Thelma Houston

Getting the last word

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

On paper, Thelma Houston is a one-hit wonder from the disco era.

But with Houston, as with so many things, what’s on paper isn’t even the first word, much less the last one.

To begin with, Houston (no relation to Whitney because it probably needs to be said) didn’t just have a hit song. She had a Grammy-winning, number-one hit, “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” that was also a disco anthem. And for Houston, it was the foundation for an entire career.

Before she was a disco diva, Houston was a Motown artist during what was a very good time to be a Motown artist. Her label mates at the time included Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations—the whole legendary roster of talent. The Detroit label cranked out hit singles with the assembly-line precision of nearby auto factories, and Houston with her dynamic voice and television-ready looks seemed to fit the Motown mold perfectly.

The Motown archetype of the female artist was that of a woman who put her career before all else, eschewing traditional things like getting married and having children. The backstory often includes troubled or absent parents as well. But in Houston’s case, the marriage and kids came first, before she decided to become a singer, years before Motown came knocking. And when being an aspiring singer meant long stints on the road, it was Houston’s mother who helped raise her children and gave her much-needed encouragement when she wanted to quit.

If Houston didn’t have much in common with some of her Motown counterparts, she also didn’t have much of their success. She possessed all the required variables of the famous formula, but she either didn’t have them all at the same time, or they just never quite came together as they needed to.

She need not have worried. Disco was about to come to her rescue, in all its tacky, excessive, beautifully obnoxious glory.

Say what you will about the much-maligned disco era, but I will go on record as saying some of that music does not deserve your scorn (Donna Summer, I’ve got your back forever). And Houston’s ode to naked—in every sense of the word—desire pretty well sums up what disco’s hedonistic heyday was all about.

Houston was obviously singing to a lover with “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” but she might’ve well have directed her song at disco itself. Almost as soon as she got a taste of mainstream crossover musical success, disco burned out before it had a chance to fade away—and when the smoke cleared, nothing was left.

But Houston forged ahead, continuing to record albums, branching out into acting, trying to engineer her next act. As she did so, she noticed people around her growing sick and dying, particularly within the gay community that had so loved her and embraced her music and that of her disco contemporaries.

So her next act was not merely musical, but was hallmarked by great activism born from great kindness. As a response to the growing AIDS epidemic, Houston used her platform to bring awareness, raise money and amplify voices that desperately needed to be heard. She began this work long before the infrastructure of AIDS charities existed, well before the start of a shamefully delayed government response. And she did the work despite the stigma attached to AIDS victims and those who spoke on their behalf. Even now, when so much has changed regarding the way we view and treat HIV and AIDS, Houston remains an ardent activist, and is beloved by the LGBTQ+ community for her support—and her singing voice.

In defining her post-disco existence, Houston also realized she need not rely on studio albums nor hit singles to make or break her career. Instead, she could sing in front of audiences, taking her talent directly to the people themselves, bypassing the record execs and the radio DJs. So she did, and has done for many years.

What those concerts have looked like has changed over the years according to time and opportunity. She’s toured solo and with various bands. During the 1990s, she did a stint as a “Sister of Glory.” Other such sisters included Chaka Khan, Mavis Staples, CeCe Peniston, and more. These days, Houston is bringing her past into her present with a show called “My Motown Memories.” She’ll sing hit songs from the iconic label, with a focus on those that have deeper significance for her personally.

Of course, given those legendary label mates I mentioned previously, she’ll also be telling stories, and I’m pretty sure hers are better than my mom’s tales in which her younger brother sold off her Motown records for weed money. That’s the story on paper, anyway. In real life, my uncle climbed to the roof of their house with those albums and flung those suckers like Frisbees as hard as he could.

Like I said, what’s on paper is rarely ever the last word.

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