A strong-voiced soul singer who has been as comfortable on the silver screen as in the recording studio, Thelma Houston will forever be best known for her dynamite 1976 recording of "Don't Leave Me This Way," one of the earliest disco hits.
The daughter of a cotton picker mother, Houston was born in Leland, Mississippi in the mid 1940s, but her family later moved to Long Beach, California. She became a member of the Art Reynolds Singers gospel group, where she met Fifth Dimension manager Marc Gordon, who helped sign her as a recording artist with Dunhill Records.
In 1969, Houston released her first album titled Sunshower (produced by legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb), but soon after joined the fold at hot Motown Records. It was several years before she had a sizeable hit, and she ended up splitting her time between recording, working commercially as a demo singer and acting (she was on the cast of TV's The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine).
In 1976, Thelma sang on the soundtrack to the movie The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings and also provided backing vocals on the solo debut album of Jermaine Jackson. But it was the work on her Motown album Any Way You Like It that would make it the transitional year in her career. One of the songs she recorded on the album was a dance remake of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' "Don't Leave Me This Way," and it was a gem. One of the early legitimate disco smashes, it hit #1 on all the major charts and won for Thelma a Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
"Don't Leave Me This Way" opened doors for Houston for several years. She immediately followed with a duets album with Jerry Butler (Thelma & Jerry) and the next year landed the crossover hit "Saturday Night, Sunday Morning," while also continuing to act in movies and on television. None of her subsequent recordings matched the success of "Don't Leave Me This Way," but she nonetheless carved a successful singing and acting career through the 90s, with a number of television and movie appearances and over a dozen albums on Motown, RCA and MCA. Her last major hit was a remake of Bill Withers' "Lean on Me" from the theatrical movie of the same name.
In 1999 Houston moved to Australia for a year to perform in Fame: The Musical. Her dynamic performance ultimately turned a modest role into the top billed performance in the show. She returned to Southern California ion 2000 and soon began singing in the eclectic musical show Teatro ZinZanni, serving regular stints in both the San Francisco and Seattle casts each year. She also continued performing individually and in multi-artist shows
In 2005, Houston decided that she wanted to record an album for purposes of having newly recorded material for her fans at her live performances. Always known in her concerts for the interesting medleys she performed of songs by artists ranging from Marvin Gaye to Sylvester, Houston began recording a project that would ultimately take nearly two years to complete. More than a decade and a half after her last hit, the result was A Woman's Touch, released in August, 2007 on Shout! Factory Records. It was a concept album of her interpretations of songs popularized by legendary male vocalists. The disc received positive reviews and showed Houston, now in her 60s, to be in great voice.
After another stint in the Fall of 2007 with Teatro, Thelma toured in support of A Woman's Touch. And as we enter the second decade of the new millennium, Thelma Houston continues to find an audience for her powerful voice and musical style.
by Chris Rizik