When the dance music era of the 70’s was at it’s height, Thelma Houston’s passionate, gospel-rooted voice stood out memorably above the rest. “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, her Grammy-winning gold single, was an outstanding example of the soulfulness she brought to the dance genre. Today, Houston’s fervent singing style hasn’t wavered, and the 90’s has seen her career move into acting, writing and arranging as well.
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Since recording her last album, Throw You Down for Reprise Records – which featured and top 5 dance cut in the title track – Houston’s career has taken some interesting twist and turns, and she’s meet each challenge with the same combination of spirit and talent that has informed her consistently excellent singing over the years.
Music is still Houston’s primary source of inspiration, and her number one project at the moment is working up material for a new album. At a recent luncheon honoring Natalie Cole, long-time producer Brooks Arthur asked Houston to perform some songs writer Michael Masser had written for Cole. Freshly impressed by Houston’s still remarkable vocal gifts, Arthur began working with her on ideas and demos for a future LP. Thus far, writing luminaries such as Carole King, Leiber & Stroller, Dennis Lambert and David Foster have contributed songs to the project. “Where getting really great songs”, Houston enthuses as she gets into specifics of the material. “It’s called A Women Story; it’s not feminist at all, it just comes at relationships from a woman’s point-of-view. But everyone will be able to relate to it.”
In the meantime, Houston continues to perform to loving audiences in places as conventional as Las Vegas, to more exotic locales such as Malaysia, Chile, Singapore, Australia, United Kingdom, Spain and Japan. As much as the foreign audiences relish the immense talent Houston brings to the stage, she is quick to offer high praise of her own. “Because of video and technology, the crowds are very well informed and they’re wonderful. They’re very happy to have you there. They’re not a wishy-washy audience – they bring out the old albums to have you sign them.” A sparkling Houston performance tends to elicit such reaction, as evidenced by the facts that she continues to play dates consistently despite troubled touring seasons the last few years. “The concert business hasn’t been that great for even the biggest acts lately”, Houston observes. “A lot of acts have had to come in off the road. The fact that I’m able to keep working makes me feel very good.” It makes her audiences feel good too.
Houston has also begun to explore other areas of the entertainment field. As a songwriter, she co-wrote “Be Yourself”, which became the title track to Patti LaBelle’s last record and she’s writing some material for her own project. She also arranged four standard gospel songs for the new CBS TV series “Middle Ages”. Houston has also branched out into an acting career. After studying acting for three years, she began to win guest parts in television series’ such as Cagney & Lacey, Simon & Simon and Faerie Tale Theater. Most recently, she played a teacher in an ABC TV special featuring the hot recording group, The Boys.
Houston knew early on she was meant to perform: “I’ve been singing since age three. My baby-sitter, who was also the piano player at our church would play hymns and I’d sing them. After that I started singing in church and on the radio, anywhere I could.”
Moving with her family from her native Mississippi to Long Beach, California when she was ten, Houston received further encouragement to develop her gifts. “My teacher were very supportive of my singing. Whenever there was a program for the PTA or the Rotary Club, I was involved. When I was in the 11th grade I represented the Long Beach area on a local television shows called Spotlight On Youth. They liked me well enough to ask me to come back and be the hostess.”
From there, she joined a group formed out of her church choir, The Art Reynolds Singers. Performing in a gospel-rock style before it became fashionable, the group released an album on Capitol, Tell It Like It Is, in 1966. This in turn led to Houston recording a solo single from Capitol. Her debut album, Sunshower, produced by hitmaker Jimmy Webb followed.
Houston signed with Motown in the 70’s. Her breakthrough came when she covered a tune first recorded by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes – the song, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” became a bonafide international smash. The record went gold in the U.S., earning Houston a 1977 Grammy Award for the best R&B vocal performance. It also helped to launch her as a popular live performer over-seas.
While “Don’t Leave Me This Way” because a dance club classic, Houston’s powerfully emotional singing defied easy label in the disco fad. She continued to record for RCA and MCA in the 80s. Her 1984 album Qualifying Heat was especially notable, produced in part by ‘80s R&B architects Jimmy Jam and Terri Lewis.
Recent years have seen Houston embark on projects even more wide-ringing. She worked “behind the scenes” as an elected governor of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). Along with Stix Hooper, Houston helped by a New Membership Committee aimed at finding avenues to interest new musicians from Orange County to San Diego in NARAS. She’s also currently working on a one woman show which will explore the lives of four different characters ranging from an older torch singer to a young hip-hop enthusiast. Houston suggests the show is not strictly autobiographical, but judging by the diversity of the characters, it could serve as an apt symbol of her ability to transcend styles and generations with a timeless talent.
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