Detroit’s queen of the blues finds her path

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

In earlier, palmier days for divas, Thornetta Davis might have had an easier professional life. She would have scuffled around a bit, but sooner or later a record label would have snapped her up. Music would be released, distributed and promoted.

It didn’t happen that way. She found herself nearing 50, with only one album to her name. Davis realized that if she was ever going to record a followup to 1996’s “Sunday Morning Music,” she’d have to do it herself.

Thornetta Davis was named “Queen of Detroit Blues” by local blues buffs who felt the need to name a successor after the death of Alberta Adams.

“I was waiting for some producer or record label to see me and say, ‘We want you!’ ” Davis, 53, said by phone recently. “That’s not how it works these days.”

It took a couple of years —– her engineer, Brian “Roscoe” Whiteh, had taken to teasing her about how long she was taking to finish — but finally, “Honest Woman,” Davis’ first studio album in 20 years, was released two weeks ago via her own label, Sweet Mama Music.

Davis produced it — and she also manages herself.

The singer will perform two songs from “Honest Woman” on Oct. 14 at the Fillmore in Detroit, a performance that will be broadcast live and online as part of Detroit Public Television’s “Detroit Performs” series.

Thornetta Davis charted a path into the local music scene singing with such groups as Chanteuse, the Chisel Brothers and Big Chief.

“It was all in order,” Davis said, of her years of on-and-off recording. “It was just a journey I had to go through.”

A native Detroiter, she first broke into the profession singing with rock, R&B and soul bands (Chanteuse, the Chisel Brothers and Big Chief), before seguing into fronting her own band.

It took years, but with the warm soulfulness of her delivery and her gritty survival skills, Davis came to be one of Detroit’s most respected blues singers.

Her status was made official in August 2015. Garbed in a shimmering green gown, Davis was crowned “Queen of the Detroit Blues” at the Hastings Street Ballroom, witnessed by an array of Detroit blues royalty, as well as family members of Alberta Adams, Detroit’s previous “Queen of the Blues.”

Adams died in 2014, and local blues buffs felt the need to solemnize a successor.

“That’s my mama in the blues,” Davis said, of Adams. “When she passed away the Blues Society decided we need a new queen. I was kind of reluctant at first. But I feel so honored that they would think that I deserved that.”

Thornetta Davis, Detroit’s queen of the blues, receives her crown during a performance Aug. 23, 2015 at the Ladies of Blues event at the Hastings Street Ballroom/Tangent Gallery in Detroit.

The new album kicks off with her sister Felicia reciting her poem “When My Sister Sings the Blues,” name-checking Bessie Smith and Sippie Wallace.

Davis feels a bond with Wallace, the Texas-born 1920s blues singer who was responsible for such bluesy, feminist anthems as “Women Be Wise.” Wallace moved to Detroit in 1929, and died here in 1986.

Davis comes by the blues the hard way — she suffered through relationship problems and as a single parent raised a daughter, Wanakee Davis, now 33, and thriving in Nashville. For years, the singer was crippled by self-doubt.

A stint singing in the choir at the Church of Today in Warren (now Renaissance Unity) under self-help guru Marianne Williamson helped mend her spirit. Then it was The Detroit News’ former jazz writer, Jim Dulzo, who helped kick-start her solo career.

Dulzo, who was booking the Frog Island Music Festival in Ypsilanti, gave the then-unemployed singer a call. He wanted to book her, with whatever backup musicians she wanted.

Asked how much money she needed, Davis told Dulzo what she’d been getting. “Jim said, ‘Oh, Thornetta, we can do better than that.’ He paid me twice as much as I was getting! Jim Dulzo is the man. I ran into him a couple times up north, where he moved, over the years. I always give him big hugs … and say God bless you.”

After that, she never looked back.

Blues collaborations

As she neared 50, Davis came to realize that she could take advantage of the music world’s new technology instead of lamenting it.

“I knew how to do Facebook and Twitter, I had already been established there. A lot of people my age want somebody else to do that stuff for them. I figure, I can get this (album) out and make it happen.”

Part of the reason “Honest Woman” took so long to record is that she prefers performing to recording. Still, she persisted. She wrote songs, and drove around listening to the tracks, thinking about ways to arrange them.

For one, “Sister Friend Indeed,” she called upon dozens of women friends — and relatives — who sing.

She ended up with 50 women, a huge crush of warm, happy female voices providing a solid base under Davis’ voice.

Musicians on the album include guitarist Brett Lucas, keyboard player Chris Codish, the late trumpeter Marcus Belgrave (on “Get Up and Dance Away Your Blues”) and keyboard player Luis Resto.

Album jacket to "Honest Woman."

Davis was able to tap Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds to sing and play harmonica on “I Gotta Sang the Blues.” His voice eerily with hers — but the collaboration almost didn’t happen.

When they first met years ago, it was Wilson who took Davis’ phone number and suggested they work together some time. Davis remembered that, and a few years back, when she heard the California-based musician was coming to Ann Arbor with the T-Birds, texted him, asking if he would join her in the studio in Detroit.

Davis didn’t hear back, but she booked the studio time anyway. Late on the night before the session, she got a call from Wilson. “Kim said (she adopts a casual baritone), ‘So whatcha wanna do, now?’ ”

She laughed. “I said, ‘I want you on my song. I will come pick you up in Ann Arbor, I will pay you and get you back in time for your show.’ He said, ‘OK.’ ”

The 40-minute drive to Detroit gave her time to talk Wilson into singing on the track, too.

“We did two takes, and it was done. Roscoe looked at me and said: ‘See now, that’s what you got to do, we’ve got to do this with the rest of the album. That showed me that I could just do it. My motto was, Ask for what you want, all they can say is yes.”

Faith in love

The title track, “Honest Woman,” with its line “All those times I gave up on love… but now you’re here like an angel from above,” is a tribute to Davis’ husband of eight years, James “Jamalot” Anderson.

They met when she was 40. “I was just glad to meet a good man who loved his mama, loved me, was good and kind to anybody he met. Nobody could say anything bad about this man. I was happy. I thought, we don’t even have to be married.“

But two years into their relationship, on a trip to Paris with R.J. Spangler and the Blues Legends, Anderson popped the question on a romantic little street corner, placing a ring in Davis’ pocket.

“I just started screaming. It was so surreal, I saw a cloud roll by. It was one of those dream things. Now we’ve been together as a couple for 13 years, married for 8. I was 45 when I said ‘I do,’ so anything’s possible. Keep the faith.”

Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News.

Detroit Public TV Presents: Second Annual Detroit Performs Live

Featuring: Laith Al-Saadi, Thornetta Davis, The Contours, Selected of God Choir

Broadcast: 8 p.m. Oct. 14, WTVS (Channel 56) and dptv.com


Born: Aug. 11, 1963, Detroit

Performance history: She has opened for Bonnie Raitt, Gladys Knight and Etta James; backup vocalist on Bob Seger’s 1991 album, “The Fire Inside”

Discography: “Sunday Morning Music” (1996), Sub Pop; “Shout out to the Dusthuffer” (1998), Sub Pop

Album jacket cover for "Shout Out" by Thornetta Davis with the Big Chief Band

Detroit Music Awards: Outstanding Blues Artist (2004 and 2006); Outstanding Blues/R&B Vocalist (2004, 2006, 2010, 2011 and 2014)