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May 2017 - Thornetta Davis

Motor City Mama Continues Her Reign as Detroit’s Queen of the Blues

Story by LCC Radio Reporter Sarah Spohn

Thornetta Davis’ last record came out 20 years ago, but that doesn’t mean she is old news. The blues Thornetta Davis - Detroit's Queen of the Bluesveteran’s latest release, her second album of original material, “Honest Woman,” Davis proves she not only wears the Detroit Queen of Soul crown proud, but also that she has earned it.

“I’ve been writing songs since 1996,” Davis said, “I just didn’t know it would take this long for me to get the album out – write, and produce. I actually thought that I’d be signed by a record label, tell them I’ve got these great songs, and I’d have a producer signed to me.”

In 2001, she recorded a live CD of cover tunes, which enabled the soulful blues powerhouse to stay in the state and tour in Detroit area, keeping close to her family. “Honest Woman” is the result of a DIY desire brought to life, with thanks from talented musician friends and a leap of faith.

Her backing band includes Bret Lucas (guitar), Dave McMurray (saxophone), Todd Glass (drums), Marcus Belgrave (harmonica), Phil Hale, Luis Resto and Chris Codish on keys. Many Michigan musicians help add an extra oomph on the record, including the Larry McCray Band featured on “Set Me Free,” a group Thornetta has always wanted to work with.

“I had access to some of the best musicians in the world right here in Michigan,” Davis said, so she called them up and got the boys on the record. She played the part of composer on all but two of the tracks on “Honest Woman.”

While her start wasn’t in church, like most would guess, this commanding female vocal presence gained her confidence throughout elementary school choirs, and high school talent shows, but was still pretty shy for a while.

“Prior to that, it was just singing around the house, listening to all different kinds of music; my mother would play Motown and jazz and blues … I just loved to sing and dance around the house,” she said.

“I got into choir for the first two years in high school, and the teacher would walk around the room to listen, and he pointed at me one day and said ‘You -- see me after class.’ And he put me in this special vocal ensemble class that I’d been praying to be in for two years,” she said, “and that’s when I finally came out of my shell and started doing talent shows. I knew back then that this was what I wanted to do for a living.”

After high school, Thornetta formed an R & B group called Chanteuse, with three other girls. R & B was the plan until Thornetta’s true calling demanded a pivotal shift.

Growing up, she looked up to Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, and The Supremes for their glamour and iconic looks.

“I looked at everything coming up and wanted to be a singer as a child, and just thought ‘ooh, wow they’re so beautiful,’” Davis said. When she started listening to acts like Etta James and Big Momma Thornetta Davis - Detroit's Queen of the BluesThornton – the original blues singers, Betsey Smith, she loved the meaningful, relatable lyrics.

“I really loved listening to their lyrics. You could hear what they were going through in all the songs that they were singing,” Davis said. “I just love the music, I’m so thankful that it chose me.”

En Vogue was out at the time Thornetta was with The Chanteuse, and the group emulated the R & B/ pop vocal group, but when it didn’t happen for the three girls, something else came along.

“I feel like this was all in order for me to do this, and the blues chose me,” Davis said.

The blues chose her, as Thornetta says and it’s common thread woven in and out of many life’s experiences. And now, the blues associations are choosing her for award nominations, most recently with the Blues Music Association in Memphis having nominated Thornetta for two awards: Emerging Artist and Best song for “I Gotta Sing the Blues.” She’s also in the running for an impressive eight nominations at the Detroit Music Awards on May 6.

“Throughout the years, you go through life and you live life and you realize the blues is intertwined with everything we do in life,” Thornetta said. “No matter what, the music is going to move you or touch you – one way or another, you’re going to feel it.”

Her major influences include Phyllis Hyman, Freddie King, Cocoa Taylor, Etta James, and she’s shared stages with many big names including B.B. King, Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt, and has sang backup vocals on albums with Kid Rock and Bob Seger.

“Singing for Bob -- it was a great time,” she said. “He called me into the studio after he heard about me, at that time I was singing with a band called The Chisel Brothers. Back in the nineties, there was always a big voice adlibbing on some stuff, Boy George did it a lot; it was just the big thing to do. They called me and added my vocals to ‘Fire Inside.’”

That was back in 1991, before she released her first original CD in 1996 on Sub Pop, called “Sunday Morning Music.”

The following year her song “Cry” got its moment to shine on television screens all across the country, a total surprise to Thornetta.
Thornetta Davis - Detroit's Queen of the Blues
“I had just gotten back from a European tour with blues legends over there. I picked up my phone and there’s this guy on the phone who said he was a producer of a TV show called ‘The Sopranos,’ Davis said. I had heard of it, but I didn’t have cable. So I just assumed the Sopranos was a TV show about some singing group.”

“He goes, ‘yeah, I love your album and I’d love to use one of your songs on the show,’ and I was like, ‘well sure, ya know, that’d be great.’ And he did all of the legal stuff. And I looked it up, and it was a hit TV show on HBO, and I had no idea until it was all said and done that my song was gonna be on a major show and then I got a copy of it, and it did pretty good for me.”

The following years included plenty of festival lineups, music placements, late night television appearances, and Detroit Music Awards.

In 2015, her hometown gave her possibly the biggest honor she could have received for her craft – a crown and an official title of Detroit’s Queen of Blues.

“The original Queen of Blues was Alberta Adams, she was one of my mentors,” Davis said. “She passed away a couple years ago and immediately after she passed away, the blues society wanted to dub me Detroit’s Queen. And I told them it was a little bit too soon for me, so they waited about a year and then they said ‘we’re going to have a coronation and crown you queen of the blues.; And I ain’t gonna turn that down, so I said ‘okay.’”

It’s an honor that Thornetta is both flattered by and doesn’t take lightly.

“Now I’m taking it very seriously. It’s very much an honor,” she said. Considering she only knew one blues song, “Stormy Monday” when The Chisel Brothers approached her to join their group, that genre was a little bit left field for the Top 40 fan.

For this Detroit singer, family time was more valuable than spending six weeks out on the road on tour, away from her daughter. Balancing her own music career, singing backup for others and working on various projects was easy for the single mom.

Thornetta Davis - Honest Woman“Even though I wasn’t on the road like a lot of folks would want to be, I thought it was a blessing because I got to sing for a living right here and raise my daughter. And now that she’s grown and doing her own thing, she appreciates the fact that I wasn’t gone all the time.”

Though her music career timeline spans generations of the ever-evolving music industry and decades of different groups, Thornetta said it all happened for a reason and in order. However, it hasn’t been all glitzy outfits, fancy celebrity recording studios and whatnot. There were times the rent wasn’t paid. There’s pain, heartbreak, struggles and overcoming obstacles, but that’s the blues for ya.

“But I’ve been taken care of that way. I believe God has been there with me the whole time, keeping the faith and this gift that God has given me,” Davis said. “I believe that I’m not a singer just because, I’m a singer for a reason. I try to put out music that can help people, even the sad songs can help lift you up.”


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