She's Here Again: An Interview With Thelma Houston
Nearly two decades after her last album, Thelma Houston answers the inevitable question: "Where has she been?"
The character of Thelma Houston's voice in conversation immediately recalls the resonant, curvaceous tones that are recognizable to anyone who has stepped foot on a dancefloor. Her voice, which breathed glorious life into cuts like "I'm Here Again", "Love Masterpiece", "Saturday Night, Sunday Morning", and, natch, "Don't Leave Me This Way", is a magnificent instrument. When Houston laughs, as she often does during the course of our interview, one imagines a galloping rhythm is not too far behind. Most significantly, Houston has a few new songs to sing and that is reason enough to twirl about in the privacy of one's own home: A Woman's Touch is Houston's first album of newly recorded material in 17 years.
For a moment, let's contextualize why we're even talking about Houston. The casual music fan often speaks about Motown in reference to the '60s, a halcyon time when the label churned out hit after hit from its Hitsville, U.S.A. headquarters in Detroit. Discussing the Motown of the '70s, after it relocated to Los Angeles, presents something of a challenge. Groups like the Four Tops and Gladys Knight & the Pips left the label, Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson ventured solo from their groups, and artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder demanded -- and received -- more artistic control over their projects. While the Jackson Five racked up a wall of hits at the beginning of the decade and the Commodores closed the '70s as one of most successful groups in Motown's history, the label was trying to keep pace with the stylistic changes in music rather than setting the standard. It was in this environment that Houston arrived at Motown and landed a triple coup on the pop, R&B, and disco charts with her smoldering cover of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "Don't Leave Me This Way".
Despite the fact that Houston became the first female solo artist at Motown to win a Grammy (Best R&B Performance, Female 1977), the label was unable to build on the momentum that, seemingly, skyrocketed out of nowhere. Houston had only recorded one album on Motown, Thelma Houston (1972), and a single, "You've Been Doing Me Wrong for So Long" (1974), before producer Hal Davis sprinkled a little of the stardust from Diana Ross's "Love Hangover" over Houston's Anyway You Like It (1976), which catapulted "Don't Leave Me This Way" onto the airwaves. Subsequent releases, though bonafide hits in the clubs, failed to crossover as successfully and Houston left Motown in '80. Inevitably, that career-defining song is what audiences expect to hear at a Houston show. "If I had to," she says, "I could get up and do 'Don't Leave Me This Way' in a wheel chair!" However, 2007 will mark the year that audiences demand a new crop of songs from Houston, for A Woman's Touch proves that the Mississippi-born vocalist has lost none of her touch.
The inevitable question -- "Where has Thelma Houston been?" -- could be answered by another question, "Where hasn't Thelma Houston been?" Even without a record deal since '90, the woman has sustained a very successful and lucrative career with an average 200 performances a year, from PRIDE events to corporate gigs. In truth, she'd grown weary of the studio-release-tour cycle. She explains, "You take six months to find the producer, get the material, do an album. Then you take six months to go out and promote it and either it sells or does not sell. In most cases, it doesn't sell so then you go back and start the process all over again. I kind of felt that that was what I was supposed to do."
After her stint with Motown, Houston recorded for a variety labels throughout the '80s, including RCA, MCA, and Reprise. A few singles surfaced on the R&B and dance charts (most notably, "You Used to Hold Me So Tight") but the labels' lackadaisical promotion curbed any blockbuster potential. To her credit, and after adorning a voodoo doll with more than a few pins, Houston maintained composure even when her recording career lost its luster: "I was kicked off a record label and didn't get picked up again. It was devastating at first because I thought, 'Oh my God. My career is over. What's gonna happen? What am I going to do?' Once I got that I could have a career, a very good career, without having a hit record, then I changed. Unless you're a singer-songwriter, and you're writing your own material and your own stories and you're producing it, it's a whole other different story". Without the headache of record company politics, Houston maintained a constant touring schedule throughout the '90s, especially when a resurgence of disco emerged in the middle of the decade.
Much of the material on A Woman's Touch stems from Houston's concert repertoire (Sylvester's "Disco Heat", for example, opens her show). Her fans' requests for recordings of "Ain't That Peculiar" by Marvin Gaye and Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love" was really the catalyst for Houston to return to the studio and lay down tracks with producer Pietor Angell. As the songs took shape, her agent set out to secure a record deal, provided the label didn't load her up with "lollipop songs" that are the stock and trade of countless one-name radio starlets. Shout! Factory understood Houston's intentions for the project and gave her the green light to continue recording A Woman's Touch. "They never made any suggestions", she says. "They seemed to be happy with what I was doing. Once I did all the songs, then I just gave them all the masters and they came up with a fabulous line-up. Shawn Amos, who was the person that brought me to Shout! Factory, spent a lot of time with the material and he put it in this order, which I love." Amos's ear for sequence creates a well-paced journey through Houston's takes on songs largely identified with male artists.
As a nod to Houston's success with "Don't Leave Me This Way", the album opens with another Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes cover, "Wake Up Everybody", a very relevant call for anti-apathy. "When I really listen to the lyrics, the lyrics are so apropos for today", Houston enthuses. "This is some urgent stuff. People need to wake up and look at what's going on." The Aboriginal communities of Australia inspired the first sound you hear on the album: a high-pitched chant. Houston explains, "I wanted to have it like some very important ceremony was getting ready to begin. The person that's doing that is actually me! I was trying to give Pietor an idea of the kind of sound that I wanted. I just came up with that guttural sound. He said, 'Well I'm sure I can't find a sample that's gonna be better than that!'"
In fact, Pietor Angell played a very major role in the song selection on A Woman's Touch, since the majority of the cuts were inspired by his extensive collection of classic R&B albums. How did Houston become acquainted with Angell? "I was introduced to Pietor by my agent, Stephen Ford. I went over Pietor's house. He got exactly what I was talking about." Shortly after their initial meeting, Houston was asked to perform on Hit Me Baby One More Time (2005), which featured veteran artists performing one of their hit songs in addition to a contemporary hit. She tapped Angell to do the arrangements for a shortened version of "Don't Leave Me This Way" and "Fallin'" by Alicia Keys. The experience solidified their partnership in working together on A Woman's Touch. In describing their relationship, Houston is charmingly effusive. "It was just a joy working with him because he is so talented and he puts a lot of time and energy and soul and care and love into his work. It was through the talent of Pietor being able to come up with these little tracks with these different ideas right away so he could see what the effect was going to be and whether it was going to work or not."
Angell and Houston's selection also included songs that Houston had longed to sing for many years but didn't have the opportunity to because of her record companies' insistence that she stick with certain songwriters. Particularly notable is her version of Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix". It was Webb who first produced Houston on her critically acclaimed debut album for Dunhill Records, Sunshower (1969), an album that Houston cites as one of her favorite recordings. In a sense, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" brings her career full circle. She says, "I've always wanted to do that song! I think Jimmy just writes such wonderful songs. It was like two-in-one because Isaac Hayes had an R&B version of that song. I just thought, 'It doesn't have to be the woman's fault, it could just be two people don't get along.' It's nobody's fault and it's just that people grow. That's [my] point of view ... that's the 'woman's touch.'" Along the lines of Hayes's infamous introduction to his 19-minute version, Houston also tagged a spoken word prelude onto "By the Time I Get to Phoenix", further underscoring the story about two people who have reached a turning point in their relationship.
Though Houston remembers the '70s as "fun, fun, and more fun", many of Houston's contemporaries have since passed on. She affirms, "I lucked out. I survived the '70s and I'm still here." Most poignant are her tributes to artists who passed away far too soon -- Luther Vandross ("just incredible"), Marvin Gaye ("one of my favorite singers"), and Sylvester. She recalls, "I used to go see Sylvester when it was 'Sylvester and Two Tons o' Fun.' I loved his shows. I loved his voice. He could really, really sing and he had that gospel thing down pat. He was a very, very funny person. Hilarious! We didn't see each other all the time but when we did we would just laugh". Houston had heard a recording of Sylvester melding together "(Dance) Disco Heat" and "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)". Like Sylvester, Houston adds a gospel intro to the medley. She notes, "My intent when I was doing this was like ... I don't want any of these people living or those that have gone on to be able to say, 'Oh my god. Why did she mess up my song like that?' We tried to not just make it another cover but to try and make each song special in its own way." Hearing the bulk of her extensive catalog, it is clear that Houston has never half-baked her interpretations of other artists' material. When Jimmy Webb produced her scalding-hot version of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" on the Sunshower album, she nearly stole the Rolling Stones' hit away from them, ushering the soul of the song to heavenly heights.
Another tune well served by Houston's approach is Earth, Wind & Fire's "That's the Way of the World", a song whose dose of brotherly love seems lacking in our current culture. Houston says that the music made during the '70s reflected the sincere concern that people had for one another. She has keen observations about the frayed nature of our social fabric: "Lots of people are caring about the different things we need to address like AIDS and cancer. When things come up, people care at the moment about what's going on, but being caring and concerned about your next-door neighbor ... I find that seems to be a little less now. People don't talk! If you don't e-mail them, nobody will know about anything that's going on!"
This kind of tactile relationship between people, Houston says, is also missing in how artists are handled and promoted. She goes on to describe how there was much more of a hands-on approach towards artists in the '70s:
"You take six months or however long it takes to make [an album], then you go on the road. You go to all the radio stations. You go to all the distributors. You take 'this one' to lunch, you take 'that one' to lunch. Now, you click on and you click off and you click over! I guess the Internet could be used in the same way. It's great the number of people that I'm reaching through the Internet -- I've done some wonderful interviews -- but I miss touching the bodies. I miss shaking hands, looking into people's faces and saying, 'Hello, how are you doing? Thank you for playing my music.'"
Houston, who has no plans of retiring anytime soon, is seeking to do just that in spring 2008 with a tour for A Woman's Touch. She hopes that the album will provide a springboard for a follow-up. "I would like to use more 'live' horns, like Tower of Power, and then do some classics, maybe a couple of standards, and also put in some original material as well," she explains. "There are great writers that I just don't have access to because I haven't been in the market for a while. What I think will happen and what I'm hoping will happen is that this will generate some interest!"
After more than four decades of recording music, Houston still retains unbridled enthusiasm and energy about her work. She's persevered through the uncertain moments of her career yet she's also embraced each success and opportunity. She isn't at all the "diva" that many artists of her stature are said to be. "I consider it a privilege to be able to do it, to earn my living this way," she exclaims. "I still study with my vocal coach who I've had for over 20-something years. This is what I love doing!" From Sunshower to Motown, "I'm Here Again" to "Where is Thelma Houston? ", major record label to no label, and touring the world's stages to recording again in the studio, Thelma Houston's "touch" remains a galvanizing presence.