The Queen of Detroit Blues Thornetta Davis plays Schenectady’s Central Park

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We love labels like “Queen of the Blues“. They sell tickets and conjure images in our minds of what to expect. But Thornetta’s back story is so much more than that label suggests.

“I didn’t choose the blues. Blues chose me,” says Thornetta. “When I first started singing, I thought I was going to be an R&B singer like The Supremes, Gladys Knight, and Aretha Franklin, and when I came to a place in my life where I needed a job as a single mother living the blues, I wasn’t really listening to it.”

Thornetta sings the blues because she loves them. She has to do it. Her music cuts deep, sometimes dark, and with a level of passion that harkens back to the blues shouter days of Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, and Koko Taylor.

“Normally, I perform my songs immediately. I don’t wait until they’re out on a record or anything. I just feel I have to sing these songs to feel what I’m writing about, what I’m thinking about, and that’s therapeutic for me to be able to sing these words that I feel are helping me to heal. I think blues itself is the music of truth. Even from back when it first started during slavery times when they were singing spirituals just to get by, you know?”

Thornetta plays the annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis representing the Motor City, and it’s worth seeking her out. Her songs are autobiographical. She may change some of the facts to protect the guilty, but you know when she leans into the wind it’s often a cold and wild wind, and sometimes an ill wind.

Thornetta’s sister, Felicia, pays homage to her in a poem that opens Thornetta’s most recent album, Honest Woman:

When my sister sings the blues, she sings with such sweet passion
Always feeling the rhythm and never missing a beat
Singing songs with all her heart
Hell, makes me want to cry
When my sister sings the blues, she moves her hips
Swaying to the beat, snapping her fingers and stomping her feet
Then, the crowd joins in; everybody’s feeling her song
When my sister sings the blues, she sings like Bessie Smith or Sippie Wallace
Feeling their hurt, yeah, their pain
She sings and lets out notes that make you wanna jump and shout, yeah
And, then she closes her eyes and it’s like she goes to another time or another place all the while never missing a beat
When my sister sings the blues the crowd follows like she’s some sort of pied piper, following wherever the music takes her
Singing fast or slow, she always puts on a show
You know, my sister sure can sing the blues

Felicia Davis

Felicia never lived to see the album released. Thornetta: “I kept saying to her, ‘One of these days I’m going to record you on my album. That’s going to be on my album,’ and when I finally made up my mind to go to the studio, I said, ‘Felicia, it’s time,’ and by that time her lungs were so bad, they put her on the list. So, she’s like, ‘Are you sure? I’m on these machines, and my breathing and all of this.’ I said, ‘No, you’re going to be fine.’ The engineer, Rosco, he took all of that stuff out ’cause you don’t hear her breathing hard. I’m so blessed to have her on the album.

“She went to the release party. My sister Felicia was a blessing. She was the angel in our family. She would call us every morning and pray with us and try to get us on the straight and narrow. My last conversation with her I was out on the road and Skyped her through the phone. She looked tired that day, and three days later when I got back home that morning at 6 o’clock, my mother called me and said, ‘I can’t wake Felicia up.’ So, we b-lined it over to the house, and she’d passed away. She’s with me. She wakes me up early in the morning like she used to. She’s my guardian angel now.”

Another song on the album is “Set Me Free.” “I was in several different relationships, but the one that (inspired) me to write that song was the one that took me to church. I sang in the church, and then Mary Ann Williamson started preaching on relationships that aren’t nurturing to your soul. So, you have to bless them and move on. You know? So, anyhow, here I am in church asking God to save me and listening to the messages to heal my spirit. And now I realize that I just needed to be set free.”

Sunday’s show is free. And Thornetta is free in spirit. “I feel I’m blessed to be able to do this thing and to be able to help people through music because music will touch parts of you before anything else will. I can have a room full of different races, ages, creeds, whatever, sexual orientation, and they all feel the same thing on one song.”

She brings with her a five-piece band and two backup singers.

Opening the show will be Tas Cru and his Band of Tortured Souls. He first called me years ago from Plattsburgh when he was SUNY Professor Dr. Richard Bates and asked me how to become a bluesman. I told him to look within himself, not at others already in the game. And put on an air of studied decadence. He learned his lesson well. When he said he was changing his name to Tas Cru, I laughed and said it sounded similar to Crusty Tits. He now calls his record label Crusty Tees Records, and his Memphis Song LP flew up the blues charts.

This particular concert is being billed as Music Haven’s Summer Social, and special VIP tickets are available that include dinner, special seating, and a meet and greet.

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