Thornetta Davis: Honest Woman
Singer and songwriter Thornetta Davis, Detroit's official Queen of the Blues, brings her commanding voice and powerful stories to the David Rubenstein Atrium for a free show on May 10. In January of this year, our own Associate Producer Viviana Benitez caught up with Davis after her performance for Globalfest 2018 to ask about her latest album, Honest Woman, and her path to becoming musical royalty.
Viviana Benitez: We're fourteen days into this year and I just heard you perform your song "Everything Gonna Be Alright"—
Thornetta Davis: Believe it!
VB: And it's the first time I actually believed it, so I wanted to know where it came from.
TD: Well, actually I feel that God inspires me. This whole album, Honest Woman, is inspired by my journey in the last 30 years. So when that song came—I look at all of my songs as gifts from God. He wants me to relay a message and to let everybody know. That particular song, "Everything Gonna Be Alright"—you just gotta believe it and then put it into action, you know? Because if you sit around and focus on the negativity, that's all you're going to get. And you gotta look forward to something. Look forward to the goodness, look forward to the greatness, and be a part of making it happen. Especially from where I was, to where I am now. I can't think any way other than that.
VB: Can you speak a little bit more about where you were and where you are now?
TD: Well, 20, 30 years ago I was a single mom, no job, didn't know what I was going to do. I always knew I could sing, but I didn't even fathom the idea of making a living singing. I didn't have the wherewithal to go out and get a gig, it was just something that I loved to do. But I'm a single mom and I needed income, you know? So I started working with this band in Detroit called The Chisel Brothers and I started making a couple of hundred bucks a week, which was a lot to me. Even with that, going through the years of raising my daughter, sometimes we had the heat on, sometimes we didn't. Sometimes I could pay my rent, sometimes I couldn't.
Looking back on my life, those times that I couldn't pay the bill, somebody looked out for me. My landlord was like, "Oh, we'll get you next week, get the next one, next one." That's a blessing, for somebody to understand that I don't have the money right now. There's nobody for me but God working in my life to make that happen. I recognize my blessings every day. And I acknowledge them, and I tell somebody else, which is a testimony. God wants you to tell somebody. I tell people through my songs.
I had bad relationships—I mean, crazy relationships—that would have put me under had I not had a faith in God. And once I realized how strong that power of believing in God was, I realized that I did not deserve anything that I was accepting. I took responsibility and stopped accepting it and I said, "You know what? I ain't dealing with you. I'm out." That's where the Honest Woman album came about. I had to be honest with myself.
All of these years that I've been singing and performing, singing other people's songs—now I'm singing mine and I'm telling my story. But it seems that my story is something that everybody else can relate to and that helps them deal with their ups and downs, you know. Right now is the time. People are just feeling me right now.
"I realize now that God gave me the gift to do it all. I can do it all, whatever—jazz, blues, funk, rock. I'm Detroit. That's Detroit."
VB: When I was reading about Honest Woman I read an interview that said the song "Can We Do It Again?" has a real Detroit sound. What does that mean for you? How has living in Detroit affected or inspired your music?
TD: My God, growing up in Detroit, you hear it all: jazz, funk, rock, soul, blues. I'm so blessed that I'm from that city. When I started singing I was just doing Top 40 R&B, because that's what I listened to on the radio—Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin. Coming up that's what I thought I was going to be, an R&B singer. I was in a group of girls, we called ourselves "Chanteuse" and we thought we were going to be the next Supremes. We were going to be En Vogue, you know, Whitney Houston. We were just out there, girls singing in hallways, hoping somebody'd discover us. It just wasn't happening.
And then one day I went to a blues show, blues/soul. Bunch of white boys playing soul music. They found out I could sing and they asked me to get onstage and sing background. And I knew all the songs because I grew up listening to them, too. So I'm singing background with them, and after a month of that they were like, "Hey, we want you to join our band." My very first regular gig.
But they didn't do Top 40, they did soul and blues, so I had to go through my mama's records and pull up a repertoire and a setlist, and I started being a blues singer. And immediately they started writing about me in the newspapers. The next thing I know I'm winning awards for best blues singer in the city of Detroit. I joined the band in 1988, and I started winning awards in 1990, '91, '92. I've won best blues singer almost every year since then. So now I'm Detroit's Queen of the Blues. They made me the official Queen of the Blues in 2015.
Because blues leads to rock, folks would call me up to sing on their rock albums. I didn't know what I could do. I just… if somebody asked me, I tried it. And then I started writing, based on experiences that I was going through. I was in a really bad relationship at the time, so I started writing from that.
I realize now that God gave me the gift to do it all. I can do it all, whatever—jazz, blues, funk, rock. I'm Detroit. That's Detroit. When you hear essences of everything in this, that's Detroit. On my album I have one of the jazz greats, Marcus Belgrave, who passed away shortly after recording with me. He's on "Get Up and Dance Away Your Blues." He played with Ray Charles. He's a legend in the city of Detroit. He said, "Anything you need, Thornetta, just let me know."
VB: You mentioned working on other people's albums. Who else would you like to work with?
TD: Yes, I've sung on several of Kid Rock's albums, Bob Seeger's albums. I got my folks that I want to work with. I'd love to work with Fantastic Negrito. I love him. I love his messages in his music and how he does the blues. I'd also love to work with Trombone Shorty. I love him! Oh, my God, he's so funky. And these are people I would like to have on my next record.
VB: When's that coming out?
TD: I don't know. I couldn't even answer folks for 20 years about this one, because the first song I wrote for Honest Woman was in 1996. And when I write something I immediately start performing it. So every time I would sing a song that I just wrote, I'd go, "This is going to be on my next record." Can you imagine doing that for 20 years? So here it is. And I think it was done right in the time it was supposed to be done, because I had to go through some things.
The song "Honest Woman" is about my husband. I feel like God put him in my life. When I say he made an honest woman out of me, I mean that I had to be honest with myself in order to get to the place where I could meet somebody that would be good for me. And we both believe that God brought us to each other. We've been together 14 years, we've been married 10. He proposed to me in Paris, and we're going there together next week so I can accept the Académie du Jazz award for best blues album. How fabulous is that? It's all in order.
VB: And in 2001 you were inducted into the Detroit Hall of Fame. What was that experience like?
TD: You know, I appreciate my city. My city has lifted me up. Ain't nothing but love. They held me up all of these years, helped me raise my daughter, who's now 34 and married, living in Nashville. So I feel like they took care of me and my baby all these years. Detroit is golden to me. That's my city. People say, "You gonna move away?" I'm not going nowhere. I'm here to represent. You know, wherever I go, Detroit is in the house and I make sure to tell everybody.
VB: What are you looking forward to?
TD: I'm looking forward to singing this album all over the world, Honest Woman. I'm looking forward to performing and sharing my story, and singing songs, and just spreading the love. That's all I'm here for, spreading the love.
You know, when I look at the faces of the audience, I can tell if spirits are moved. We've prayed on it, and I asked God to just help me heal. Help me heal other people. I'm here, use me. That's what I want. I feel so blessed to be in this space right now. I don't know what else to say. I just feel overwhelmed and overjoyed at the same time.
VB: Any last words you want to share with the people of New York?
TD: I'm coming! And I love you all. That's it.
Viviana Benitez is Associate Producer at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.