I guess it's the notes. You know, those notes. The ones that bend, and form themselves into what is commonly referred to as the blues. Seasoned Detroit-based vocalist Thornetta Davis thinks so.
"We all experience it, one way or another," she says. "We experience the blues in our life, and that's why it touches everybody. A lot of people come to me and say, 'I thought I didn't like the blues until I heard you sing it.' It's because they related to the music and the words that I was singing. I've been through that. And that is why we have to have this resurgence here, especially in Detroit. Detroit is the blues. It's not just Motown; it's not just funk; it's not just rock. It starts with the blues. Once you get this, you can play any genre of music."
Davis dons cool silver jewelry as we sit down with her friend and fellow blues singer, Nikki James, at Boo's (Mr. B's adjacent blues venue) in downtown Royal Oak to discuss the second annual Blues Girls of Summer fundraiser. James is a producer of the Detroit Blues Society-sponsored event, which will be thrown this year in honor of crowning Davis "Queen of the Detroit Blues." Never in the title's history has there been an official crowning soiree to pass it on. Detroit's previous queen, Alberta Adams, got the moniker simply by word of mouth. So what did James decide to do?
"She 'soireed' me," Davis says.
Deeply humbled by the unanimously voted bestowment, Davis can't help but show reverence for Alberta Adams, who was both a dear friend and a major influence. She remembers the original queen's undying love for the music that made her.
"When you just think about blues singers and the music genre in the female perspective, we all want to be young and hot and sing the up-and-coming music," Davis said. "But when you get to blues, you can get as old as you want and keep that music alive. When I watched Alberta sing it till the end..." Davis shakes her head in amazement.
Adams actually gave the last performance of her life singing "Everyday I Sing the Blues" at last year's Blues Girls of Summer. James got the idea for the event when she realized she wanted to break the "blues party" stereotype.
"The blues and barbecue thing—it's been done. Blues, booze, and barbecue, you hear about that everywhere. Blues rock, blues guitars, blues blues blues," James says. "And I thought, well, it's summer — and I thought 'flowers.' Come on, we're not getting any younger. We gotta keep it healthy and fresh and pretty and frilly. Blues Girls of Summer just came to my head."
In addition to exalting Davis, Blues Girls 2015 features performances from 18 other divas, plus a retrospective film tribute to Adams called "Remember Me," a pretty outfit contest, and fresh food from the venue's garden. The Hastings Street Ballroom is where it will all happen, and exactly where James wants to be — as close to Black Bottom and Paradise Valley as she can get. John Lee Hooker and Adams played clubs in Paradise Valley before it was bulldozed in the '60s. Blues Girls of Summer is inspired by the area's rich musical history and strives to revive those Renaissance days.
"That's what we want in Detroit — we want [a] blues mecca. We want Buddy Guy to be able to play downtown Detroit. We want people to go from one blues club to the next," James says. "It's hypothetical, but it's so close. I'd like to see a street named after John Lee Hooker; we'd like to see a Son Seals Street. Those are all things the Blues Society works on to bring it alive, to make it happen, and our ultimate goal is to have a blues strip somewhere and to have a great Detroit Blues Festival."
Until then, though, devoted local artists are still making the rounds. Davis, who you may recognize most recently singing backup on Kid Rock's "All Summer Long," has a new album coming out. "We actually put out three albums before, but this is the first all-original; I produced it myself," Davis says. "When it's necessary, when it's absolutely necessary that it has to happen, and you have to be the one to do it, that's what happened to me. Nobody else was bringing me in. I was always there to do what somebody told me to do, or somebody else took care of it. I'm at a place in my life right now where I realize that this is something that I have to do."
Born and raised on Detroit's east side ("east side strong," she says), Davis has an atypical story. She didn't grow up singing in church, and she definitely didn't grow up singing the blues. After a brief stint in an all-girls R&B group called Chanteuse, Davis' budding singing career took a fateful turn.
"When I first started singing, I thought I was going to be a Top 40 R&B artist. And then I joined the Chisel Brothers in 1987, and they said, 'We don't do Top 40. We do blues and soul music.' And I said OK, and went to digging in my mama's records, and that's how I started building my repertoire," Davis says. "And then all of a sudden people started writing about me. 'Oh, they've got this new blues singer.' When I joined them I only knew one blues song, and that was 'Stormy Monday.'"
After 10 years and one album with the Chisel Brothers, Davis broke free and dropped her first solo EP, Shout Out (To the Dusthuffer), before a full-blown recording contract with Sub Pop, the product of which was 1996's Sunday Morning Music. Most notable from that album is "Cry," an eerie number that was featured on The Sopranos. Since then, she's released an album of covers inspired by a successful weekly show she did around town, and she cites the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Concert of Colors, in which she performed last year, as one of her favorite experiences.
James admires her friend's versatility. "Thornetta can go from a porch gig with a sawdust floor and an acoustic guitar, to the DSO," she says. "That all rolls in to why we wanted her to be Queen of the Blues with the Blues Society — because she's brought the blues to every part of the world. She's taken it to different avenues: commercials, The Sopranos, soundtracks, lottery commercials, sporting events. She's brought her blues voice to so many different corners and really helped Detroit."
"I love my city. I sing in it; I've lived in it; I still live in it," Davis says. "When people start running to the suburbs or something because they feel it's dangerous, well — you're out there now getting robbed, and whatever happens to you here can happen out there, too. So you can be a part of the problem or the solution."
At this point in her career, Davis can rest happily knowing all the incredible acts she's opened for (Etta James, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, and Bonnie Raitt, to name a few). The list goes on. She doesn't tell me about the crowds, the cheering, the venues, or what it's like in famous people's tour buses. Instead it's the poignant moments she remembers — the sweet stuff that you can't even dream up — like kissing B.B. King on the cheek.
"I was just like, 'Ugh, let me get off this stage," Davis says. "His band members were telling me, 'Come on. He's gonna call you out on the stage. He's gonna thank you,' because I had just opened up for him. And then he goes, 'I wanna get that Thornetta Davis out.' So I come out on the stage, and said, 'If he calls me out there, I'm gonna kiss him.' I walked up to him, and he was sitting there. His eyes got big, and he looked up to me, and I went in. His face was all red. He said, 'You pretty. I'm 80; I ain't dead yet."
It's been a labor of love for Davis, pursuing the music all these years. 2015's Blues Girls of Summer feels like a culmination of all that work. Davis never strays from the root of her success, though — the genre that's given her so much, those blue notes. "I say the blues has taken care of me all these years. It helped me raise my daughter, helped put her through college, helped pay my bills," Davis says. "You know, I have nothing but love for this music."
Blues Girls of Summer and The Crowning of Thornetta Davis will take place Sunday, August 23 at Hastings Street Ballroom and Tangent art gallery in Detroit from 4 p.m. – 8 p.m. Tickets are $20.
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