s a child in Mississippi, Thelma Houston used to sit in the balcony of her local movie theater and fantasize about being a Hollywood star. When her mother, who picked cotton to support her three daughters, announced the family was moving to California, Thelma knew her dream was going to come true. "I always knew I was supposed to be there," she once said, "to be close to the people I saw every Sunday in the movies."
She missed by about 30 miles, as her family relocated to Long Beach. Thelma finished school, married, had two children, worked in health care and divorced. She joined a gospel group, the Art Reynolds singers, and after they recorded an album for Capitol and toured the country she gave serious consideration to a career in music.
She struggled on the edges of the Los Angeles music scene until the late '60s, when she was discovered at the Factory by Marc Gordon, manager of the Fifth Dimension. He helped her overcome lingering doubts about pursuing a career and signed her to Dunhill Records. Jimmy Webb wrote and produced her 1969 debut LP, Sunshower. According to Webb, Thelma manifested "everything great about the female black voice." Other, less partial, critics agreed, comparing her to Aretha Franklin and Dinah Washington.
"All the while," wrote critic Russell Gersten in The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, "she was perfecting her own gospel-based pop style, which has a chilling precision and nuance of phrasing rare in soul music." But mostly she raised her two teenaged children, travelled on the soul club circuit and waited for that career-breaking hit.
"These have been tough years, full of disappointments," she admitted to Dennis Hunt of the Los Angeles Times. "You release a record and you say, 'This is it.' But it's not. You release another one and go through the same thing. It's awful to have to rely on a hit record to get your career going but that's the way it is"
The waiting finally came to an end in 1976 when Thelma released her Any Way You Like It album for Tamla. Producer Hal Davis had heard Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' "Don't Leave Me This Way" (featuring lead singer Teddy Pendergrass) at a party and had Thelma record a volcanic, disco-tinged version of it for the LP. Released as a single, it entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 85 on December 18, 1976, and took a gradual journey to the top, arriving there 18 weeks later.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Houston was understandably hard-put to explain just why it had taken her so long to break through. "(Before) the material was never right or something else wasn't right," she said. "I can't put my finger on what the problem has been. I don't want to blame anybody. I only know that I've been trying as hard as I can."
After the success of "Don't Leave Me This Way," Thelma teamed with R&B great Jerry Butler once again for a second duet album for Motown later in 1977. She had a number 34 pop hit, "Saturday Night, Sunday Morning," in 1979, just as the disco era was coming to a close. In the Eighties she recorded for both RCA and MCA with modest success, with "You Used to Hold Me So Tight" from her self-named 1984 MCA album peaking at number thirteen on the R&B charts. A 1990 album for Reprise, Throw You Down, was produced by Richard Perry and contained one of Houston's best songs and one of the better unpublicized gems of the decade, "Out of My Hands."
Known as a humanitarian for her charitable causes and her tireless efforts in the battle against AIDS, Thelma was recognized by the City of West Hollywood which proclaimed a special day as "Thelma Houston Day." She has also been inducted into the "Dance Music Hall of Fame" in New York City and honored as an "Apollo Legend," on the syndicated hit TV show Showtime at the Apollo. In 2007, she released A Woman's Touch, featuring her interpretations of many classic R&B and pop recordings, originally made famous by such male vocalists as Luther Vandross, Rev. Al Green, Sting and Marvin Gaye among others.
Thelma continues to log over 200 performances annually and says she enjoys every moment of her success. "I still feel a tremendous excitement about performing," says the Los Angeles resident, "and I have so many more things I want to do."
- Fred Bronson, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Billboard, 1988.
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