Interview in English by Birgitta Larsson. Photo: Jimmy Thorell.
DETROIT´S QUEEN OF THE BLUES.
Thornetta’s international career really got off to a good start with her self-produced album ”Honest Woman” in 2016. And, now, as the winner of The Blues Foundation’s 2023 ”Soul Blues Female Artist Award” — and dozens of honorable awards and nominations before that — she can feel satisfied with the goals she once set for herself. About this and other things, this prominent blues and R&B singer told me in an interview in connection with ”Mönsterås Blues & Roots Festival” this year.
Can you tell us a little about your upbringing?
-I grew up in East Side Detroit. It was when I was in high school that I increasingly felt that I wanted to be a singer. I was a member of the school’s choir and noticed that I loved being on stage when the choir performed. We sang all kinds of music.
Was there a lot of music in the home?
-Yes, I grew up in a singing home. My grandmother, grandfather and my great-grandmother lived downstairs in a small house and my mother, sisters and I lived upstairs. There was music everywhere in the house, and I listened to a lot of music on the radio, my record player and watched music events on TV.
What kind of music did you like?
-When I was a kid it was Top R&B with The Supremes, The Jackson 5… But as I got a little older, it became more contemporary, with singers like Phyllis Hyman, Anita Baker, Gladys Knight and Angela Bofill. I wanted to sing that kind of music!
How were the first steps in your career?
-It started when I won a talent contest in high school when I was 15 years old. Then I came to the attention of a band called Jas, and became their singer after first getting my mother’s permission. The condition was to keep me only within Detroit and Jas only performed locally so it went well [the band disbanded in 1983, my note]. But then, when I finished school, I had a child, 19 years old. However, my dream of becoming a singer remained, and I contacted two girls I used to sing with in high school, and we formed a singing group called Chanteuse with a former member of Jas. We covered old R&B hits and did it for a few years.
-There was a band on the east side in Detroit that I really liked, they were called The Chisel Brothers and did soul and blues. They got me interested in blues, which I hadn’t known much about before. Growing up, I had listened a lot to BB King and Johnnie Taylor and that kind of soul blues, but not to more genuine blues artists like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, etcetera. Someone suggested I audition a song for The Chisel Brothers, and I took the only pure blues I could, ”Stormy Monday”. And behold, it went home! The leader of the band asked if I wanted to come and sing with them. Yes!! But I had been doing R&B and they didn’t want that in their repertoire. So I had to do a deep dive into my mom’s record collection and pick out blues and soul records and learn; songs I heard as a kid but didn’t learn. I was then the band’s singer for about 9 years, from 1988-97. We recorded a couple of records, such as ”The Chisel Bros. Featuring Thornetta Davis”.
-There was another band, Big Chief, that I also started singing with. Their style was alternative rock music and they had been signed to Sub Pop Records in Seattle, which was big at the time with grunge artists like Nirvana. Big Chief wanted me on a recording, and Sub Pop liked me so much when they heard me that they wanted to do a whole album with me, backed by Big Chief, and it became ”Sunday Morning Music”, in 1996. And this is what started my solo career! A funny thing was that the song ”Cry” from it was featured in an episode of ”Sopranos” on television.
What happened next?
-There were a lot of gigs, including together with rock singer Kid Rock, but not so much touring abroad yet. In 2000 I released an album entitled ”Thornetta Davis – Covered Live At The Music Menu”. It was a popular music venue I sang at for 7 years, on Wednesday nights. The album received good reviews and won ”Outstanding Blues Recording” when the ”Detroit Music Awards” were presented in 2002.
Photo: Jimmy Thorell
You performed at major festivals in the United States and also toured abroad, but a new album was a long time coming.
-Yes, it wasn’t until 2016 that my second album came, ”Honest Woman”. I wrote songs in the time leading up to that. I performed several live even before it was released. During those years I was looking for a good record label to produce it, but no, no one took notice. So then I came to the conclusion that I had to produce it myself. And it was the best thing I’ve done in my entire life! I started recording in 2013, when I turned 50. Then I set a goal to make it! I felt like I was going to explode if it didn’t happen. Every year I came back to the recording studio to record new songs – I had to pay for it myself – and set out to finish it, and in 2016 it was finally finished. And it opened the door for a lot more touring, all over the world.
”I gotta sang the blues” on ”Honest Woman” was nominated for ”Song Of The Year” 2017 by The Blues Foundation, which also nominated the album for ”Best Emerging Artist Album”. And another song on it, ”I believe (everything going to be alright)”, won the ”International Songwriting Competition” in the Blues category. Not bad!
-Yes, I am so happy about this. I managed to do this, under my own power! I also received 8 Detroit Music Awards for the album, including ”Outstanding Record Producer”, ”Outstanding Blues Recording” and ”Outstanding Blues Vocalist”.
-You know, I lived for a long time in uncertainty if I had enough money or knowledge enough to make it. And I had gone through so many problems. It was not easy as an unmarried mother to try to create a career and I have had several unhappy relationships with men. But all the hard things have to be given an outlet, and God gave me the strength to have the confidence to deal with it, and be honest with myself in that process. That’s what the record is all about.
Do you have plans for a new album?
-Oh yes, I write new songs and have visions of how it should be done, which musicians I should work with, and which record label I should choose. I haven’t contacted any record company yet, but hope it will go the way, otherwise I might have to produce myself again.
What do you want to convey with your music?
-Above all, I want to give hope! I want the audience to feel it when they hear me sing. It is so easy to focus on all the misery that exists in the world and it has been very tough for many in recent years. You can easily get caught up in destructive things and many people have lost their faith. But God has a purpose for us and we can overcome even obstacles that may seem impossible. I want to give that faith and confidence back to people.
What kind of music do you like the most?
-Oh, I like all kinds of music, I’m a big music lover. Music saved my life. As a child, I grew up with a lot of violence. My dad was an alcoholic, so it wasn’t easy for me. The situation improved when my mother divorced my father, and that’s when I got into music.
-I’ve been singing blues for more than 30 years now, mixed with R&B and some rock. So is the style in Detroit! I was not familiar with blues singers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Big Maybelle and Koko Taylor from my childhood, but have come to appreciate them a lot and like to sing their songs.
-Do you have your own band in Detroit?
Yes, it’s called the Thornetta Davis Band. Unfortunately, I couldn’t bring it here to Mönsterås. They are top musicians and I would have liked to have had them with me. My husband, who I’ve been happily married to for 14 years now, is the drummer in it! I could at least have him with me here at the festival, he played congas.
Photo: Torsten Ståhlberg
In 2009, you received the ”Living Lifetime Achievement Award” from Detroit’s Blues Society. And they also named you ”Detroit’s Queen Of The Blues” in 2015. That must be a couple of highlights in your career?
-Yes, both awards have meant a lot to me. Being crowned ”Detroit’s Queen Of The Blues” was truly a big moment. I succeeded Alberta Adams who had previously been that; she died a year before I took over this throne. She was a mentor to me and a person I looked up to. I am very proud of my city and want to represent it in the same great way as she did.
BIRGITTA LARSSON, text