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. But there was much, much more to this talented artist.
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, first with Capital Records for a few singles, and then with Dunhill Records.
In 1969, Houston released her first album, a critically acclaimed dramatic project produced by legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb and called Sunflower, but, as would be the case several times in her career, it failed to receive the kind of promotion it needed to reach an audience. Soon after, Motown executive Suzanne DePasse heard Houston sing in a Las Vegas club and invited her joined the fold at hot Motown Records. She toiled for several years at Motown 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 became her signature song. 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, and the accompanying album landed three top 20 hits. 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," and she left Motown, feeling that she wasn't receiving the support or creative freedom she needed. She signed briefly with RCA and then MCA, where she landed a top 10 smash with Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis-produced "You Used To Hold Me So Tight," but MCA shockingly dropped her after one album.
Despite the setbacks, Houston continued carving a successful singing and acting career through the 90s, with a number of television and movie appearances and a stint as part of the Gospel supergroup Sisters of Glory. 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.
Thelma Houston has continued to record new singles every few years as well as wowing audiences with her performances around the world, often in multi-act disco shows. And she show no sign of slowing down even as she enters the latter half of her 70s.
by Chris Rizik
Photo courtesy of By Tamla Records (Motown) - eBay itemphoto frontphoto back, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16662592