There are few soul artists from the Twin Cities whose legacies have shined on quite as brightly as Wanda Davis, whose 1970 single “Save Me” has become an underground hit—and a valuable find for record collectors. Although Wanda was quite active throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s in the Twin Cities scene, she left music behind when she moved back down to her hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, in the late ’70s.
In fact, it wasn’t until Minneapolis reissue label Secret Stash called up Wanda and asked her to perform at the release party for their excellent 2012 compilation Twin Cities Funk and Soul that she even realized how popular her song had become with old-school soul fans. Now, she’s getting back into music in a big way, performing with Secret Stash artists like Sonny Knight when she’s back in Minnesota and working on new music with the label’s co-founder, Eric Foss.
I had a chance to catch up with Wanda this week, and she spoke over the phone from her home in Dallas, Texas, about her incredible voice, her lifelong passion for music, and her experiences with the 1960s soul scene in the Twin Cities.
Andrea Swensson: Wanda, I’m so excited to talk to you today.
Wanda Davis: Oh, wow, really? [laughs]
I know the basics of your biography, but I would love to hear more about your childhood. When you were growing up in Shreveport, how did you first get introduced to music?
Ahh! Ok. Well first was my mom. As a little, little toddler, and I would be sitting in the other room on the floor, and she’s singing. She’s singing. She had a beautiful voice. And she would be singing gospel music, and humming or singing while cooking or doing the dishes or ironing; whatever she was doing, she would sing. And I thought, oh, she has such a beautiful voice. I just couldn’t believe it. She just had an angelic voice. And I would listen to her. And I guess that’s where I really heard my first music, or paid attention to it, and started singing.
My sisters and I, and I had a brother that would sing, we would do a lot of sitting and harmonizing, sitting out on the steps. We’d sing old songs, gospel or secular, and I’d lead most of it. It was fun. And then I was in the church choirs, singing, singing. I sang in the choir at school. And then I’d sing with a swing band at school; we would go around singing at other schools or functions. So that basically kind of got me started.
What kind of songs would you sing with the band?
Well, some of Aretha’s. We would perform at the school dances, things like that. And Aretha was one of my idols. I could just really sing her songs. And Nancy Wilson, you know.
What was it about Aretha Franklin that you admired?
Oh, she had such power in her. She had some lungs on her. She could really belt it out, and she did it with what looked like such ease. She wasn’t screaming and hollering, she was singing—and she’d sing such stories, stories that she would tell in song. I just liked her style. I guess I would listen to everyone singing because I sang, and I’d just listen to the way they sang and what they were singing and how they sang.
Did you have aspirations in high school of becoming a professional singer?
You know, for some strange reason I didn’t. Isn’t that something? Most people, that would become their goal: I want to sing. I may have thought that, maybe a couple of times, but to my knowledge, I just always sang. I started singing at funerals, and birthday parties, and anniversaries. And I guess when I did move to Minneapolis—I had no intentions then, I just liked to sing, so I would just go out and look for the live bands, go places where the live bands were, and I would just sit there and listen to them and I would want to sit in. And I’d sit in with them! I’d tell them that I sing and I want to sing with them. I liked it so much that I just wanted to do it. And I did it. I’d just kind of wiggle my way on there. I feel better when I sing. For some reason, it makes me feel good. Even when I’m doing the choir songs and I lead, it does my heart good to look out and see people rejoicing and praising God over the message that’s in the song.
What made you want to move to Minneapolis from Shreveport?
I wanted to get out of the house. That was the first thing. My mom had a brother there. Out of the service, that’s where he ended up, in Minneapolis. And a couple of his children were there, my cousins, but they were older. And I had a sister that had come out a couple years before I did, out of high school. She got out of the house first, and she headed to Minnesota. And then when my turn came I headed to Minnesota. I had a sister behind me, she headed to Minnesota. We did. We just went up. I said, well I’m going to go up here, check it out, visit. And stayed there almost 10 years. [laughs] So it’s really where I continued to grow up.
So you were just fresh out of high school when you moved here?
Yes, fresh out of high school. Matter of fact, I graduated in ’67, so it was May of ’67 that I went there.
Yes! I had to go. So my singing continued. And then I’ll never forget—there was a time that I did sing at a concert. Honeywell Union Hall.
Yes! Yes girl. That was lovely. And then what really made the night was I had a bunch of my relatives in town and they were there. I really enjoyed that. Nervous as usual, but once I get through the first of it, then I’m ok. And then to take that turn like that, more than 40 years ago, and then go back into a studio now. I had no idea. I had no idea. And I hadn’t been on stage or sang like that since then.
When you were singing with Maurice McKinnies and the Blazers, you had some other women you would perform with, right?
Yes. They were the Blazers, and we were the Blazettes, yes. And it was Charlesetta [Irvin], Wilma [Carter]—and Wilma went on later to marry Maurice—and Gwen Matthews. Gwen, yes. We were the singers. One of us might lead a song. Gwen did a lot of leading. She was just awesome. And she still is. Awesome. She’s doing a lot of gospel now. She had a set of lungs on her.
I talked with Maurice a couple of times, also. I got his number and I called, and he answered a couple times. He stayed in California once he moved there. I didn’t know, because I had moved away from Minneapolis, but he said he’s in California. He sounded good. He remembered me. He said, “Wanda Davis!” I said, “Yes, I’m still around, I’m still alive!” I would love to see him in person.
I get the impression he was kind of the rock star of the day.
Oh yes. [laughs] Maurice was the one. As they say, he’s the man. He was just so natural with his talent.
What was it like to be one of the only women around all of these men back in the ’60s?
Isn’t that something? And that’s the way it is today, when I go to Minnesota. All guys. And here I am. But you know, it’s all good. I just stuck to myself. I was just me, and I just stuck to myself. I didn’t get all nutty. That’s the reason why I don’t remember anybody’s name. I got up there and I sang and when we were finished, we were finished. But it was amazing. It was amazing. And I recall, even in high school, I was the only one in on the student council. It was all guys. But I did well. We all got along real good.
But I’ll have you know my husband has been with me each time. [laughs] He was there for each performance in Minnesota, and he will always be there. He calls himself my manager and my bodyguard. Because he’s a real big guy. But yeah, he stands like 6’5″, so nobody will get out line with me.
What was it like to come back to Minneapolis and perform with the other artists from the ’60s and ’70s for the big Secret Stash release party a few years back?
To go back there, after all those years, and then everybody’s been listening to this song—I had no idea. I was just naive. I had no idea at all. They’ve been listening to this song all these years, “Save Me” and “Take Care,” even overseas they were listening to this song. I didn’t know it. And I talked with one of these guys from overseas—and they thought, or they heard, that I was dead. And someone told me they heard that I had gone blind. And then when I got to Minnesota I know they were expecting someone to come out on stage with a walking cane. [laughs] Or some little old lady, you know? Because it had been so long, with the album. But oh, they was just in shock. And it was such a thrill. I had never felt that before. Even when we were performing in Minnesota. You know, the joy coming from people, the happiness, the claps. I could see how these people feel—they almost treated me like I was Michael Jackson. I said, wow. That’s all I could say, was wow.
I had some really young fans, teenagers, who had found me in the back. He came back there and he was crying—you know, it’s something that the young people can get into, the rhythm and blues like that, and the old school. A lot of young kids like old school. But this kid was crying. He said, “Oh, I just love you.” I couldn’t do anything but grab him and hug him. That’s something, to get recognized! But only up there. So that’s my second home. My husband likes it.