Interview and photos by Alan Mercer amprofile.blogspot.com/
Thelma Houston scored a number one hit in 1977 with her cover version of the song "Don't Leave Me This Way", which won the 1978 Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
Houston was born the daughter of a cotton picking mother. She and her three sisters grew up primarily in Long Beach, California. After marrying and having two children, she joined the Art Reynolds Singers gospel group and was subsequently signed as a recording artist with Dunhill Records. In 1969, she released her debut album, entitled Sunshower, produced by Jimmy Webb. In 1971, she signed with Motown Records but didn't get a hit until she released her third album Any Way You Like It in 1976. The first single released was her version of Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes' 1975 song "Don't Leave Me This Way". In February 1977 it hit number one in the U.S. on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts.
On August 14, 2007, Thelma Houston released her first studio album in seventeen years, A Woman's Touch. The album features cover versions of songs by male artists such as Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, and Sting that Houston had been inspired by. The first single from the album was "Brand New Day." On August 20, 2007, Houston's 1984 album Qualifying Heat was reissued as an import title in the U.S. with a bonus track.
I have always loved Thelma Houston's music. The excitement and energy she brings to anything she does is undeniable. Her voice is as strong and clear today as it was thirty years ago. She has spent a good part of her career "working well" with others. Her collaborations with other artists like Jerry Butler, Scott Henderson, Jermaine Jackson and others are well known in the industry.
I met Thelma through my friend Rudy Calvo who is not only an experienced make-up artist, but an expert in Soul Music. Rudy will be featured on this blog in the very near future. He has known Thelma for years and put us together for our first photo shoot eight years ago. These photos are from our third photo session. Rudy, Thelma and I got together to discuss her career so far!
AM: Hello Thelma, before we talk about anything else I want to tell you that I just discovered the four tracks you did with Scott Henderson! I love them.
TH: Oh yeah, he's the blues guy. That was done in 1997. I have to think about things in terms of where I was living. I was doing a project with Carole King's band. One of the guys in the band gave Scott my phone number. When I heard his music I really liked the way he played. He sent me these funny lyrics about the meter maid and a song called 'I Hate You' and it was so different than anything I had ever done. I ended up working on two projects with him. That's what I love doing, and at the same time, it's a big headache to a record company. I always thought that's what it should be. I like doing all kinds of things.
RC: You are producing art, and a lot of the art is missing from today's music. Last night I watched VH1 Divas and I wondered what happened? I did think Leona Lewis can sing but all her recordings sound like Britney Spears.
AM: That reminds me that Thelma is always on television. You get more TV time than any of your peers now. What do you think that's all about?
TH: Well I think it's a good thing! (lol) These things just kind of happen. I think it's the popularity of the song. 'Don't Leave Me This Way' was and still is a favorite. When they want to get the audience up and moving they like the song and I come along with the song!
RC: I think it's more than that. It is a great song but you are a great talent. Lots of people have done dance songs and can't hold a candle to you. You are what a real singer is all about. That's at least part of the reason you are still doing what you do, because you are so great. I see people that have great songs all the time but they can't back it up.
AM: I have to agree with that.
RC: It's also the energy you give out.
TH: Well thank you. It is a natural reaction because I am so happy to be doing it. I really genuinely love doing this. I'm happy for every opportunity to do it.
RC: You have always been consistent with your career. You have always worked. You are always a part of a project like 'Sisters of Glory' and 'Pressure Cooking.' Last night I heard your version of 'Comfortably Numb' and it knocked me out. I believe that is one of the best songs you have ever recorded. It is so strong and powerful. I like a lot of your work but I think that is a masterpiece.
TH: Thank you Rudy. It's a project I did with all these songs from Britain. It was done with the symphony orchestra. I did some tours with them as well.
AM; Do you think it makes a difference to record LIVE in the studio?
TH: I love it LIVE.
AM: Do you think it makes a better end result?
TH: For me it does because I do so much better. I love the element of performing so when I record LIVE I am more natural. When I first started recording with the Art Reynolds Singers that's the way we used to so it. We would cut the songs LIVE with the band. That is also the way Jimmy Webb asked me to record 'Sunshower.' He loved to be there and have me record LIVE. That's the only way that I knew, but when I got to Motown they would already have these tracks recorded in your key but you wouldn't be there to have an input into the creation of the song. I quickly learned who was booking the tracking dates and I would become their good friend so they would let me know when the recordings were being done and I could show up and have a say in them. I LOVE to be able to record LIVE!
RC: So when you were with Motown was it more of an assembly line?
TH: At Motown if someone was a writer or producer and they had an idea, they would run it past the creative people and decide if it was a good track and then they would decide what artist would record it. Or they might say I think this is a good cut for Thelma or Diana. If they thought it was strong enough they could get it cut right away.
RC: Who were your favorite songwriters at Motown?
TH: I liked Pam Sawyer and Gloria Jones when they wrote together.
RC: Everything they did was very dramatic.
TH: There are a lot of good writers there. I love Nick and Valerie Simpson's writing and I LOVE Michael Jackson's writing. I like all the Motown songs. My favorite all-time writer is Jimmy Webb. Of all the material that I have ever recorded, his songs were the most challenging and the lyrics were the best. It's beautiful and you can picture it.
RC: It has also become a classic album for people who are connoisseurs of music.
AM: When I heard that album for the first time I was floored by the beauty. Rudy do you think Thelma's music with Motown stands out from the rest of her work?
RC: It depends on the track. I prefer her singing a great love song instead of something kitschy. I know you had to record those songs Thelma.
TH: We all had to do them and if you refused they would say, 'We're just trying to get you a hit song.' It makes you feel like the worst person. When you are not a songwriter and you don't write for yourself you are at their mercy. We still had the opportunity to say no, but if you say no all the time then you become known as difficult and if you are difficult nobody wants to work with you.
RC: When you were under contract did you have to record what they told you or did you get a choice?
TH: It all depended on the producer. I worked a lot with Hal Davis and he had so many cuts. I was so excited to be there that I sang all of them. But Joe Porter said if there was a song that I wanted to sing we could use it. From that point of view I liked working with him, but Hal Davis is who gave me the hits. It just depended on who I was working with.
I learned to work with a whole bunch of different producers. It was good to be with Motown because I came away with a Grammy and an international hit!
AM: Were you elated to sign with Motown or was it just another project?
TH: Back in the early sixties when I was pregnant and having morning sickness I heard Smokey Robinson sing on the radio and hearing about Motown. I thought to myself that I would never, ever be a singer. It will never happen for me. So some years later to turn around and be on the label I was elated to be on the label. I didn't think I would ever be discovered in Long Beach.
RC: I consider Thelma to be one of the prominent members of the Female West Coast Singers. People like Darlene Love, Brenda Holloway, and Edna Wright, Merry Clayton, Clydie King, Gloria Jones. These are women of substance.
AM: Substance being the key word. That's what sets them apart.
TH: Those are all the girls I knew of.
RC: How do you feel about performing your 'Capitol' work after all these years coming up in England?
TH: I think it's going to be fun. I am looking forward to it. It's like new material because I haven't done it in so long. I have to learn it.
RC: You got that contract because Art Reynolds was on Capitol right?
TH: Yes and they asked me if I wanted to do my own thing.
RC: When are you going to England?
TH: I go in November.
RC: She is also performing for the first time at the world famous Jazz Cafe in London.
TH: This will be my first time to really be there in many years.
AM: Can you share any valuable lessons you may have learned about the business over the years?
TH: Yes I have a story. The first big show I ever did was headlined by Moms Mabley. I went to the rehearsal for the show and the band leader asked me for my charts. I said, 'My charts?' He said, 'Yes where is your music?' I said, 'I don't have any music.' Then I got the idea to give him some of my 45 records and I told him I can sing these songs. He sent the horn players on a break and kept the rhythm section there so we could make the charts for my songs so I could stay in the show. I remember they put me in the same dressing room as Moms Mabley. She had many bottles of Spring water and she was sitting there relaxing. The first show was over-sold. They had people waiting in line for a second show. The promoters came back to Moms room and said, 'Moms, it looks like we are going to have to do a second show. Is that cool?' She said, 'It's cool if you have my money.' They told her to not worry and that everything would be fine. We will collect the money and give it to you after the show. She said, 'I want my money before.' They said, "Come on Moms.' She took those teeth out of her mouth and started chanting, 'We gonna have a riot. We gonna have a riot.' They came back and counted her out her money. I said, 'I want mine too.' They paid me and I'm not sure if the rest of the performers got theirs. They were sitting around afterwards waiting for their money and we were packed up and ready to go. I learned that lesson from Moms Mabley. I was really glad to be in that room that day.
To learn more about Thelma Houston visit her MySpace page