Cover photo © 2021 Joseph A. Rosen
In any major city that has an active music scene, you will probably hear about one or two “local legends,” singers or musicians who are considered the best around the area, artists who chose to stay close to home for a variety of reasons, so their talents, great as they may be, often don’t get the attention that they deserve from a wider audience.
Fortunately for singer Thornetta Davis, the tide has turned. After several decades of hard work, always keeping the faith, she finally found the path that allowed her to share her rich, potent vocals and crisp songwriting with the world-wide blues community. But it was a long haul.
Davis has always loved to sing. As a little girl, she would sing around the house while dreaming of being a star.
“I wanted to be like the Supremes or some of the other acts I saw on television as a little child. Once I got to high school, I started stepping out, having realized that I didn’t need to audition to join a choir. I just needed to take the class. So that is what got me started singing in front of other people. When the teacher selected me to do a solo, I knew that I wanted to be on stage as solo artist.”
After high school, she joined Jas, a local band that got her some experience, but little in the way of money. She was 19 years old when her daughter was born. Shortly after that, Jas broke up, so Davis helped form a group called Chanteuse, featuring four female vocalists.
“That band allowed me to get more exposure in the Detroit clubs. I was also doing background vocals for people in the studios. Eventually I met a group of guys on the east side of Detroit. They called themselves the Chisel Brothers. I was doing Top 40 R&B at the time. They were a working band playing soul and blues music. They made it clear that they had no interest in doing Top 40 stuff!
“So, I had to go dig into my Mama’s record collection, pulling out stuff that I had listened to as a child. That helped me make up a setlist of songs that I liked to sing. And now, all of a sudden, immediately after I was singing with them, I started getting written about in the city of Detroit. People were writing about this new blues singer. So, in 1987, I became a legitimate blues and soul singer, and the music became part of my life.
“I was a single mom trying to make a living as I raised my daughter. That was the lot I was living. So I embraced the music. I have said that the blues chose me, God chose me to do it. I have been singing blues for thirty years now, mixing in a little R&B, and some rock, because I’m from Detroit and that’s what we do.”
When singer Alberta Adams passed away in 2014, Davis was officially recognized as Detroit’s Queen of the Blues by the Detroit Blues Society, backed by proclamations from the City of Detroit, Wayne County, and the State of Michigan. That designation is further borne out by the thirty-plus Detroit Music Awards she has received over the years. In 2017, she received a Blues Blast Music Award in the Soul Blues Album category for her Honest Woman release. The Blues Foundation has honored her with six nominations for Blues Music Awards, including three in the Soul Blues Female Artist category.
Davis reflects back, “Alberta was one of my mentors. At her last gig, she literally passed the microphone to me. Now I just want to represent my city the way she did.”
Over the years, Davis has also done backing vocals for a number of high profile artists, including several rocking Detroit natives.
“In 1996, I put out my first solo recording, Sunday Morning Music. I was backed by an alternative rock band I had been singing with, Big Chief, from the Detroit area. They were signed to the Sub Pop Records label. So I was in the studio recording for that album, and at that time, Kid Rock was working as a janitor and practically living in the studio. That allowed him the chance to record his stuff for free. He was trying to get his rap thing going. He ended up producing one of the tracks on my album.
“Then, when he blew up, he started asking me to sing on his projects. I sang backing vocals on several of his albums, and while I didn’t tour with him, I joined him for appearances on several national television shows including Jimmy Kimmel, and at the first inaugural ball for President Obama. I didn’t do the tours because I was trying to nurture my own career.
“When I was with the Chisel Brothers, Bob Seger heard about me. He asked me to come sing with him. I am on two or three of his albums. There was no touring with him either. I was here in Detroit doing my thing. He did take me with him for a David Letterman show appearance and we also performed on The View. It was fun working with both of them.”
Despite all of this recognition, many people in the blues community world-wide were oblivious to the presence of the dynamic vocalist, making her a somewhat well-kept secret.
“Some of that stems from the fact that I was managing myself for many years. I did not have access to a booking agent, and nobody was offering access to a booking agent. I had an album out with the Chisel Brothers in 1990, but we didn’t tour a lot. I did do some touring for the Sunday Morning Music album. But I was getting shows in alternative rock clubs, who didn’t really know what to do with me. Here was a blues singer backed by a alternative rock band. It became strange trying to place me anywhere. But my original song from that album, “Cry,” was used in an episode of the HBO hit show The Sopranos.
“Looking back, that album got me my independence, my freedom to write my own thing. I didn’t call myself a writer while I was with the Chisel Brothers. My creative flow came when I signed with Sub Pop. I had to write, or they were going to drop me from the label. So there wasn’t a lot of touring, but I did go overseas to Europe for the first time. I also did some shows in Canada. But there weren’t many blues clubs booking me. It wasn’t until I released Honest Woman in 2016, some twenty years later, that I was able to do another album of original material.”
In between those records, Davis did release a live album in 2000, Covered Live At The Music Menu, a Detroit venue that she played at on Wednesday nights for seven years. It finds her delivering stellar performances of cover songs that had been a staple of her live shows, garnering the honor of being the “Outstanding Blues Recording” at the 2002 Detroit Music Awards show.
“I’m so thankful I did that one. You can hear the party, the band was hot. But I never submitted it to any radio stations, just sold it at my shows. I didn’t think that cover tunes would be accepted enough outside of Detroit for me to put the cash in to promote it, to get it out radio promoters and all of that other stuff. I did gigs here, toured Michigan, and down to Chicago, stuff that was close to home. Nothing outside the safety zone for awhile.
“I had been performing the original material on Honest Woman for a long time, expecting to get discovered by a label or a producer. I ended up waiting quite some time for what I thought I needed before I finally realized in 2013 that I needed to go on faith, record the album myself, do what I wanted with who I wanted to play on the album. If I had to pay for the album one song at a time, I did it until it was completed. It was released in 2016. Since then, I have been doing a lot more touring, performing all over the world. It is strange how it all came about.”
Unlike many singers from her generation, Davis did not grow up singing in church.
“We didn’t go to church on a regular basis growing up. My Mother went to church and sang in the choir. She was a school girl, got pregnant out of wedlock. They told her that she needed to apologize to the church. My Mother said, no, I don’t need to apologize to you. If anything, I’ll apologize to God! So she had to leave the church. We never went back or belonged to any church growing up. The first church choir that I was a member of happened in 1999 at Renaissance Unity. That helped me grow musically.
“When I got my connection with God, and understood how he had worked throughout my entire life, I started growing creatively, started writing my songs. It gave me the strength that I needed to get the album completed. I lived in fear for a lot of years, not thinking I had the money or the knowledge to do it. It’s all in order. It never felt like it was time for me. But when it was time, I went in, got the album done, and put it out without being scared about it. When you release that fear and step out, that’s when it happens for you.
“So I am still working on it, keeping the faith. It’s taken a long time to get to this point. Just when I feel like giving up, because no matter what, something seems to be trying to block you, I’m ready to hang it up and just sing in the clubs around here, that’s when something happens to remind me that it is not on my time, there is a order to things, like this interview.
“I was sitting there wondering what I was going to do next with my life when I got the call about doing an interview.
“Covid put up a big roadblock just as things were really moving. We had just been in Europe three times, had solid bookings in Paris and Israel coming up. A lot of stuff overseas were starting to happen. And I was also booked at the South by Southwest festival In Austin, TX. People heard I was coming and were calling me to talk about performing at their function. And I was going to perform at the famous Antone’s club too. All of that got wiped out, leaving us wondering what could have happened. At least SiriusXM has been playing my stuff in heavy rotation. After trying for forty years to get them to play my music, in 2020 they finally hooked a sister up!”
Davis get a chance to play on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues cruise in January 2020, fulfilling a dream before the onslaught of the Covid shutdown. She brought her full band, which includes Carlton Washing ton on guitar, Jim Alfredson on keyboards, Joe Veloz on bass, David Marcaccio on drums, James C. Anderson on percussion, plus Roseann and Rosemere Matthews on backing vocals. Anderson and Davis have been happily married for 13 years.
Another dream that intrigues the singer is getting to work with some of the artists she admires.
“I’d like to get some artists from all over the country on my next record. When these people get done touring, doing their thing, if I can catch them on a hiatus, I’ll go to their town, wherever they are, and record with them. I really dig Fantastic Negrito’s music right now. I like that fact that he is funky and brings truth to his lyrics. I also like War & Treaty, who I believe were in Michigan for awhile. They are inspiring.
“I did a song with the actor Jeff Daniels. Whenever I saw him on TV or in a movie, I would think one of these days I’m going to work with him. One day I get a call from his people asking me if I wanted to work with him on a song. I thought he just wanted me to sing. He actually wanted me to help write the song “I Am America,” which is on his latest album, Alive And Well Enough. I think God has a funny sense of humor. This is how he works if you believe.”
The song struck a chord with many people, including being used in an ad that ran leading up to the runoff election for the two senate seats in Georgia in January.
As for those who inspired Davis over her career, the list goes through a series of stages.
“Motown was it. I would stare at the album covers from the Temptations and Diana Ross & the Supremes. I couldn’t wait to see somebody like that on television. That was my influence as a little girl. As I grew up, trying to learn my own voice, I listened to Phyllis Hyman, Anita Baker, Gladys Knight, Angela Bofill, and Chaka Khan. They were putting out records in my teenage years, when I was starting to step out on stage by myself. Once I started singing with groups after high school, it was the Pointer Sisters and the Jones Girls, who got hot coming out of Detroit. Those were all Top 40 R&B singers.
“When I became a blues singer, I discovered Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, KoKo Taylor, and Sippie Wallace, women who helped form my blues heritage. I wasn’t raised up listening to those women. When I sing, I sing the songs that move my spirit, that express what I am feeling, and what they might have been feeling when they wrote their songs. I also used to sing “Pretty Good Love” and “Candy,” two of my favorite songs by Big Maybelle.”
Davis became a big fan of Bessie Smith. How big, you ask? She once contacted a famed movie producer pleading for him to make a movie about the legendary singer. And of course, Davis knew just the person to take on the Bessie role.
“I have always wanted to play her. I wrote Spike Lee a letter back in the 1990s telling him he should do a movie about her. I sent it to him at his production company, Forty Acres & A Mule. Somebody was nice enough to write this delusional girl back, saying it sounds like a great idea, but we already have somebody here in New York portraying Bessie Smith at a local playhouse or something, so we’ll keep looking for you. So, basically, they told me no. Dang, they shot my thing down. But I still continued to sing her songs, thinking one of these days I am going to play her.
“A girlfriend of mine starting doing a production here in Detroit of “Satin Doll Revue”. It was originally her doing Billie Holiday. After a couple years, she decided to add a couple of girls doing Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone. But I was always working when she did the show. When I finally got to see it, I thought it was great, but she needed Bessie! Right after the show, she came over to me saying, Thornetta, you’re Bessie. I said, I sure am!
“About a month later, she did another one. I got to sing my songs and get dressed up to look just like Bessie. They wanted to buy me an outfit, but I said no, I’ve already got one. I had the clothes, jewelry that I made, all of that. It was so much fun. She is doing another one but I won’t be in it. I’ll be in Tennessee with my grand babies. Have to go visit them.”
Another career highlight occurred in 2014 when Davis performed as part of Detroit’s Concert of Colors, an annual free multi-day event that includes music from all over the world.
“I was invited to perform with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. They hired a conductor, John McLaughlin Williams, who was living in Ann Arbor, right outside Detroit. He wrote all of the charts for all of the songs we did, most of which were my originals. We did several covers of songs I like, including one by Ray Charles, with trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who played in Ray’s band. We had a choir for a song that me and my daughter did a duet on, one by CeCe Winans and her mother. It was a big production. We had such a wonderful time. They gave me the opportunity, so I had to bring it!
“The thing I treasure the most is singing together with my daughter. She was getting ready to move to Tennessee to start a new job. It was a blessing that we got to do that song. She isn’t a singer, doesn’t want to be a singer. But I know she has the voice. She only uses it in church. She was glad that I asked her to do that with me. I told her it was a church song, so she said OK! It was so cool.”
Bookings are starting to pick up for the singer, but she was not able to discuss some of the upcoming major events prior to the official announcements. But Davis is hoping for better things in the new year.
“Some of these gigs are ones that I have been wanting to perform at for years. One I can mention is the 2022 King Biscuit Blues Festival, opening for the headliner, which would be the Allman Betts Band if they have the same schedule as the last two years we were booked, both of which were canceled. I will be appearing at the Big Blues Bender in Las Vegas in September, which was announced recently. I did an East Coast Cape Cod tour last year and they want me back, with a festival, too. Hopefully, more and more will come in.”
Davis hopes that blues fans will keep her in their sights for future performances. She is ready to take command of the stage and continue to dazzle listeners with her powerful vocal style.
“I’ve been doing this for over thirty years. I ain’t going nowhere! I love all of you that have been supporting me – thank you. And if you don’t have the Honest Woman album, then it will be new to you, so get one! And remember, stuff happens when it is supposed to happen. We are going through crazy times. When I wake up every day, I try to remind myself to keep the faith, that trouble don’t last always. That is my mantra.”
For more on Thornetta Davis, check out her website at: https://thornettadavis.com.