Detroit's "Queen of Blues" to Play Summer Solstice Jazz Fest

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Thursday, June 21, 2018, 7:53 am
Sarah Spohn

Above: Thornetta Davis: Photo courtesy of Thornetta Davis.

This weekend, East Lansing is set to feel the blues as Detroit’s Queen of the Blues, Thornetta Davis, performs at the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival. Davis will play the Festival’s Education Stage on Saturday, June 23 from 7:30 – 9:00 p.m.

Davis always enjoyed singing and performing, but she will be the first to tell you: the blues chose her.

“I feel like it was a Godsend to me,” Davis said, who was able to raise her daughter and pay for college, thanks to her steady blues gigs. “It turned out that was something I was supposed to do, and I’m so thankful blues chose me because now, here I am thirty years later --Detroit’s ‘queen of the blues,’ which still amazes me when I think about my life.”

Growing up, Davis looked up to girl groups and female vocalists like The Supremes, Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight, and dreamed of being a pop singer. She wanted to have her own group like En Vogue.

After she graduated from high school, Thornetta joined local bands, gaining experience, but no pay. Then, she joined a female R&B group, Chanteuse, earning $50 a night for small club gigs in the early ‘80s. In the ‘90s, Davis met a soul and blues band, The Chisel Brothers, who invited her to join as a vocalist. At the time, Davis considered herself a Top 40s artist, and had to dig through her mother’s crates of albums to learn the band’s blues tunes.

“I felt like the blues chose me,” Davis said. “And then as I started performing more, getting more knowledgeable about the music, and more into the artists, listening to more artists like Ma Rainey, Koko Taylor -- I fell in love with the blues.”

She began listening to Etta James and Big Mama Thornton. For Detroit blues singers though, there was only one real idol: local vocalist Alberta Adams. “When I met Alberta, she was the Queen of Detroit Blues,” Davis said. “I started performing gigs with her. She was like the mama of all the blues singers in the city of Detroit.”

After Adams died, the Blues Society reached out to Davis to crown her Detroit’s Queen of the Blues, to follow in her mentor’s footsteps. While honored, Davis felt it was still too soon to take over, so she waited. The following year, she had a coronation.

Today, her influences include Phyllis Hyman, Freddie King, Ray Charles, and Bonnie Raitt. Her backing vocals can be heard on Bob Seger and Kid Rock albums, and she’s shared stages with B.B. King and Ray Charles.

Though she’s been crowned the Queen of Blues and not jazz, Davis believes the two genres come from the same musical family. In fact, many types of music are deeply rooted in blues.

“I’m pretty sure a lot of the jazz artists that perform probably listen to the blues too,” Davis said. “Or they learn it from that era. Billie Holiday sang jazz, and then she started singing the blues.”

Davis encourages young musicians to get into the blues first, to build a foundation. “Don’t negate it because it’s old fashioned. It will definitely make you a better musician,” Davis said. “The emotion that you feel for the blues, you can utilize that.”

Whether her music brings her to East Lansing, or to Paris, where she was recently awarded the Academy du Jazz Best Blues Recording for her record, Honest Woman, Davis is still feeling the blues –in the best way possible.

“I always tell myself I’m not singing anything unless I feel it, and I started feeling my music even more when I started singing the blues,” she said. “All your inhibitions just go away. You just start singing from your core of your being, and that’s where the blues lie.”


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