The first song that Grammy Award-nominated singer/songwriter Ashley Tamar Davis performed on a public stage during her high school years was Aretha Franklin’s "Dr. Feelgood."
"Of course, I was too young to know what those lyrics were about," Davis said with a hint of laughter.
"I took a gravitation towards Aretha Franklin from the time that I was very little. I don’t think it hit me that I was playing her until after she passed."
Davis portrays "The Queen of Soul" and a couple of other roles (including Nina Simone) in the North American tour of the Tony Award-nominated Broadway Musical “A Night with Janis Joplin,” which makes a stop at the Stifel Theatre on October 8-9.
"Randy Johnson nailed bringing together a piece of work around one artist by bringing her influences," Davis said about the show’s creator, writer and director. "And I’m honored to be an African-American woman playing these parts."
The show starring Mary Bridget Davies in the title role takes audiences on a musical journey of the Woodstock era while giving a well-rounded musical experience by highlighting not only Joplin’s music, but the icons who helped shape her signature sound. Many of them are black women – including Nina Simone, Odetta, Bessie Smith and Franklin. The show also features Tawny Dolley, Francesca Ferrari, Amma Osei and Jennifer Leigh Warren.
"It’s interesting to hear in the show what Janis went through – and to hear her tell of what the black women artists who are featured in the show went through at the time and how they really set a path," Davis said. "They had an agenda in mind not to hurt the men or hurt other women. They were the embodiment of creation. To hear their stories and to hear the struggle in their songs – and they really struggled and put it in their music. What’s going on in today’s world, including women – especially black women – having lower salaries, they were also dealing with that back then."
Davis had been performing the role of Aretha Franklin since before she passed away last August. But her death gave Smith a new appreciation for the woman she embodies each night on stage.
"She transcended over all genres and she was in front of kings and queens," Davis said of Franklin. "She’s one of those artists that I really would have just passed out in front of."
That’s saying a lot considering that Davis was a protégé of the late musical icon Prince and performed alongside Beyonce as a member of Girl’s Tyme, which eventually evolved into Destiny’s Child.
Davis co-wrote the Grammy-nominated song "Beautiful, Loved and Blessed," with Prince and has special insight on the intensely private music star. She came on his radar when a demo tape she recorded at age 11 made its way to him. She was invited to record at Paisley Park Studios. Even though Prince wasn’t there for her first recordings at Paisley Park, the pair later became creative and performance partners.
"I’m very close to my parents and they were always around. He really loved how I honored my parents," Davis said. "He and I talked about the bible all the time. I would go to the Hall with him. I didn’t have an agenda with him, and I think that’s why he kept giving. He gave without expecting anything in return."
Davis said she honors his legacy by staying independent as an artist and always being honest.
"He moved at his own spiritual wavelength and that’s what I think will always transcend time – when you honor and obey God," Davis said.
It’s a path she intends to continue to follow in honor of Prince’s memory – and her own faith.
"It’s hard, but God keeps making ways and opening doors," Davis said. "My mother told me, ‘Whatever God is going to do with you, He is going to plant your roots so strong that no one can pluck you.’ And this year alone it is all starting to make sense."
"A Night with Janis Joplin" will play for two nights at The Stifel Theatre as part of its Broadway Series on October 8-9 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets or additional information, visit www.stifeltheatre.com or call (314) 499-7600.