Capturing the ills of the Motor City
Gazette file photo
TRYING TO MASTER THE UNDERGROUND LOOK. Thornetta Davis and backing band will bring their classy Sub Pop sound to Call The Office tonight.
By Bob Klanac
Thornetta Davis, she of the rumbling blues gospel vocal chords, is chuckling on the phone line from Detroit. She's just been told by yours truly that someone recently referred to her as Sub Pop Records' dance-pop diva.
"It's because I'm black I guess," she says with amusement.
And why not? After all, isn't every black female artist a fledging dance-pop diva? Perhaps, perhaps not, but certainly not Davis.
Being a typical recording artist could have made things a lot easier for Davis. The Detroit-born-and-bred singer has made the Motor City her base of operations since she was a lass growing up. Detroit was once a major music force in American music, but that was before Berry Gordy packed Motown's bags and moved it to Los Angeles almost 20 years ago. Davis grew up in the shadow of Detroit's once mighty R & B legacy and sang blues and gospel-based rock with various groups paying her proverbial dues.
And then legendary grunge label Sub Pop came a callin.' They'd heard her helm a song or two on a Big Chief album and were set on signing her. Trouble was she wasn't so sure she wanted them. The dream label for most fledging alternative bands worth their salt held some trepidation for Davis.
"It took me a long time [to decide]," she explains. "I wasn't used to that kind of music. When [head of Sub Pop] Jonathan Poneman came to Detroit and asked me to sign I asked him 'What do you want to do with me?' He told me, 'Don't worry about that. We'll take care of all of that.' I told them I didn't write. He told me, 'We have songwriters and we have musicians.' I told them I'd really like to work with the guys from Big Chief. And they said, 'No problem.'"
What might seem like unearned petulance from an unsigned artist is actually wizened pragmatism coming from the mouth of Davis. Her concerns were valid. What would a grunge label do with a blues and gospel diva? The answer to that lies in her Sub Pop debut Sunday Morning Music, a gorgeous paean to all things blues, gospel, soul, funk and rock. And while she covers all that territory on the album (and more, believe it or not), it's not a case of showing off. In fact, the astonishing thing is that she does it all wonderfully.
Then there was the matter of the lyrics. Big Chief's Phil Durr could come up with the music but the words were another matter entirely. Davis had never written a song. "When the project got underway, we didn't have any lyrics," she laughs. "And so I started writing."
And write she did. The lyrics on Sunday Morning Music are gripping in their depiction of inner-city grief but imbued with a moving hopefulness. The inner sleeve of the disc features a black and white photograph of a thriving, bustling Detroit circa 1950 a stark contrast to the urban decay which has gripped the city for the past several decades.
"I've been here for 30 years," she notes. "I've watched it go from a very beautiful neighbourhood to being crack-infested with half the houses gone on the block. I remember going downtown and it being busy. It's not that way anymore, but it's coming back though."
If her musical versatility amazes, by contrast so does the variety of the music she remembers reverberating through the household of her youth. "Growing up, mom and dad were into Nancy Wilson, I liked Petula Clark," she confesses. "I remember the song 'Downtown' and lying on the floor bopping my head saying 'Yeah, I like this song."
And as for Davis' career in say, five years? "Oh, I'll have a Grammy," she says with a chuckle. "I'll probably be living in Detroit but in a nicer neighbourhood."
If there's any justice, with her promise, it should be a much nicer neighbourhood.