Thelma Houston

Getting the last word



Who: Thelma Houston
When: 8pm Fri. and Sat., Sept. 14-15
Where: The Skagit Casino Resort, 5984 N. Darrk Lane
Cost: $40-$45

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.

More Music...
Pedro the Lion
You can go home again

David Bazan has always been a conflicted man.

The Seattle songwriter has made a name for himself by laying his soul bare, detailing his struggles with religion, capitalism, love, booze, existential doubt and his place in the world—among other things. He’s performed this intense public…

more »
Frankie Cosmos
Out of the bedroom

For almost as long as she can remember, music has been part of Greta Kline’s life. She began taking piano lessons at 6 years old, transitioned briefly to the drums before finally settling on the guitar when she was in middle school. She was homeschooled during high school, which gave her…

more »
Jack Tempchin
He’s got a peaceful easy feeling

In August, the Recording Industry Association of America announced that an Eagles album, Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975, had surpassed Michael Jackson’s Thriller as the all-time bestselling album in the United States and I was shook. Not because the Eagles record had gone platinum some 38…

more »
Home for the Holidays

5:00pm|Ferndale Events Center

You Can't Take It With You

7:00pm|BHS Performing Arts Center

9 to 5, the Musical

7:30pm|Squalicum High School

Seven Supermans

7:30pm|Heiner Theatre

Waiting for Godot

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Bellingham Public Market

Romeo and Juliet

7:00pm|Sehome High School Little Theatre

A Chorus Line

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Secret Agents, LOL-apalooza

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

A Chorus Line

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Ferndale Senior Center

Gardenview Montessori Holiday Bazaar

9:00am|Gardenview Montessori

Turkey Trot with GBRC

9:00am|Squalicum Creek Park

NSEA Work Party

9:00am|Willow Creek

Christmas in the Woods Open House

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

South Fork Winterfest

10:00am|Van Zandt Community Hall

Holiday at the Port Farmers Market

10:00am|Port Transit Shed

Stuff the Trunk

10:00am|Haggen stores

Rexville Grange Holiday Art Show

10:00am|Rexville Grange

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am| Depot Market Square

Poetry Workshops

10:00am|Mindport Exhibits

Anything Goes Arts and Crafts

10:30am|Sumas Library

Wine and Shop Weekend

11:00am|Eagle Haven Winery

Gnocchi Class

11:00am|Christianson's Nursery

Needle Felting Workshop

1:00pm|Skagit City School

Coffee and Conversation with Surge Artists

1:30pm|Museum of Northwest Art

Fishboy Holiday Show

2:00pm|FishBoy Gallery

A Local Treasure

2:00pm|Ferndale Library

Beatles Sing-Along and Jam

2:00pm|Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Welcome to the 20th century


Pacific NW Insects

4:00pm|Village Books

Skagit Wine & Beer Festival

4:00pm|Eaglemont Golf Club

Last Call Group Reading

7:00pm|Village Books

Contra Dance

7:00pm|Sacred Heart Social Hall

A Light in the Darkness

7:00pm|Church of the Assumption

Seattle International Comedy Competition



8:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Trove Web
9 to 5, the Musical

7:30pm|Squalicum High School

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Bellingham Public Market

A Chorus Line

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

A Chorus Line

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Rexville Grange Holiday Art Show

10:00am|Rexville Grange

Holiday at the Port Farmers Market

10:00am|Port Transit Shed

Wine and Shop Weekend

11:00am|Eagle Haven Winery

Sedro-Woolley Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #43

Langar in Lynden

11:00am|Guru Nanak Gursikh Gurdwara

Norah Rendell and the Lost Forty

2:00pm|Bellingham YWCA

Hope-Filled Dreams

2:30pm|Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Whatcom Symphony Orchestra

3:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Sing-Along Sound of Music

3:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Poetry Duo

4:00pm|Village Books

Four Pair, An Evening of Duets

7:00pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Traveling with the Thurbers

7:30pm|Lummi Island Library


8:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Trove Web Village Books
Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Bellingham Public Market

Wheelchair Gangball

3:30pm|Bloedel Donovan


7:00pm|Alternative Library


9:00pm|Firefly Lounge

see our complete calendar »

Seattle Comedy Trove Web Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Village Books