New York City music producer Tomás Doncker puts soulful spin on classic Patti Smith anthem

patti smith song cover lead
Photo courtesy of Tomás Doncker

A New York City music producer has put a new twist on a powerful anthem to remind people that they indeed have the power.

Tomás Doncker, founder, CEO and producer of True Groove Records, has always been a fan of Patti Smith. As an artist, Smith was someone that Doncker always looked up to in the music realm.

“She’s special. She is one of the quintessential New York artists,” said Doncker. “She has always been an icon.”

Throughout his life, Doncker heard Smith’s iconic tune “People Have The Power” several times. He recalls going to a U2 concert and the band started out the show playing a recording of the song, which successfully pumped up the crowd for the show, and hearing a choir version of the song on YouTube. Both times Doncker felt that he needed to cover the song.

During the height of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Doncker found himself working on a cover version of “People Have The Power.” The first verse and chorus of the song came naturally, however when he got to the song’s second verse, Doncker found himself stumped.

“It was lockdown, so I have nothing but time on my hands. I thought, let me start working on an arrangement,” said Doncker. “I got the intro and the first verse, but when I got to the second verse, and it so uniquely Patti, it’s almost as if in the studio she stopped writing the song and she just was channeling something. It just comes out of her in her unique voice and language. How does another artist sing that? It’s no longer a proper song, it’s Patti doing Patti. I hit a wall.”

Doncker left the cover alone after that, thinking that he couldn’t do the song justice with a cover. It wasn’t until November 2020 that everything changed. Doncker was headed to Finland for a work trip and swung by his pharmacy, Thompson Chemists, to stock up on the essentials for his travels.

While at the pharmacy, the owners introduced Doncker to Smith’s daughter Jesse, though Doncker did not realize it at first because of the masks.

“I know [the pharmacy] knows Patti because she lives around the corner. I’ve had times where I’ve been there and just missed her,” said Doncker. “[The owner] comes over and is talking to a tall woman. With everyone in masks, you don’t really recognize anyone. He turns to the woman and says, ‘This is Tomás Doncker.’ She said, ‘Oh really!,’ and turns around and said ‘I’m a huge fan and so is my mom! We love all the work you’re doing.’ I thanked her and thought ‘Wow, what a great way to head to the airport after this.’ I’m feeling good about myself. [The owner] comes over and says, ‘Do you know who that is?’ I say no, so he says ‘It’s Jesse.’ Okay, that’s great! ‘No,’ he said, ‘Jesse Smith.’ That’s even better, glad she’s a fan. ‘No,’ he said, it’s Patti’s daughter!'”

To say that Doncker lost it in that moment is an understatement, he said. He started talking to Jesse about how much he loves Smith and her music, and told her about his struggles in writing a cover of “People Have The Power.” 

As Doncker went to pay for his purchases, he felt Jesse tap him on the shoulder. When he turned to face her, he saw something he never thought he would encounter: she had FaceTimed her mother and was holding the phone up to him.

“I completely lost it. I’m talking to Patti smith on FaceTime. I’m just overwhelmed and everyone is laughing,” said Doncker. “I told her I loved her and reiterated everything I had told Jesse. I said, ‘Not for nothing, I tried to work on a funk/soul version of ‘People Have The Power’ but that second verse is so uniquely you, did you write that?’ She said that some of it was written and some of it just sort of happened. I told her how I couldn’t make that part work for me, and she said ‘You know what, change the words.’ I said, ‘Excuse me?’ She said, ‘You have my permission, change the words and make it your own. Keep the chorus. It would be good to have another version.'”

Upon returning from Finland, Doncker found himself on a mission to make a new version of “People Have The Power” that was truly his own. He re-wrote the song and arranged it with music performed by the True Groove All Stars, who are under his label, and gave the song a funky soulful vibe.

When the song was finally finished, he sent it to the pharmacy so they could show it to Smith. The pharmacy owners played the song for Smith and they FaceTimed Doncker so he could see the reaction.

“It was Patti and Jesse, and the song is blasting and everyone was dancing around,” said Doncker. “Patti said, ‘Tomás, this is brilliant, I love your version.’ She takes the phone and says, ‘Fred (her husband) would be proud of this.’ She wrote the song with him. To be honest, that’s the highest compliment anyone can get from Patti. I died and went to heaven.”

Doncker is no stranger to music with themes of social justice. He believes that music can be a healing force for the world and can help push forward messages that you wouldn’t be able to say otherwise, and Smith’s anthem is a key player in it. 

“If we all just love each other a little more, we can change sh-t. It’s that simple, and it’s never been done,” said Doncker. “It’s never been fully tried, we’ve had different pockets spring up. What if all of the like-minded forward-thinking good folks really got on board in their daily walk, daily talk, support each other more and help each other more? There’s a lot of us. Divide and conquer, that’s the oldest trick in the book that is used to keep us down. It’s 2021, we supposed to be aware of that. As long as there’s we, there’s a way.”

Click here to listen to “Power To The People” on Spotify, or check out the music video below.

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