Thornetta Davis, Detroit's 'Queen of the Blues,' polishes her crown on second album
She'll be capping off the release with a Music Hall show this month.
It’s the musical question that Thornetta Davis fans – and they are legion, in Detroit and beyond – have asked the city’s “Queen of the Blues” at every gig, every appearance, every chance encounter at Meijer, for 20 long years:
Are you ever going to release another CD?
Now, finally, double decades after her 1996 debut solo LP Sunday Morning Music, Davis can say, “yes.” Honest Woman, the native Detroiter’s superb new recording, was released in September on her own label, Sweet Mama Music. To celebrate, Davis will headline a CD release party and concert Nov. 27 at Detroit’s Music Hall Center.
Which, of course, prompts Musical Question No. 2: What took you so long?
“People kept asking, ‘When are you going to do another album?’ and I kept saying, ‘I don’t know when. When it’s time,’” Davis reflects. “I do believe everything follows order.”
Davis, 53, one of Detroit’s longest running and most popular cabaret performers, now can admit several self-imposed setbacks in achieving her second recording. One, constant performing and subsequently managing her own career lulled her into a pattern that didn’t include studio work.
“Most of my career I just showed up and sang,” she says. “I wanted to have that feeling other artists have, constantly making CDs, constantly going into the studio, but that’s never been me. Sing and raise my daughter (Wanakee, now 33 and a successful interior designer in Nashville). That was my job.”
Two, she needed original music. And though Davis went on to write or co-write every track on the CD and produce the album, she once did not envision herself as a songwriter. “I remember when Sub Pop (the label that released Sunday Morning Music) wanted to sign me, I told them, ‘I’m not a writer; you’re going to have to get me a songwriter,’” she recalls.
“They were always sending me tapes of other people’s songs. I said, ‘Well, I still need a writer, because I don’t write.’ And they said, ‘Look, if you don’t write, this deal is done!’ Uh-oh! So that's what I did.”
Davis derived her initial inspiration from an unlikely source. “At that time, Catholic churches were closing all around my neighborhood, and I’m not even Catholic,” she explains. “It was just the fact that churches were closing, it was bumming me out. Meanwhile, I had two crack houses on my block, one on either side of me. I popped a tape in, started singing about it, and that’s where ‘Sunday Morning Music’ came from.”
One track – especially one from 20 years ago – does not a songwriter make. Emboldened by her first composition, however, Davis spent the intervening years writing more lyrics as the muse and motivation came upon her, taking them to be recorded when she saved enough money for studio time.
While the music on Honest Woman is surprisingly up-tempo and hook-filled for a blues album, the words to each song are drawn from Davis’ personal experiences. “If you listen to the album, I have been through some crap,” she says. “It’s all about getting through it as opposed to staying in it.”
The onetime single mother acknowledges staying far too long in one unhealthy relationship, but is undeniably happier these days as a result of her daughter’s success, her eight-year marriage to James “Jamalot” Anderson, and, of course, Honest Woman. The title track, with its lyric “The day we met was like a dream come true/Every day since, this thing grows stronger between me and you,” is inspired by her husband.
A 20-time Detroit Music Awards recipient, Davis’ deep roots in the city’s music community resulted in a CD that’s a virtual Who’s Who of Motor City talent. Trumpeter Rayse Biggs, guitarist Brett Lucas, and Academy Award-winning instrumentalist Luis Resto are among her guests; for one track, “Sister Friend Indeed,” Davis pulled together 50 women friends (and a few relatives) for an all-female backing choir.
Davis was even able to entice famed Fabulous Thunderbirds frontman Kim Wilson, himself a Detroit native, to join her in the studio prior to his band’s Ann Arbor gig to sing and play harmonica on “I Gotta Sang the Blues.” And Honest Woman may feature the last recorded performance by the late Detroit trumpet legend Marcus Belgrave.
“I knew his health was failing, but I had no idea he would be gone,” Davis says. “When I went in the studio I said, ‘I’ve got to have Marcus on my album,’ and he said, ‘Whatever you want.’ I’ll never forget that.”