Honestly Solid Effort
Thornetta Davis discusses her first recording in 20 years
(Editor’s note: On Friday, Oct. 14, Detroit Public Television hosts its second annual “Detroit Performs Live” gala at the Filmore Detroit. Visit detroitperforms.org for details. One of the headliners is Detroit’s Queen of the Blues, Thornetta Davis. Jim McFarlin caught up with her to talk about life — and her new CD.)
For some, 50 is fabulous. For Thornetta Davis, 50 was frustrating.
And it was a turning point.
“Yeah, honey, I had all these ideas,” recalls Davis, now 53 and, for as long as a generation of Detroiters can remember, the reigning vocal empress of our blues and R&B club scene. “Like, ‘When I’m 50 I will have a Grammy Award-winning album, I’ll be touring all over the world, blah, blah, blah.’
“Well, I turned 50 and I was still at home, there wasn’t no tour in front of me, and I thought, ‘Okaay…I need to call up the guys and get into the studio, right now.’”
That’s a partial answer to the question that’s been on the lips of Davis’ legion of fans at virtually every gig for 20 years: why did the popular chanteuse take two decades between her last CD, Sunday Morning Music in 1996, and her marvelous new recording, Honest Woman, released in September on her own Sweet Mama Music label?
Other reasons could be the changing dynamics of the music industry and, Davis acknowledges, the spectre that haunts many creative talents: self-doubt.
“When I turned 50, I also realized no record label was going to approach me, famous producers I have known were not running to producing me,” she says. “You know, that old-school way of doing things is gone. I decided, ‘I’ve gotta do it myself.’”
However, that would entail finding material to record – a potential dealbreaker since Davis didn’t view herself as a songwriter.
“I wanted to have that feeling other artists have, constantly making CDs, constantly going into the studio, constantly writing, but that’s never been me,” she admits. “Most of my career, I just showed up and sang. One of the guys in whatever group I was in did all the writing and I did my thing. That's all I had to do, sing and and raise my daughter. That was my job.”
Her job description slowly expanded, however, due to what Davis saw happening in the Detroit around her. “The news was bumming me out that Catholic churches were closing all over,” she remembers. “I’m not even Catholic. It was just the fact that churches were closing, and a big number in my neighborhood. Then I’m watching mamas going up and down the street selling their stuff for crack. There was a crack house on either side of me. So I popped a tape in, sang about it, and that’s where ‘Sunday Morning Music’ came from.”
Encouraged but not convinced after writing the title track to her last CD, Davis spent much of the last 20 years writing or co-writing every song on Honest Woman. (She also produced the disc, manages herself and books her own engagements.) Each tune was inspired by a personal experience in the single mother’s life, particularly one longterm, unhealthy relationship. “If you listen to the songs, I have been through some crap,” Davis says. It’s all about me getting through it as opposed to staying in it.
“When a song would come to me, it was written,” she marvels. “It wasn’t like I had to come back to it. It was there, the song was done. I’ve actually performed several of them in my shows throughout the years.”
Good things come to those who wait. If Davis is Detroit’s Queen of the Blues, a title bestowed on her officially last year, then Honest Woman is the jewel in her crown. The lyrics may be melancholy but the music is dynamically upbeat, perhaps because Davis has been happily married for eight years and her daughter Wanakee, now 33, is a successful interior designer in Nashville. Several of the tracks run five minutes or longer. “Yeah, honey,” she says, laughing. “I got a story to tell, I ain’t cuttin’ it.”
Besides her own core band, the CD features the A-list of Detroit musicians, including what may be the last recording by the late, great trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. Davis drove to Ann Arbor to spirit away Detroit native Kim Wilson, who was performing there with his Fabulous Thunderbirds and had met her years earlier, and bring him to the studio to perform on the track “I Gotta Sang the Blues.” She taught him the song in the car en route.
“I knew I wanted to work with my core guys, but I also wanted to work with all these musicians who, over the years, I’ve come to love and admire,” says Davis. “I said, ‘This album is going to have Detroit on it.’”
Honest Woman By Thornetta Davis: Review
Thornetta Davis, Detroit’s ubiquitous, undisputed Queen of the Blues – a title officially bestowed upon her last year in a ceremony at the city’s storied Hastings Street Ballroom – is absolutely joyous. Maybe that’s because, a full 20 years since her last recording, Davis’ new CD Honest Woman finally was released this fall on her own label, Sweet Mama Music. Whatever the reason, this may be the happiest blues LP you’ll ever enjoy: from the juke-joint romp of “I Gotta Sang the Blues” (accompanied by the harmonica and voice of Fabulous Thunderbirds frontman and fellow Detroiter Kim Wilson) to the horn-infused frolic “Get Up and Dance Away Your Blues,” practically all of the album’s 13 tracks sizzle with upbeat rhythms and Thornetta’s confident, familiar, soul-drenched vocals. “It’s all from a blues perspective,” she explains with a smile. “I’ve been living life and writing about it.” Want to know everything she’s been up to the past two decades? Listen to the deeply autobiographical lyrics: Davis wrote or co-wrote all the songs, and produced the CD. Save for an opening poem, “When My Sister Sings the Blues,” voiced by her real-life sister, Felicia; the lush traditional blues pacing of “Can We Do It Again?” and the painful, other-woman lament of “Shadow,” Honest Woman barely stops to catch its breath, capturing the verve and merriment of Davis’ live performances. Featuring a Who’s-Who of local sidemen, including Oscar-winner Luis Resto, Chris Codish, Brett Lucas and the late trumpet legend Marcus Belgrave, this CD is a musical Motor City keepsake. The last song Davis wrote is titled “Set Me Free,” which should tell you all you need to know. Thorny, thanks for being Honest. — Jim McFarlin