Count on Thelma Houston to keep things fresh. The veteran singer’s 1977 chart topping cover of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way” continues its reign as a disco era staple, featuring Houston’s ripe, pleading vocals spread delicately over a breezy intro that pivots into a steady snare cadence and ridgy bass riff.
Released by Motown Records, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” earned Houston both a gold record and a GRAMMY Award, becoming the iconic label’s first solo female act to earn the coveted statue. The veteran R&B vocalist with strong gospel roots, as Houston puts it, appreciates the song’s longevity.
It warms the Dance Music Hall of Famer’s heart anytime her fans share personal stories about the infectious four-decades-plus-old classic. “It’s great when a record is a hit and you’re on the radio,” a down home, extremely cordial Houston says. “What I really like are the stories when people tell me how the song has affected them. It makes you happy when it still has meaning in somebody’s life.”
The disco diva behind subsequent songs such as “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning,” “You’ve Been Doing Wrong For So Long,” “The Bingo Long Song (Steal on Home),” “If It’s the Last Thing I Do,” “Save the Country,” “I Can’t Go On Living Without Your Love,” and “I’m Here Again” has channeled that very same glowing spirit and essence she brought to “Don’t Leave Me This Way” onto her latest dance floor-ready single “ISLY [I Still Love You].”
Houston’s warm, clear-cut delivery glides across the percussive, handclap-fueled rhythm track. Co-written by her son and tour manager, Rodney Houston, “ISLY” also features Rodney as the song’s guest rapper. The feel good, uptempo single is slated to appear on Houston’s upcoming 5-song EP themed around love. It wasn’t her intent necessarily to record and release another dance record. Houston says it was important for her to not try to compete with massively successful streaming acts.
“I never wanted to be some old lady trying to be young,” a good-humored Houston confides. “I always wanted to be myself. I wanted it to be me and contemporary, but at the same time, the music nowadays is a little hard for me. I found the right combination of beats and lyrics that would be representative of who I am at this time in my life.”
Houston’s strength as an artist is her ability to adapt to her environment. Born Thelma Jackson in Leland, Mississippi, before becoming a Long Beach, California transplant, Houston came onto the music scene in 1966 as a member of the gospel act Art Reynolds Singers. She recorded live alongside session musicians that also appeared on various rock and pop records.
When Houston, now 73, released her debut solo album Sunshower in 1969, all of her material was written and produced by Jimmy Webb. Continuing to perform in the studio with session players, the easygoing singer had creative license to pick the songs she wanted to sing. “They liked me being there,” Houston said. “The musicians and Jimmy liked that feeling of working that way.”
Houston’s creative process changed when she signed to Motown’s MoWest subsidiary in 1972 after Berry Gordy relocated the label from Detroit to Los Angeles.
She pauses and chuckles before she reflects on Motown’s assembly line-esque procedure. “I was waiting for the rhythm section,” Houston remembers. “[Motown] didn’t record that way at all. They would record these tracks [in your key]. You may or may not have been there when they were cutting it. It was another adjustment to make.”
Houston adjusted to Motown by making it a priority to connect with the personnel responsible for booking the studio sessions. She compares being on Motown’s artist roster to “going to school.”
“I would go up there and ask who was producing me this week [cracks up],” Houston recalls. “They’d tell me where and when, and I would show up. It’s a great experience because you learn how to work with everybody. Each producer had a different way of working. A song for you today might be a song for Diana Ross or somebody else tomorrow if you don’t get it. You had to be on your P’s and Q’s.”
Houston was presented with the idea to cover “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by famed Motown executive Suzanne de Passe. Motown’s A&R and promotions departments were convinced the song was a smash. Gordy, however, wasn’t sold at all.
Houston remembers playing “Don’t Leave Me This Way” for Gordy for the first time at his estate, referring to the moment as “a big disappointment.” “Berry didn’t feel that it was a song that best suited me,” Houston said. “He didn’t quite grasp it right away. That was disco, and it wasn’t what Motown was doing.”
This year marks Motown Records’ 60th anniversary and Houston is proud to have one of the label’s more well-known songs. It tickles Houston knowing she, along with artists like Rick James and Switch, helped to usher Motown into a new era. Even “Don’t Leave Me This Way”’s composers, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, expressed their gratitude for Houston taking their song to the top of the pop, R&B and dance charts. “I got big bouquets of flowers,” Houston said. “I’ve always been good with them.”
When Houston ran into Gordy earlier this year at the unveiling of Marvin Gaye’s postage stamp, Gordy started humming “Don’t Leave Me This Way’s” melody when he greeted her. She really enjoys how audiences at her shows will hum the song’s harmonic bridge leading up to its explosive chorus. “That established me in a whole ‘nother kind of way [chuckles],” she declares.
These days, Houston, with 23 studio albums total, is cool with not being signed to a major label. Her momentum hasn’t slowed down. She headlined an inauguration party for former President Barack Obama in 2009, and later performed at The Vatican for The Pope. She joined powerhouse vocalists CeCe Peniston, Chaka Khan, Phoebe Snow, Mavis Staples, Lois Walden and Albertina Walker to form the supergroup Sisters of Glory. Playing close to 200 dates annually to captivated audiences, Houston found time to appear on American Idol and America’s Got Talent.
Houston enjoys performing, she says, because she can be personable and perform songs other than disco. Voice and performance, to her, remain high priorities. For the last 30 years, the multi-talented Apollo Legend has learned to harness the power of her voice as an instrument by working with a vocal coach. “It was the technical part of it, how to keep that voice fresh and how to sing on top of the notes instead of underneath it,” Houston shares.
The singer also credits maintaining a solid exercise regimen for keeping her voice fresh. “I don’t go in the gym and stay 55,000 hours and all that,” Houston continues. “I’m on a routine at least three times a week. Everything is in moderation.”
Houston is determined to preserve her legacy. She’s working on her memoir while enjoying spending time with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She reminds herself constantly that she’s “that little girl that grew up during Jim Crow staring down acres of cotton fields in the Mississippi Delta wondering what her destiny would become.” Always willing to put in the work, an extremely grateful Houston believes getting “ISLY” out to the world beyond streaming platforms and social media engagement requires the same adaptability that’s kept her music career stable for five decades.
“I just go for it because you never know what tomorrow is gonna bring,” Houston proclaims. “I’m always grateful for my gift and what I’m doing. I don’t even realize it’s been as long as it has been until somebody says it. I remember going to radio stations and hoping they would play my songs. This is all new to me. If people like it, they’ll find it. If they don’t, you can move on to the next thing. New experiences help to keep things fresh. That’s what I’m doing, and I’m enjoying it.”
Thelma Houston’s Five Favorite Albums of All Time
Earth, Wind & Fire’s That’s the Way of the World (1975)
Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)
Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971)
Thelma Houston’s Sunshower (1969)
Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind (1972)