Because, when you think about it, seriously, who else could it be?
Of course it’s her. That wasn’t even hard.
The fact that Thornetta Davis is being crowned by the Detroit Blues Society as Detroit’s new Queen of the Blues on Sunday, August 23, isn’t really the story here. Not to anyone who has ever heard this woman sing, or is familiar with her accomplishments. The story is how she got here. That, and and her relationship with the late Alberta Adams, who held the undisputed title for years before her death on Christmas Day, 2014.
“I called her Momma. From the first time I saw her, in the late ‘90s, I went to see her and she was at a bar on Gratiot. And it was late night, after three o’clock in the morning. What was his name…Lenny. Remember Lenny? He was like this white motorcycle dude and he owned this after hours restaurant where you could pass you a little alcohol in a coffee cup and she was the entertainment. And the first time I saw her, I was like, ‘Look at her go!’ because she went all the way down to the floor, then came back up. I mean she had to be at least in her late ‘70s then. So yeah, I’ve loved her ever since. That was the first time I had heard of her, and she was the entertainment, and she was there every weekend.
“Eventually we ended up talking somehow, and we ended up doing shows together. RJ was managing her at the time. I learned longevity in the blues, and I learned I can sing this music until I drop. There’s no age limit on it as far as the music industry goes.”
But long before her fated meeting with Alberta, there was Thornetta as a young child, singing herself to sleep to her favorite Michael Jackson song, “I’ll Be There.” Then singing again once she woke up. Singing herself through the day. Child was always singing, to the point where her sister encouraged her – practically shoved her – into stepping in front of an audience to let others hear what she already knew (like sisters do) was something special of a voice. Looking back down the road, it becomes apparent that someone – or something – was guiding her steps. Although there was practically no way to see it at the time, a brief chronicle of events makes it plain how seemingly all the rights doors seemed to open at the right time. Or close.
“I always tell people, I didn’t choose the blues, the blues chose me. At the time it chose me I was a young mother, on welfare, I loved to sing. And even in the singing groups I was in at the time – I was in a female singing group called Chanteuse – we were really doing R&B. At that time we couldn’t get gigs, and we didn’t know how to break into a situation where we’d be working all the time. I had just started going out to jam sessions, and I ran into David Murray, and he introduced me to the band that became The Chisel Brothers. They just called me up on stage one time, and I knew one blues song, that was in ’87, and it was Stormy Monday. At the time they were calling me up I was just singing background, and the audience kept yelling up, “Let the girl sing!” and they looked at me like, You know any blues? And I was like ..Stormy Monday..? And so that’s how I became a blues singer. This was at the Red Carpet on the east side. And then I just keep going, and one night Roscoe said, ‘You want a gig at Alvin’s’ I was like ‘yeah!’ And he offered me, that night, I think it was $50. To me that was so much money. That was a whole lotta money to me. I was like yeah I’ll do it! And when we got there that night, it was barely anybody there and he (Roscoe) looked at me as he was just getting ready to pay me, and he goes to me, ‘OK, if you want your $50 then you can just be a guest person for tonight. But if you wanna join the band, then you have to take $20. And all of the sudden my life flashed before my eyes, non-gigs, my baby, and I’m on welfare, and I was like ‘OK. I’m a member.’ ”
She can laugh about it now. But back then…?
So when someone tells their own story this well, the best thing is to just get out of the way. But from there Thornetta began getting so many gigs that she had to let the welfare office know that she didn’t need them anymore, then moved on to Sub Pop records, which led to her next step to Big Chief, which led to her recording “Sunday Morning Music” where she was gently ‘advised’ that she’d better start writing some songs of her own.
“And so they say, ‘OK, Thornetta, it’s been six months. You need to start writing.’ And lo and behold, at that time I was in a relationship that took me through some changes. So I just started writing about it. And the music was already there, so I wrote my lyrics to what was on the tape that they gave me. A little cassette tape. God, that was a long time ago! And that’s where ‘Sunday Morning Music’ came from. The title track? I was just staring out the window at the crack house that was next door to me. I remember church on Sunday morning, and they were closing Catholic churches, and the lyrics just came.”
But that was in 1996. The focus now is on her next project which has been coming for…well…a little more than 15 years. But hey, it’s Thornetta. And the album will be called “Honest Woman,” brought to you by Detroit’s very own Queen of the Blues.
“I done been through bad relationships, bad karma, and now I’m happy I’m in the relationship I’m in, and I feel more creative than ever, and inspired.”
It’s good to be Queen.
Thornetta Davis will be crowned “Queen of Detroit Blues” by the Detroit Blues Society on Sunday, August 23, 4-8 pm at the “Blues Girls of Summer” event to be held at the Hastings Street Ballroom, 715 East Milwaukee, Detroit, MI.