Detroit’s Queen of Blues talks barriers to access, her Kresge fellowship and the power of social media.
Less than 48 hours back from Berlin, Thornetta Davis agrees to meet us at Norma G’s in Jefferson Chalmers on a sunny afternoon in late October. Detroit’s Queen of Blues arrives fashionably late, but that’s understandable. Jetlag aside, a drip this strong takes time.
She’s covered in black sequins head-to-toe, from the tank down to the cowboy boots. A colorful beaded and embroidered floor-length shawl of sorts, designed for her by an English woman, drapes overtop and jibes perfectly with the equally vibrant Caribbean eatery.
As we prepare to chat, we’re interrupted by two restaurant employees who apparently had no idea that when they came to work on a would-be normal Thursday they’d find thee Thornetta Davis. The ladies swarm and gush. One takes Davis’ hand and gives a little bow, closing her eyes and shaking her head in the way that says more than words ever could.
As the fanfare settles, I notice that Davis is welling up. Husband James brings her a Norma G’s cocktail napkin to dab her eyes, and she tells me that she grew up in this neighborhood, so to get showered with that much love this close to home is especially hefty.
It’s an extraordinary moment when you consider that Davis has been singing professionally for over 30 years and still, humble as ever, a fan interaction has the power to make her weep. Her soulful voice, down-to-earth spirit and relatable songs have endeared her to audiences worldwide, but she’ll forever be a hometown sweetheart.
Davis’ most recent album, Honest Woman, was released independently in 2016 to critical acclaim, garnering eight Detroit Music Awards in 2017. In 2018, she was named a Kresge Artist Fellow. As she finishes the last of the rum punch that owner Lester Gouvia whipped up for her, and as backpack-slung kids walk past the front window in steady waves, Davis and I talk an evolving industry, vibing with her audience and singing the blues.
You’ve been at this for over three decades. How has your work evolved from those first songs to what you do now?
I think, me being honest. Because I can’t even sing a song if I don’t relate to it. So, I’m very honest in my music. I always say, ‘I’m telling my business, not yours.’ And I feel that people relate to the things that I’m saying. The album Honest Woman took me 20 years. I had been writing songs throughout the whole 20-year process. Between Sunday Morning Music and Honest Woman, I released a covers CD, because I was performing at this club on Wednesdays and it got to be a real hot spot – Music Menu – and (I was) doing all cover tunes and everybody was like, ‘You really need to record this’ and I did, and that did well for me. But I always knew I needed to record another original album. When I turned 50, I went into the studio and it still took me three years to finish (Honest Woman), but I’m so thankful that I didn’t let somebody else produce me. A lot of songs on this album were therapeutic for me. It got me over a really bad relationship, and I feel like that’s the reason I was in that relationship: So I could write these songs. God gave me something out of it. And then the last song that I wrote was “Set Me Free,” and I was praying for God to just release me from my fears, release me from all the negativity that I feel holds me back, and it’s one of my favorite songs on the album.
It seems that with the rise of social media, signing to a big label is no longer the golden ticket that it used to be. Independent artists are making their own way and rules. What do you think of this shift?
I think it’s beautiful. I look at the young people and you guys are busy taking care of business, going for what you want. People in my age bracket, we were always told to ‘stay back there’ and ‘stay in your place,’ and I wasn’t raised in a family that was really confident in themselves. I had to bust through all those walls of being insecure and not believing that I could do it, because I wanted to sing so badly. So, when social media came about, I had to embrace it, too. I was trying not to do any of it, but I knew if I wanted to stay in this game, I had to be a part of all of this. So, I’m constantly on my phone, taking pictures, doing video, blah blah blah. I’m still not doing it as much as a lot of folks out there are doing it, which means I need to hire someone to do it, but that’s the part I can’t give up.
When you take the stage, what are you hoping to communicate to your audiences?
I want people to have fun. I want to uplift, I want to bring some joy in people’s lives. I see people out there in the audience sometimes, and the look on their face is like, ‘Mmm, prove something to me,’ then by the end of the night, they’re up dancing and singing. Some of them don’t like blues but their friend dragged them along, but I tell them, ‘I don’t just do blues, I mix in things like R&B and disco.’ I might throw a disco in there just to see somebody get up and shake their butt. But I love performing and making people happy. Some people come to me and say, ‘You made me cry with that one.’ That’s emotion that you probably aren’t used to expressing, and I love that. Sometimes, we got to get it out. So, whatever emotion I can evoke that makes you feel better, I love that.
And I’d imagine that energy is reciprocal?
Yes! It comes right back. I could be having a hard time and here I’ve got to go perform, but when I’m on stage performing, whatever I had that made me feel bad that day goes right away. I feel blessed to be able to do this and I feel God gave this to me – it’s a mission.
What’s it been like for you navigating a mostly male world as a woman?
Well, in the beginning, I was told what to do and why. And that’s OK, because I didn’t know what to do and I was willing to just stand back. When I’m in charge of doing things, I think people respect you when they see that you mean business. They respect me as far as I know, and if I’m not afraid to ask for what I want then I’m happy with what I got. The genre of music that I’m in, right now, I’m finding some kind of color barrier thing going on. Coming up from the South, back in the day, black folks didn’t want to do anything with blues music. It reminded them too much of hard times, so we put it down. And then white folks fell in love with it and picked it up. When I go down to the blues conferences – down in Memphis is where they hold all that stuff – they actually asked me and several other black people to get up and talk about that. So, they’re trying to pull it together down there and the festivals are listening to us and seeing what we’re saying. It’s like, we’re trying to come together, and I think that’s what music does: It brings us back together. Now I want to bust into that country scene.
You were a Kresge Artist Fellow in 2018. What did that recognition mean to you?
Oh, my God, to be recognized by Kresge Arts and in my hometown, my city, it was a blessing. And the money was good, too. I bought my tour bus. It came right on time, because at the time we bought the van, I started getting these gigs all over, so we all just jump in the van, head to our gig. Thank you, Kresge.
You released Honest Woman in 2016. Are you working on a new project?
Not right now, physically. I’m writing in my head, thinking about who I want on the next record and reaching out to different artists and saying, ‘Hey, I’d love to work with you on the next record.’ Some of them go, ‘Oh, that sounds great,’ but, you know, I’ve heard that before, so I’m willing to go to their city, knock on their door and say, ‘Look, man, I’m here.’ But I’m not afraid and I’m not worried, because it took me 20 years for this one and I’m in no hurry, honestly. This other CD is gonna be even bigger, I feel, and it’s gonna come right on time.
What has Detroit taught you about singing the blues?
Detroit is the blues, you know. We go through it, up and down, we been through it. If we can survive all of the years of the mess that I’ve seen in my life in Detroit… I remember when downtown was vibrant as a child, and I remember when it was desolate. You wouldn’t want to be caught down there at night. And now it’s back again – that’s the blues. So, being a part of the blues in the city of Detroit just feels natural to me, to my core. And I feel like God gave me this – it’s a gift. We all go through it, and life gives you the blues.
Catch Thornetta at The Token Lounge in Westland on Nov. 30 at 8 p.m. Norma G’s in Detroit is open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday. 14628 Jefferson Ave., 313-290-2938