Bettye LaVette (and) James Taylor of Kool and the Gang. I opened for Koko Taylor in 1967."
As one of the primary caregivers in her family home, Dottie learned to cook at 10, and she has often worked as a gourmet chef while pursuing her singing career, settling for a while in cities such as Portland, Ore., Seattle and Atlanta before coming to San Diego in 1984.
"I worked at The Abbey restaurant in Atlanta, and when they opened a branch in San Diego, I transferred," Dottie says.
About 14 years ago, she was working the kitchen at a club and restaurant when she met piano player Joey Guevara, who played jazz and blues in the front of the house. Dottie began sitting in with him. Soon, bassist Stephen Rey and guitarist "Detroit" Nathan Beale joined. The rotating cast of drummers has settled in recent years thanks to Richard Larson, aka T-Bone.
Lady Dottie and the Diamonds have been working together under that name for about eight years, she said. They've released two albums, Livin' It Up and Lady Dottie and the Diamonds, and are working on a new one.
The other members of the Diamonds range in age from 29 to 42. When she began playing with them, it was completely different from anything else she had done in music: "This is a very big change. I'm not used to singing with Mexican guys and white guys. I think I calm them down a bit, help them lay back. I gave them more of the blues and feeling of the R&B.
"But they're teaching me, too, especially about what the feelings are that young people have, and how we can reach out to that. We all can live in this world together and love one another. A lot of young kids, they don't see or hear our kind of music, and what we do allows them to feel more than just banging club music and rock noise. Some of that stuff is too drastic for me."
Dottie says blues music helps guide people through life and music, and that has applied to her partnership with the Diamonds. "These guys are good players, but I am trying to help these guys learn the blues—and that it ain't all roses," she says. "They have responded to this, because it's doing what comes natural."
She says the appeal of her band's music is universal.
"A lot of people, when they hear us playing from a distance, they have to come up the street to see what is going on," she says. "They hear a little of the real blues, and they need to have more, and they have to come closer.
"It makes you feel something. Maybe it's the things that you used to feel, and you want to get back that feeling back. It's like coming home."
Lady Dottie and the Diamonds recently returned from touring in Europe, and Dottie says the fans there are among the best.
"We just came home from Germany, Italy and Spain," she says. "We were there for a month. I just can't tell you how good it is over there. I needed a bodyguard, that's how good it was. Yes, indeed, it was blast there. They really took care of us over there. The food and everything was just marvelous.
"They couldn't understand what we were singing, but I know they felt it. The blues is only in you. You just have to have something to help bring it out—and let other people feel it, too."