Rayshun LaMarr belted out just the first five words of “Don’t Stop Believin’” during his blind audition on “The Voice” before judge Adam Levine slammed his button. Fellow judge Alicia Keys followed suit and before LaMarr had even gotten to the chorus he had the attention of two of the biggest names in the music industry.
LaMarr, 33, originally hails from Chapel Hill, N.C., but now lives in Fort Washington, Md. He performed in Sound Connection, an agency band that performed at weddings and corporate functions, prior to his appearance on the show. He also battled lymphatic cancer, a struggle he openly shared with viewers during his audition where he had support from his partner Alex Holmes, as well as his mother, aunt, father and brother.
He decided to join Team Adam and is now in the top 10 of the reality competition series, which airs on Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on NBC. LaMarr has become a fan favorite on the show with his performances reaching millions of views on YouTube. LaMarr took a break from his busy day on set of “The Voice” to discuss the typical day in the life of a contestant, his viral blind audition and what Levine is like behind the scenes.
WASHINGTON BLADE: How did your audition for “The Voice” come about?
RAYSHUN LaMARR: I auditioned for the show about four or five times before but I never made it past the executive producers. They were always like, “Great voice, but not what we’re looking for this season.” So, this particular year I was like the auditions are coming around again and I really want to go but I have a gig coming up. I gotta pay my rent. So I can’t afford to do that and miss this gig and be behind on my rent. So I didn’t go. Maybe two days later I did an open mic at my apartment and I recorded it and posted it on the Internet. Literally, two or three days later, I get a call from this guy saying, “Hey, this is one of the producers from ‘The Voice’ would you like to audition?” Now, I thought it was a joke. We were going back and forth for about a week and a half and I didn’t believe anything until I got my plane ticket. I was like of all times this happened to be the year that I didn’t go and it happened to be the year that they reached out to me.
BLADE: During your audition you revealed you battled cancer. Why was that important to share with the audience and the judges?
LaMARR: I went through the whole chemo and cancer thing. I wanted to let anybody know who had gone through what I went through, or anything similar, that everything was going to be OK. That song was very important to me. I just wanted to relay the message of this is my story, this is why I chose this song, this is the song that helped me through while I was in the hospital. That’s why I took the time to tell them why I chose that song and to tell them that story.
BLADE: Your blind audition blew the judges away particularly Adam Levine and Alicia Keys. What was it like being a regular person with two celebrities fighting over you?
LaMARR: It was super cool. I did not expect them to turn around as fast as they did. Granted, everyone wants all the judges to turn around. But I had no clue it would be so soon. I literally sang “Just a small town girl living in a lonely world,” and it was like bam. Adam turned around and then like five seconds later Alicia turned around. I’m like, “Wow. This is crazy.” Now I’m battling thoughts of I’m super excited but I still have to maintain the song. At that point my life actually just changed right then and there.
BLADE: Alicia was gunning pretty hard to get you on her team. Why did you pick Adam?
LaMARR: I am 100 percent a fan of Alicia Keys and all the judges. However, Adam said something that really stuck out to me. Maybe Adam just said it at the right time and that’s what I was looking for. Adam pointed out some of the flaws that were in my performance. He said, “I want to work with you and make you a world-class singer. I don’t just want to fill your head with all the good stuff. I want to make sure you are prepared and the best person you can be.” I wanted that. I didn’t want to go to a coach that was just going to be like, “You’re great. You can sing really well.” I wanted someone I could just grow with. I’m not saying I couldn’t grow with Alicia, but at that particular moment Adam spoke those particular words that made me want to go to him. I get that question every day. People were like, “I thought you were going to choose Alicia.” I thought I was too, honestly. I literally thought I was going to especially when she walked up on stage. There was a lot of that they didn’t show. It was really interesting. I stood up on stage for 10 minutes while they battled it out.
BLADE: What’s your daily schedule in preparation for the episodes?
LaMARR: First of all wardrobe, hair and makeup is always first. We wake up at the crack of dawn to go there. Yesterday, we had vocal lessons. Soon as you get your new song we go into a live rehearsal, which is filmed. We practice the song the best that we can. After that we go to dry blocking, which is pretty much on the stage giving you stage directions on where you’re going to go. After dry blocking, you may have another meeting. It all depends on what team you’re on. After your other meeting you have to go to wardrobe and get out of all the stuff you got into. We may have another meeting at the end of the night. Today, we have an iTunes recording. After that, we come back home and we start our very early morning the next day. It’s really tough now. But I like it. It’s something that pushes me to keep going. If I’m sitting around idle, I’m like “What are we doing?” So this is pretty good for me.
BLADE: How much interaction do you get with your coach?
LaMARR: Now that we’re in the top 10, we get a lot of interaction. The other day we had the chance to go to one of Adam’s private studios where he recorded his first hit album. We had one-on-one time, we got to sing for each other. We probably get to see them and talk to them two or three times a week.
BLADE: What’s Adam like to work with?
LaMARR: Adam is the best. He’s super cool. The way you see him on TV, he’s like that. Although he may be portrayed as an a-hole sometimes, he’s not. He’s very honest and genuine. That’s another thing that I appreciate about him. He knows what he likes. He knows what he doesn’t like and he isn’t afraid to tell you. But it’s all in love because he wants the best for you. I’m like a sponge just soaking everything up when I’m around Adam. We call him Papa Adam. He’s one of those people when you walk into the room it’s like, “Hey, what’s up Adam?” and he’s like, “What’s up Ray? Let’s do this song.” You feel comfortable. It’s not everyday you get the chance to work with somebody you’re not afraid to sing around or think that because they’re on this other level that you are beneath him. He puts you on the same level as he is. He talks to you like a regular human being like he is.
BLADE: During knockouts you sang “Fallin,” one of Alicia Keys’ biggest hits, in front of her. Did that make your performance more nerve-wracking?
LaMARR: Absolutely. That particular week I had a breakdown. That was the first and only one that I’ve had since then. Number one, why would they give me an Alicia Keys song? It’s a female song and Alicia Keys is going to be sitting in front of me. She wrote, produced and sang the song. How do I do the song and not overdo the song, not under-do the song and still have respect and integrity for the song in front of the artist and the writer? That was challenging. I was scared up until I got up on stage.
BLADE: Former “The Voice” judge Christina Aguilera recently told Billboard she disliked filming the show because it’s “not about music” but “about making good TV moments.” What’s your experience been?
LaMARR: Well, I disagree. Yes, it’s a television show and yes, we do have to capture some moments. But 90 percent of the show is about music. I’ve never experienced anything else on the show. The only time that’s about creating television moments is during our interviews. But when it comes to the music part, it’s just great. It’s actually real. This is one of the most honest and real shows I’ve ever seen or worked on before. It’s mainly about the music but the story part comes in interviews, B-roll or when you have free time and they want to get into your story. But it’s definitely still about the music.
BLADE: “The Voice” is a popular show but the winners’ careers don’t take off like winners on “American Idol” or “America’s Got Talent.” Why do you think that is?
LaMARR: Honestly, I have no clue. I know some of the winners are really, really good. I have noticed that some of the runners-up have been a little more successful than the winners. Not sure if that’s because winners are restricted by the contract handed out at the end of the show. If I am the winner, hopefully I’d be one of the winners that changed the game and changed that outlook on winners of “The Voice.” Even if I don’t win at this point, I’ve gotten further than I had expected to get. I am super OK with whatever happens. I’ve made so many connections. I have so many great friends that I’ve met here. It’s just the beginning for me. Whenever I do go home it’s the start of a new journey and I’m super excited about it. I’ve already gotten some gigs lined up. I’m like the happiest kid on the block.
CAMP Rehoboth’s president talks pandemic, planning, and the future
Wesley Combs marks six months in new role
June marks half a year since Wesley Combs stepped into his role as president of CAMP Rehoboth. In a conversation with the Blade, Combs recounted his first six months in the position — a time he said was characterized by transition and learning.
Since 1991, CAMP Rehoboth has worked to develop programming “inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities” in the Rehoboth Beach, Del. area, according to the nonprofit’s website. As president, Combs oversees the organization’s board of directors and executive director, helping determine areas of focus and ensure programming meets community needs.
For Combs, his more than three decades of involvement with CAMP Rehoboth have shaped the course of his life. In the summer of 1989 — just before the organization’s creation — he met his now-husband, who was then living in a beach house with Steve Elkins and Murray Archibald, CAMP Rehoboth’s founders.
Since then, he has served as a financial supporter of the organization, noting that it has been crucial to fostering understanding that works against an “undercurrent of anti-LGBTQ sentiment” in Rehoboth Beach’s history that has, at times, propagated violence against LGBTQ community members.
In 2019, after Elkins passed away, Combs was called upon by CAMP Rehoboth’s Board of Directors to serve on a search committee for the organization’s next executive director. Later that year, he was invited to become a board member and, this past November, was elected president.
Combs noted that CAMP Rehoboth is also still recovering from the pandemic, and is working to restart programming paused in the switch to remote operations. In his first six months, he has sought to ensure that people feel “comfortable” visiting and engaging with CAMP Rehoboth again, and wants to ensure all community members can access its programming, including those from rural parts of Delaware and those without a means of getting downtown.
Still, Combs’s first six months were not without unexpected turns: On May 31, David Mariner stepped down from his role as CAMP Rehoboth executive director, necessitating a search for his replacement. Combs noted that he would help facilitate the search for an interim director to serve for the remainder of the year and ensure that there is “a stable transition of power.” CAMP Rehoboth last week announced it has named Lisa Evans to the interim director role.
Chris Beagle, whose term as president of CAMP Rehoboth preceded Combs’s own, noted that the experience of participating in a search committee with the organization will “better enable him to lead the process this time.”
Before completing his term, Beagle helped prepare Combs for the new role, noting that the “combination of his professional background, his executive leadership (and) his passion for the organization” make Combs a strong president. Regarding the results of the election, “I was extremely confident, and I remain extremely confident,” Beagle said.
Bob Witeck, a pioneer in LGBTQ marketing and communications, has known Combs for nearly four decades. The two founded a public relations firm together in 1993 and went on to work together for 20 years, with clients ranging from major businesses like Ford Motor Company to celebrities including Chaz Bono and Christopher Reeve. According to Witeck, Combs’s work in the firm is a testament to his commitment to LGBTQ advocacy.
“Our firm was the first founded primarily to work on issues specific to LGBTQ identities, because we wanted to counsel corporations about their marketing and media strategies and working in the LGBTQ market,” he explained. By helping develop communications strategies inclusive of those with LGBTQ identities, Combs established a background of LGBTQ advocacy that truly “made a mark,” Witeck said.
Witeck emphasized that, in his new position, Combs brings both business experience and a renewed focus on historically underrepresented in LGBTQ advocacy — including people with disabilities, trans people and people of color.
Looking to the rest of the year, CAMP Rehoboth hopes to host a larger-scale event during Labor Day weekend. In addition, the organization will revisit its strategic plan — first developed in 2019 but delayed due to the pandemic — and ensure it still meets the needs of the local community, Combs said. He added that he intends to reexamine the plan and other programming to ensure inclusivity for trans community members.
“CAMP Rehoboth continues to be a vital resource in the community,” he said. “The focus for the next two years is to make sure we’re doing and delivering services that meet the needs of everyone in our community.”
Melissa Etheridge shares Q&A in advance of April 26 Tysons tour stop
Rock pioneer finds inspiration in the past — from revisiting old demos to reconnecting with celeb pals like Ellen
We caught up with rock legend Melissa Etheridge on April 8 by phone from Snoqualmie, Wash. — it’s about 26 miles east of Seattle —where she was playing the Snoqualmie Casino on her “One Way Out Tour,” which plays our region on Tuesday, April 26.
It’s named after her latest album, released last fall, which found Etheridge, who’s been out since ’93, revisiting demos from early in her career.
Her comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: “One Way Out” sounds like such a cool project. Was it all re-recorded stuff of old songs or were some of those vintage takes on the record as well?
MELISSA ETHERIDGE: The last two songs, the live songs, were from where? From 2002? OK, but the other songs were newly recorded.
BLADE: And how many of them did you remember?
ETHERIDGE: You know, when I found them again, they all came back very clearly. And I was like, “Oh, this is — why did I throw that away? That’s weird.” And I really enjoyed, you know, hearing them, they were just old demos. I’d never done full-blown recordings. So I thought, “This is great, I want to do these songs.”
BLADE: We have a relatively new venue you’re going to be playing, Capital One Hall. I’ve only been there once. You excited?
ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it’s always fun. I love the D.C.-area crowd. It’s just really, really nice.
BLADE: And how do you decide where you’ll be? Or do you have any say in it?
ETHERIDGE: Well, it’s not necessarily me. I do have a say in it, in what I want the whole tour to look like. But it is really up to William Morris, my agent, to find the right venue that understands what we need and the kind of atmosphere we’re looking for that and the amount of people and, you know, that sort of thing.
BLADE: Tell me about Etheridge TV. I just wonder, when we were in that acute phase of the pandemic, wasn’t it even remotely tempting to you to just take a break?
ETHERIDGE: No, because since I was 12 years old, I sang all the time for people, like five days a week and it’s just been what I do. And so when it was like, I was looking at a massive, cavernous amount of time that I was going to be home, I still needed a way to pay the bills, so we put our heads together — I’ve got one of the greatest television minds with me, you know, my wife (TV producer Linda Wallem), so I had the space and I had the equipment, and I was like, “Let’s do it.” And it was really fun to learn new things. It was fun to learn about computers and sound and streaming and lights and cameras and all these things that I didn’t know. … I feel a little smarter.
BLADE: When did you start back on the road?
ETHERIDGE: We went out last fall. We went out September, October, right around there. And you know, it was a little different, Now things are things are loosening up … but some places still require masks. But people are starting to get back out and it feels good. It’s not the overwhelming thing that it was a few months ago.
BLADE: And what was it like being on ‘Ellen’ again for her final season?
ETHERIDGE: Oh, I love her. She’s such an old friend. You know, I say that about myself, too. (chuckles) But, you know, she’s just a relationship in my life that I have treasured. We’ve watched each other grow and the changes we’ve made and the successes and what we’ve gone through and I love that she had me on and just it was just a really — she’s a dear friend. And she showed an old photo there, and we both said, “Oh, that was before we were so busy.”
BLADE: Do you talk to her often?
ETHERIDGE: I would say we see each other socially once or twice a year. It just seemed like once we started having children, all my friends from my 20s and 30s when we were not as busy — it just gets harder to stay in touch and life got crazy.
BLADE: So when you were hanging out back in the day with Ellen and Rosie and everybody, how was it that Brad Pitt was in that group too?
ETHERIDGE: Well, my girlfriend (Julie Cypher) had been married to Lou Diamond Phillips and we were all very good friends with Dermot Mulroney and Catherine Keener and Catherine Keener did a movie with Brad, like a movie nobody saw, like Johnny Dangerously or something (1991’s “Johnny Suede”), some really weird movie. So I met Brad before he was terribly famous. He was a part of that group. There was a whole group of all of us that just hung out, and we were all totally different. We were just like young, hungry Hollywood and we’d talk about, “Oh, I had this audition,” or “I went and did this,” and we were just all trying to make it in that town. So we’d get together and have fun.
BLADE: I was so terribly sorry to hear about Beckett (Etheridge’s son, who died in 2020 at age 21 after struggling with opioid addiction). How are you and the rest of the family, especially (Beckett’s twin) Bailey, dealing with it now?
ETHERIDGE: There are many, many families like us that deal with a loss like that. It just blows a family sideways. But we have a deep love and connection, all of us. We all knew he had a problem and it’s a problem that starts way before he actually passes, so it was not a surprise. So now we’re just living with the missing aspect. You try not to think about what could have been and you try to think about him in a happier place and that he’s out of pain, so that helps us.
BLADE: Had he and Bailey been as close in recent years?
ETHERIDGE: They were very close, but in the last couple of years as he made worse and worse choices, we couldn’t support that, so they were less close, but of course in her heart, it was her brother, he was very dear to her.
BLADE: Did you watch the Grammys? Was there anybody you were particularly rooting for?
ETHERIDGE: I watched bits and pieces of it. I had a show that night, so I didn’t get to see the main thing, but I have seen pieces and I just love the crazy diversity and you know, the TikTok people winning stuff, it’s like, “Wow, this is so not the Grammys I remember from the ’80s,” but that was what, 30 years ago? So it’s all good.
BLADE: You were such a perennial favorite back in the day in the best rock female category. Were you pissed when they eliminated it?
ETHERIDGE: It’s sad because I felt like the criteria they were using to judge what is female rock, they just really dropped the ball. I still think there are some amazing musicians that could be considered, you know, rock, but it feels like we’re having a hard time even defining what rock and roll is now anyway. There’s a whole bunch of strong women out there playing, rocking, you know, playing guitar, being excellent musicians and songwriters. If you can’t call it best rock female, OK, call it something else.
BLADE: I remember so vividly when you were on the Grammys in 2005, in the midst of chemo, when you sang “Piece of My Heart.” I remember you saying you were wondering how people would react to seeing you bald. Having been through that, any thoughts on the Will/Jada Oscars situation since her baldness, too, was due to a medical condition?
ETHERIDGE: You know, it’s funny, I did feel a little remembrance of (thinking), “I just hope people don’t make fun of me.” That was kind of the first thing because to go out there bald, that was so different for me as an artist whose hair had kind of defined her. I was thinking, “How am I gonna rock without my hair?” I thought people might make fun of me, but I got over that. I just thought, “Well, if somebody makes fun of me, that just makes them look bad.” So I just walked through it. And you know, it’s hard to draw the line between what’s funny and what’s painful and how to look at something. I feel for all parties involved.
BLADE: When you go on these cruises, do fans give you some space or do they swarm around the minute you walk out? Is it even enjoyable for you?
ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it is. You know, we did our last one, now we’re doing Etheridge Island, we now have a destination in Mexico, outside of Cancun, it’s just this island that we’re going to that is really fantastic. But I do I make myself available, I don’t run away. When I have to be somewhere, I have a great company we work with called Sixthman that knows how to get me from point A to point B without being bogged down. But I do my make myself available. Everyone gets a picture with me. It’s my work, but I love it. I try to make myself available but also have some time just for myself too.
BLADE: You Tweeted a few nights ago about having a tight curfew of just 90 minutes at a casino but then it worked out and you got to do a full set. Why are the curfews so tight at casinos?
ETHERIDGE: Why do you think? They want people at the tables. Like for tonight, we we settled on 100 minutes. They’re giving me 10 extra minutes. I don’t like it, but in some areas, the only really good venue is a casino, so if you want to reach your folks there, you kind of have to meet them half way.
BLADE: Yeah, but it seems like in concert halls, the curfews can sometimes be really tight too. Even Madonna got her lights shut off a couple years ago. Of course, she’s notoriously late, but why are they so strict with these things nowadays?
ETHERIDGE: There are all different situations — concert halls often have union crews that will absolutely shut you down if you go one second over. There are also sound curfews, noise curfews, mostly with outdoor venues, but sometimes indoor as well. They have an agreement with the neighborhood. So you have people in the neighborhood standing by with their phones ready to pounce the minute it goes over one minute, they’re gonna call the police. As a performer, you just realize, “OK, it’s not just about me.” When I don’t have a curfew, I usually land at about two hours and some change. That seems comfortable to everyone. Any longer and I think I’m wearing my audience out. When I’m at a place with a shorter show, I just do my best.
BLADE: I know you’re a big Chiefs fan. Did you watch that game back in January all the way to the end?
ETHERIDGE: Well, at the end of it, I was on the floor. My wife was like, “Honey, honey, there’s still 13 seconds,” and I was moaning and sort of getting my feet on the floor and, you know, laying down and throwing a fit. And she’s like, “No, there’s still 13 seconds.” I dragged myself back to the television. And I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Wait a minute. Did we just win?” You know, just really crazy, really crazy stuff. … When you’re a fan like that, it’s a ride you can’t fully explain.
BLADE: Are you in a cordial or good place with your exes? Does it get easier when the kids are starting to grow up?
ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And you realize that it’s best for the kids if you can really get along and that any sort of conflict that can’t get resolved, that gets emotional, does no good for anyone. And absolutely, I have, I’ve gotten better at that as the years have gone by.
BLADE: Do you have the slightest inkling yet what the next studio album might be like?
ETHERIDGE: Well, I’ve got some interesting projects that I’m not ready to talk about just yet. But they have to do with my life story. There’s a lot of digging up of my past and really telling the story. So I imagine the next series of music you’ll get from me is going to be very focused on my journey.
New Cranes sommelier brings spirit to wine and sake program
Stewart-Woodruff curates eclectic list for Michelin-starred restaurant
Outfitted in a blue damask dinner jacket with satin lapels and an energetic smile, Eric Stewart-Woodruff carves an impressive figure when chatting about his favorite vintages. Stewart-Woodruff, who’s gay, is the new sommelier at Michelin-starred Cranes in Penn Quarter.
Stewart-Woodruff curates an eclectic wine – and sake – program focusing on pairings with celebrated Chef Pepe Moncayo’s innovative, global flavors. Cranes, which explores intersections of Spanish and Japanese cuisine, opened just before the pandemic, and received a coveted Michelin star in 2021.
Stewart-Woodruff did not start off in the wine industry. In fact, he does not have any formal training in wine. Instead, after a career as a professional photographer, he pivoted to the restaurant industry, where he developed his love of wine. While working for a distributor, he connected with D.C.’s own District Winery. This opportunity allowed him to express his truest self, as a lead tour guide, wine ambassador and sommelier. He credits his identity and personality as his reason for thriving.
“I bring my whole self to work,” he says, “offering a level of humanity and approachability.”
After the pandemic temporarily shuttered District Winery, Stewart-Woodruff found himself interviewing at Cranes, enamored with Moncayo’s “creative vision,” he says – and was sold. He began in late summer of 2021.
Through his work in hospitality, Stewart-Woodruff notes that the industry can be hetero-male dominated. He has been able to break through by not holding back on his identity.
“I tend to play with expectations of what a sommelier may look or act like,” he says. “I move away from what one may stereotypically look like, but still present like one.”
For him, that means talking about wine and wine education “as if it were gossip,” he says. “I like to view wine like we are at brunch. Wine has personality, it’s performative, and it has stereotypes.” He is seeking to break molds of specific likes and dislikes, exploring the depth that wine has to offer, in the context of the Spanish-Japanese Cranes menu. In fact, he says, Moncayo is supportive of his innovative, certification-less angle. “I become more relatable,” he says.
He also presents original events. He paired with local guest sommelier Andrew Stover (also a gay man) on Tuesday, March 29 for a springtime showcase of specialty rosé wines paired with Moncayo’s dishes. The duo poured tastes of specialty, small-batch wines from Brazil, Italy, Spain, Uruguay, and Maryland.
Leaning into the innovative spirit, the wine-by-glass list is not split by color. Instead, it is divided into evocative categories. For example, both a chardonnay and a pinot noir fall into the “Elegant, round, and mellow” category.
As a Spanish-Japanese restaurant, Cranes not only possesses an extensive wine cellar, but has consistently expanded its sake program. Sakes by the glass are split into the same exact categories. The very same “Elegant, round, and mellow” list includes Ginjo Nama Genshu and junmai daiginjo.
Stewart-Woodruff explains that wine and sake should be attended to similarly. “Sake is something you can think about like a beer in terms of production but treat like a wine,” he says. Sake is a fermented polished-rice beverage, dating back more than two millennia in Japan.
“Sake has aromatics, texture, body, and finish.” He takes pride in discussing customers’ palate preferences, and turning them onto a specific sake, for their qualities of earthiness, acidity, or others.
“Many people don’t experience sake outside of college or bars. Now, I can be a sommelier for sake, and for the marriage of Eastern and Western cuisine and beverage.” He expresses excitement at being innovative in his sake beverage pairings, occupying a niche space. When discussing both wine and sake, he aims to bring an artistic flair and tour-guide enthusiasm to the table.
Woodruff credits his identity and background for his success. He aims to bring a level of humanity and approachability to what has been a formal, stuffy area. He has high ambitions to portray sake as sophisticated as wine in the customer’s mind, “but it pairs well with Moncayo’s conceptually ambitious menu,” he says.
“Wine and sake are as eclectic as humanity. I want people to accept experiencing wine like the world has accepted me.”
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