From Gospel To R&B To Disco
Thelma Houston Is The Pop Singer That Can Do It All
by Michael Menachem
Grammy-winning singer Thelma Houston has a storied career in gospel, R&B, disco and pop, growing up in Long Beach, CA, with roots singing as a child in church, in choirs, at parties and whenever possible. The “Don’t Leave Me This Way” singer won her Grammy in 1978, after previously being nominated for “You’ve Been Doing Wrong For So Long”, bested by Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” – ending Franklin’s eight-year winning streak in 1975. Thelma’s version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” won against top competition including Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, Dorothy Moore and Diana Ross.
The disco anthem was initially recorded as more of a soul-disco album track by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes featuring a vocal by Teddy Pendergrass and released in 1975 off their Wake Up Everybody album. It was under the Philadelphia International label helmed and produced by Kenneth Gamble & Leon Huff. A year later, with Thelma Houston recording under Motown without a major hit to her name, an A&R exec by the name of Suzanne de Passe realized a female vocal on “Don’t Leave Me This Way” with more of a disco spin would give it the power it needed to make an impact – and that it did. Produced by Hal Davis (who had success with The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” and “Dancing Machine”), the track hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1977 as well as #1 on the Hot R&B Songs and Hot Dance Club Songs charts. The inescapable disco song reached the top of the charts the same year as #1s like ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”, The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” and still remains one of the most popular disco and dance songs today.
“When I was running the A&R dept at Motown, I saw Thelma perform in Las Vegas based on the Sunshower album”, said Suzanne de Passe. “And I signed her to Motown, because I was such a fan and thought she was absolutely one of the greatest live performers. My job was to get her a hit and we tried and tried. Finally I heard Teddy Pendergrass singing “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and I thought it was perfect for Thelma and it was”.
Though Thelma Houston never had a hit quite as massive as “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, she had another minor Motown hit with “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” in 1979 which reached #34 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #19 on the Hot R&B Songs chart. Between these two, “If It’s The Last Thing I Do” was a lesser hit but proved to be another memorable vocal from Thelma, reaching #47 on the Hot 100 and #12 on the Hot R&B Songs chart.
But charts and accolades aside, Thelma Houston has had a rich career in music and entertainment and on the stage. Born in Leland, Mississippi, Thelma grew up in Long Beach, CA and in high school, she got together with fellow gospel singers and their group would later become The Art Reynolds Singers. Thelma married while she was a member of The Art Reynolds Singers and had two children. The Art Reynolds Singers released the gospel album Tellin’ It Like It Is! in 1966 under Capitol Records, the same year of her debut solo single “Baby Mine”, also under Capitol. Thelma was later managed by Marc Gordon who linked her up with ABC-Dunhill Records. Marc Gordon also managed Fifth Dimension who had some success with songwriter Jimmy Webb – the very songwriter and producer who helped Thelma craft her debut album Sunshower. Released in 1969, Sunshower stands as a respected album for Thelma Houston, reaching only #50 on the R&B chart, but showcasing a glorious vocal talent with songs written, produced and arranged by Jimmy Webb. It was a fruitful partnership, following Webb’s superstardom as a songwriter with Fifth Dimension song “Up, Up and Away” which had already won numerous Grammys as well as his American Trilogy for Glen Campbell (“By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”), among others by Brooklyn Bridge, Richard Harris and many others.
“I regretted that that first record wasn’t a smash #1 hit and it probably would have been”, said Jimmy Webb. “We would have probably had a Top 10 record if it hadn’t been for some political bad blood between me and the label – these are the things that you have no control over in the record business – or what we used to call the record business”.
In 1971, between debut album Sunshower and her signing to Motown, Thelma joined The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine as a cast member. The short-lived, iconic UK variety program aired on ATV (and ABC in the U.S.) with Thelma playing different parts in skits. Over the course of the show’s run, Marty Feldman’s show featured guests that ranged from Orson Welles and Roger Moore to Groucho Marx to Dusty Springfield. It was a brief stint but Thelma further honed her performance chops and had a lot of fun doing it. She has a particular fondness for the UK partially due to this experience.
“England was my first country that I went to, and I was treated so well, so well” recalls Thelma. “When I did The Marty Feldman Show, the BBC gave me a little 15-minute special. That was unheard of, but they gave me that. The British have always been very good to me”.
Thelma Houston would go on to record incredible covers over the years such as The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Don’t Make Me Over” by Dionne Warwick and “Me and Bobby McGee” made famous by Janis Joplin as well as others by Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Sting. She worked with world-class producers and songwriters, from Jimmy Webb to Hal Davis to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (1984 release “You Used To Hold Me So Tight”, #13 on the Hot 100 R&B Songs chart) and Houston has shared the stage with numerous stars over the years including Nile Rodgers and Chic, Chaka Khan, Mavis Staples, KC and the Sunshine Band, The Village People, Peaches & Herb and many more.
In recent years Thelma has performed on Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration, American Idol, America’s Got Talent and many more. Thelma Houston’s reimagined version of the Jimmy Webb-penned 1969 song “Someone Is Standing Outside” is available now, and for more on Thelma Houston visit www.thelmahouston.com and visit her social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Watch the video below to hear more about Thelma Houston and her incredible career!