Thornetta Davis has gotta sing the blues

After all, she is the queen of ’em

Nov 23, 2016 at 1:00 am

When a project takes a long time to complete, the level of satisfaction has that much more space to rise. Thornetta Davis, Detroit's own Queen of the Blues, knows that feeling well, having finally released in September the aptly titled Honest Woman, her second original album in exactly 20 years.

Born and raised on the city's east side, the now 53-year-old Davis entered a Detroit talent show at age 15 and has been singing and performing her soul out ever since. On top of the blues, her musical connections spread through virtually all the locally revered genres, from rock to hip-hop to jazz to soul, whether she plays it herself or has worked with area legends — everyone, for example, from Michigan household names like Kid Rock and Bob Seger to the late trumpeter Marcus Belgrave (on "Get Up and Dance Away Your Blues," quite possibly the last recording he ever made) and harmonica virtuoso Kim Wilson (on her new album's track "I Gotta Sing the Blues").

The foundation of Honest Woman is undoubtedly the blues. Davis is Detroit's crowned queen, after all. She began to focus on the genre in the late '80s when establishing her singing career with the Chisel Brothers, one of the city's most consistent blues rock bands of the time. Before she met the band, Davis was entertaining fantasies of becoming a top 40 R&B artist. But with its stirring blend of lush energy and fiery nuance, her voice turned out to be a natural fit for the melancholy power of the blues.

Still, while a blues group, the Chisel Brothers rocked too, and the rock streak in Davis' background continued into the '90s when she hooked up with Ann Arbor rock band Big Chief, the group that connected her with Sub Pop. Her first solo album on the label, Sunday Morning Music, came out in 1996; one song ("Cry") later appeared on an episode of everyone's favorite mafia show The Sopranos.

More or less ever since then, Davis has been performing in the Detroit area, frequently appearing at festivals, clubs, and special events. She has amassed over 30 Detroit Music Awards, performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and opened for numerous blues and R&B icons, including Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson, Etta James, and Bonnie Raitt, to name a few.

Speaking of blues legends, it was the passing of one such personage that led to Davis' crowning as "Queen of the Blues"; she was chosen as Alberta Adams' successor after her death in 2014. Adams got the appellation quietly over time by word of mouth, having essentially personified the Detroit blues scene during her extensive career. After she died, local blues aficionados felt the need to commemorate an heir to the Detroit blues throne.

As one of the city's most respected blues voices, Davis was the instinctive choice, and the status was made official in August at the Hastings Street Ballroom. Not only was Adams a tremendous influence on Davis' own soul and style, but a beloved friend and collaborator too; Davis appeared on her final album, Detroit Is My Home, recorded by Adams at age 91.

It may just be particularly fitting, then, that the year after her official crowning, Davis was ready to unleash her second original full-length on the world, and it's a doozy of a blues burner. These blues are inflected with reverberations from Davis' musically vigorous life, not only funk, rock, and soul, but gospel too — the latter perhaps at least somewhat in part due to the positive role that time spent singing in a church choir played in her life. In addition to the gospel trio Special Anointing, one song ("Sister Friend Indeed") includes the voices of up to 50 female friends and relatives, roaring with the warmth of unity and kinship.

To celebrate this milestone in her musical history, Davis is presenting Honest Woman on Sunday, Nov. 27 at the Music Hall, featuring some of the musicians and singers who performed on the album, as well as other special guests.

In anticipation of what is sure to be a performance that brings down the house, Metro Times talked with Davis about the making of the album, how she has ended up with such an eclectic resume of credits, and more.

Metro Times: Can you tell us about the new album?

Thornetta Davis: It's my first original album in 20 years, In-between then and now, I've been doing shows all over. I put out a covers album called Live at the Music Menu, but I've always wanted to finish this one. It took me awhile to get it done, but I finally got it done. On September 23rd, I pre-released it. It's about my life in the last 30 years: everything that I've experienced and gone through, and relationships. Hopefully people will be inspired by the lyrics, music, and journey.

MT: How does it feel to put out your second album 20 years later?

Davis: It feels like the biggest accomplishment I've ever had in my life. After Sunday Morning Music came out, I came back to Detroit and started singing around here. What it got me was my independence at that time. I had to learn how to book myself, get my own gigs, negotiate for myself, and hire musicians. When I got back, the Chisel Brothers had disbanded, but I still had access to some great musicians in the city, so I would call up different musicians. It was a learning process from 1996 to now. And in the meantime, I was writing songs. I don't wait to record them to perform them, I write and I perform, so I've been performing at least half the album for years now. People are going, "When are you gonna record?" and I just never had that feeling to go back into the studio. The urgency came when I turned 50. A record label or a producer wasn't going to come and say, "Hey, let me do it," and I said, "OK, I HAVE to do this myself." I know what I want, I know the musicians I want, I know where I want to do it.

MT: It's been a three-year process actually putting it together then?

Davis: Yes. The first time I went into the studio, the musicians were like, "Are you really gonna do it?" [Laughs.] We cut the first five songs, and I had been waiting to get this particular musician who was not living in Detroit then, Kim Wilson, he plays harmonica and sings with the band the Fabulous Thunderbirds. I kept watching his schedule, seeing when he was gonna be around Detroit. Well, he was going to come to Ann Arbor, so I texted him to see if he could play on my record. He didn't get back to me until two weeks later in the middle of the night before his show, asking 'What do you want me to do?' I had already booked the session just in case! I called and said, "Tomorrow, I'll come get you, I'll bring you back to your gig!" And he said, "OK!" We did two takes and it was done, so now I have the phenomenal Mr. Kim Wilson on my album. Marcus Belgrave is on it too. I have some great Detroit musicians on it.

MT: What was it like to work with Marcus Belgrave?

Davis: Marcus was a dear heart to me, he was a friend too. Just to be able to get him on the album, because he was in the studio with an oxygen tank hooked up. But when he blew out that solo, it didn't even matter! If you were listening to this man, you wouldn't know, by listening, that he was going through his illness at that time.

MT: How does Detroit's musical legacy influence your style?

Davis: We are known for our rock, soul, gospel, jazz, blues, we're known for everything good in music, and I couldn't help but be influenced by all of it. When I started working with musicians who were doing all of that, it helped to motivate me to get more creative about what I wanted on the album, how I wanted the songs to go, and what styles of music I wanted to play. The whole album was created by Detroit, the music scene, the ups and downs, and what we've been going through in the city. Everything is influential to the art and the music.

MT: I saw that you appeared on a Bob Seger album in the '90s. What was he like?

Davis: Bob Seger? Yeah, he was cool. I actually worked on a couple of his albums. I was outdone when he asked me to be a part of it. I sing background, but to be a part of a legend's work like that!

MT: Another interesting credit I noticed you have is that your voice was used on Xena: Warrior Princess.

Davis: Yeah, they did an episode where Xena was hanging out with a bunch of girls at what looks like a bath house and they're singing "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves." They don't have me in it, but this girl is pantomiming to my voice. Joseph LoDuca, who did all the music for Xena, is from Detroit. He called me and asked if I'd come in and do a couple episodes. But that one in particular is the one I like because I like that song. It looks funny because my voice clearly does not match the chick singing.

MT: To come back to the new album, what are you most excited about for the release show?

Davis: I'm excited to sing for my city. I'm hoping that a lot of people come out. I've been doing this for a long time, and a lot of people have been waiting for me. I've seen the energy of the city. People have been supporting my music for 30 years. I raised my daughter doing this, put her through college, and I've always heard from my fans, friends, and loved ones, "When are you going to do this?" They couldn't wait for the album to come out. When I finished it, my husband and I thought the best way to present it would be at a theater. I opened up for Ray Charles years ago at the Music Hall, and when I did that, I said, "One of these days, I'm going to be up here doing my show." And here it is! I've got some friends who are on the album, I want to showcase them also, and let them know how it feels. You can do this. You don't gotta wait on anybody else to make it happen.

See Thornetta Davis perform Honest Woman and more at the Music Hall on Sunday, Nov. 27; Starts at 6 p.m.; 350 Madison Ave., Detroit;; $30-$60.