Thirty years ago, Thelma Houston shouted, “satisfy the need in me” on a rousing cover of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and gave the world one of the most enduring anthems of the 1970s. On her first album in 17 years, Thelma Houston reaches back to another classic by the same group who furnished her Grammy-winning, chart-topping pop, disco, and R&B hit in 1977. “Wake Up Everybody”, originally recorded by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes in 1975, opens A Woman’s Touch, Houston’s debut for Shout! Factory. The news is this: not one of those 30 years has aged Thelma Houston’s church-schooled voice in the slightest as she tackles songs by some of her favorite male artists.
Yes, another “covers” album has landed and saddles another veteran artist with the inevitable comparisons to the original source material. I’m cutting Thelma Houston a little slack, though, because her voice is truly a heaven sent force that’s been missing from the “new release” section of record stores (record stores?) for far too long, unless, of course, you count the umpteenth disco compilation to feature “Don’t Leave Me This Way”.
“Wake Up Everybody” is an ideal album opener, however. It begins with a chant by Babalunuenue, snakey/shakey percussion, and a droning didgeridoo just before Houston’s spoken word passage commands your complete attention. “I wonder did you read the newspapers this morning or did you see the evening news as you were having dinner with your families last night?”, she asks in a knowing voice about the world’s current state of tumult. Its message is timely and Houston’s background singers (Portia Griffin, Pat Hodges, and Denita James) provide puissant corroboration to the lyrics’ assertion that the “world won’t get much better if we just let it be”. It’s a creative start to an album that has its moments, to be sure, but suffers from questionable production choices.
Only two tracks maintain Houston’s stature as a living, breathing disco queen, which is a wise move since her talent extends far beyond the land of spinning mirror balls. Her exuberant take on Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much” is the far better of the two. She sings the breathless melody over a revved-up arrangement, replete with a break of Latin percussion and a sax solo. Both Mary J. Blige and Deniece Williams have re-worked this tune in recent years but Houston’s version contains such contagious joy that I can’t help but think that Vandross would appreciate the fabulous-ness accorded his first big solo hit. A melding of Sylvester’s “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, ironically, doesn’t deliver nearly as well. The tune begins with an interesting, gospel-inflected reading of “You Make Me Feel” but soon gives way to a cheap dance track that seems to disregards the quality of Houston’s voice. (Sylvester is probably rolling over in his dressing gown!)
Rather unfortunately, this kind of production mars Houston’s never less-than-stellar efforts. It must be a matter of budget that producer Peitor Angell backs Houston with synthetic tracks. (Note: the Sylvester medley has the dubious distinction of being produced by Luigie Gonzalez and Eddie X.) A few actual instruments surface from time to time—flute, trumpet, sax, bass, harp—but “Keyboards and Programming” is a far too prevalent a credit in the absence of a proper rhythm section. The “horns” on Houston’s renditions of Sting’s “Brand New Day” and Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” drain both songs of any musical authenticity Houston contributes. The few moments that don’t contain punched-in brass make the latter tune slightly more bearable. Jimmy Webb, who produced Houston’s debut album Sunshower (1969) for Dunhill, would be thrilled with “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”... at least with Houston’s reading of the lyrics. I’m sure if Webb stepped in as producer (there’s an idea), he would have made room for some real orchestration.
What does this indicate? It is not Thelma Houston’s voice that is the issue, it’s her surroundings. Too many “comebacks” of late, especially by R&B veterans, are made on the cheap. Audience’s expectations, consequently, have been drastically lowered and the “value” of these artists is tarnished by cheesy arrangements. Artists as talented as Houston should be accorded some dignity à la Joe Henry’s work with Bettye LaVette, Solomon Burke, and Allen Toussaint.
In addition to “Wake Up Everybody” and “Never Too Much”, a few tracks on A Woman’s Touch do rise above their mediocre musical foundation. Houston adds the definitive “woman’s touch” to former label mate Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover”. Angell can be commended here for keeping the focus on Houston’s nuanced, sensual interpretation. Likewise, a sparse, bluesy reading of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love” salvages the overall listenability of the album. If only this methodology was implemented more frequently elsewhere, A Woman’s Touch would be a complete victory for Houston.
Make no mistake, Thelma Houston can out-sing the majority of singers who were born during her 17-year respite—A Woman’s Touch provides irrefutable proof –- and are 100 times more visible in the mainstream. Hopefully any album she records henceforth will more completely “satisfy the need” for listeners who’ve awaited her long overdue return.