Gary James' Interview With
She signed with Motown Records in 1971 and in 1977 won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Female Vocal Performance for "Don't Leave Me This Way". Other hits followed, including "If It's The Last Thing I Do", "Lean On Me", "I'm Here Again", "Saturday Night, Sunday Morning", If You Feel It" and a Jimmy Jam / Terry Lewis production of the Top 20 R&B dance track "You Used To Hold Me So Tight". She's released more than 21 albums and was inducted into The Dance Music Hall Of Fame. The City of West Hollywood, California named January 29th, 2003 as Thelma Houston Day.
These days you'll find her cast in the role of Madam Zin Zanni in the popular play Teatro Zin Zanni. If you said, that sounds like Thelma Houston, you'd be right!
Q - Thelma, according to Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia Of Rock, you were working Southern California clubs. Now, was that as a solo act or part of a band?
A - I've always been solo act. I was with a Gospel group called The Art Reynolds Singers. You may not have heard of them, but I'm sure you've heard of "Jesus Is Just Alright", which is done by The Doobie Brothers. That was our song. Maybe you've heard of "Glory, Glory Hallelujah", which is done by The Byrds. That was our song from our very first album. And, I was on that album with them, on Capitol Records. That's how I got started. We didn't have a lot of success as a Gospel group, but we were on Capitol Records and pretty much started the trend of having your top studio musicians play on your album. We had some success, but not commercial success. And then I was signed to Capitol Records as a solo artist. I had like a couple of releases. Then I was signed to Dunhill Records and the name of my album was "Sunshine" and it was produced by Jimmy Webb. There was no commercial success from that, but it had success in terms of my introduction as a solo artist to my peers, people in the industry. Everybody in the industry knew about that album. All of the songs were written for me by Jimmy Webb. After that, I went to Motown Records and it was after being on Motown for five or six years that I had the success of "Don't Leave Me This Way".
Q - Were you, for lack of a better word, "discovered" by Marc Gordon, the manager of The Fifth Dimension? He got you the record deal with ABC / Dunhill.
A - That is true. Marc Gordon is the one that introduced me to Jimmy Webb. The Fifth Dimension had had a big hit with "Up, Up And Away", which of course Jimmy Webb wrote and was the producer of. So, there was a connection with Jimmy Webb anyway. Marc Gordon introduced me to Jimmy Webb and from that introduction produced the album and wrote all the songs except for one, which was "Jumpin' Jack Flash".
Q - Did you always feel you were in the music business to stay? Did you feel that "Don't Leave Me This Way" was going to be a hit?
A - Well you know, when I got into the music industry and made that decision, that's all I've done. I always felt that I could have a career in the music industry based on the response that I get and was getting at the time from a 'live' performance in front of the audiences. Of course, being in the industry, it's everyone's dream I would imagine to want to do a recording. However, I always felt that I would have a career in the music industry on some level, whether or not I had a hit record.
Q - How did you get to record "Don't Leave Me This Way"? Did someone bring it to you?
A - Yes. Suzanne De Passe, who was the head of the A&R Department at Motown when I was signed there in 1972. After trying to have a hit record and not having one, although they would release several albums, but never having any success until "Don't Leave Me This Way". She heard "Don't Leave Me This Way" on a Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes album. From that, she suggested I listen to it and thought it would be a hit for me, done in a Disco style, which is what we did and the rest is history. I don't like to say that cliché, but that is how it happened.
Q - How far up the charts did Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes version of that song go?
A - I have on idea. That song in America was not released as a single because they said they were gonna pursue that, because since then I found out they had no plans to release it as a single. Before I recorded it, they had no plans to release it as a single. I do believe they released theirs as a single after, however I could be wrong. So, don't quote me on that. I don't always get the facts and dates right.
Q - Well, it's nice that you had the hit with it.
A - Yeah, it is.
Q - How much pressure was put on you to duplicate the success of "Don't Leave Me This Way"?
A - I think that's always the way, especially back in that time. As a matter of fact, I won't even say back then, that seems to be the trend even to this day. If somebody has a hit record with a particular sample on it, you can be assured that everybody else is gonna do that for the next six months or so. Of course we wanted to copy, to try to duplicate it, but I wouldn't say a lot of pressure was put on me. But, I did release a song called "I'm Here Again", which in the critic department of Motown, they felt it was close to it. I wasn't that excited because I don't like to do the same thing all the time. If you look at my recording record, I try not to do the same thing all the time 'cause I find that boring. Even in my 'live' shows I do, I try to mix it up. I will put all kinds of music in it 'cause I feel as long as I'm excited about what I'm doing, then the audience is gonna be at least if not excited, then interested. If I'm on a show with Village People or Kool And The Gang, then for you to go out and do ballads when everybody else is doing Dance, is kind of silly. As far as the recording and 'live' performance when I'm actually doing concerts, I try to mix it up.
Q - You probably travel all over the world.
A - Yes I do.
Q - Where are you performing overseas?
A - Well, it depends on the gig. Sometimes when it's TV, they want you to do a particular song or particular songs. But when I'm doing my concert dates or shows in clubs, then I pretty much do what I like.
Q - You're put in this Disco category. Do you like that?
A - Well, I mean, better that than not being called anything. (laughs)
Q - Some people don't like to be categorized.
A - It can be limiting, but that's the public. It's what they see. It's what they hear. What they know is popular and that's what they remember. Then I find when people come and see me in concert, they get to see another side. It just kind of expands the horizon somewhat. I had an album released years ago called "I've Got The Music In Me" and it was a direct to disc album that was done in '72. That introduced me to a whole other type of audience, an audience that are really interested in audiophile music. They buy all this really sensitive hi-fi equipment. That particular album is one they would use to demonstrate to people the quality of a particular kind of electronic equipment. So, that introduced me to a whole other different kind of audience. It just depends on what's going on and what's appealing to people at the moment and how they're introduced to you. But for me, the best thing is nobody has said "Boo, we don't want to hear it."
Q - Do you remember the backlash there was against Disco in 1976? People were stomping on the Disco records.
A - I may have heard about it. I don't remember how that affected me or my shows or what I was doing. I don't really worry about that. I just continue on and do my thing. I don't base my success on how many albums I've sold. I base it on when I get a gig, I do the best I can. People see me and they'll come back to see me again. I've had a career doing this for almost forty years. And to me, that is success. I'm ever grateful.
Q - You opened for Cher in Toronto on Halloween night in 2003. What was that like?
A - It was exciting, but I had worked that same arena with the Village People, The Pointer Sisters, Anita Ward, K.C. and The Sunshine Band. We had already done that particular stadium before with as many people as there were there to see Cher. So, it was exciting. I had performed at that place a short period before Cher performed there. We had done a tour maybe a few months prior to that.
Q - Was there someone in your life early on who encouraged you to sing and try your luck in show business?
A - I grew up in a neighborhood first of all. I started singing when I was three years old and I was living in Mississippi. My babysitter, who was also the piano player at the Baptist Church my family attended, discovered that I could sing. She was practicing her songs that she was going to play in church for Sunday school and she noticed that I could sing along. I would sing in key, according to the story they told me. I knew when to start and when to stop. From that point I was encouraged to sing. I was in all those little church programs, not so much in the school back in Mississippi, but in my little community. Then, when I moved to Long Beach, California at the age of ten, I was singing in school and they encouraged me there. But, when I got to junior high school, there was a Principle by the name of Buck Catlin and he was probably the first person that encouraged me, well, maybe my Aunt did as well, that I could make a living at it. But he really encouraged me. He said "You know what? You can do this for a living." He really put that in my head. Of course your Aunt is gonna tell you that, because it's your Aunt. But coming from somebody who was outside of the family and my teachers at the junior high school. That was a very special time I think for young people, that adolescent time when you can really go one way or the other. They put it in my head that I could have a career and I believed them and I pursued it from that point. I know people believe I'm related to Whitney Houston, but I'm not related to Whitney Houston. No one in my family was even interested in the music industry. Of course, once I started doing it, I got encouraged from my family and to this day they're still my number one fans. Initially the encouragement came from Mr. Catlin at Franklin Junior High School.
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