Mississippi to MoWest: An Interview with Grammy-Winning Legend Thelma Houston
On the eve of premiering her new single "ISLY (I Still Love You)", soul legend Thelma Houston revisits her landmark debut for Motown's boutique label, MoWest.
Motown epitomized change in 1972. "Listen to What's Happening at Motown" the label declared in an advertising spread for Billboard, "You'll Hear the Times Change" (9 September 1972). Marquee acts like the Jackson Five, the Supremes, and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles adorned the page while Valerie Simpson, Lesley Gore, and Bobby Darin constituted recent signings to the "Motown Family of Labels".
That family had recently relocated to Los Angeles from its home base at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. Label founder Berry Gordy sought to expand Motown's presence in film and television, establishing a boutique record label to christen the company's headquarters on the west coast. Trading a map of Detroit for the Pacific Ocean, the logo for MoWest signaled the dawn of a "new" Motown, one that mirrored the socially and culturally progressive spirit of the 1970s.
Motown was ready to evolve, and so was Thelma Houston. She'd already tasted success as a member of the Art Reynolds Singers in the mid-'60s and recorded her critically acclaimed solo album Sunshower (1969) for ABC-Dunhill. Though the sophisticated pop of Sunshower confounded radio programmers, Motown was ready for an artist like Thelma Houston. By 1972, she was among the first artists signed to MoWest, accompanying acts like Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons and Syreeta in trade ads announcing the label's roster.
Thelma Houston (1972) commenced the singer's eight-year tenure with the company and illustrated just how effortlessly she adapted to a variety of tones, moods, and styles. Deftly navigating no less than five production teams between the US and UK editions of the album, Houston delivered one of Motown's boldest releases of the early '70s.
Leland to Los Angeles
The life experiences Thelma Houston drew upon for her inspired performances on Thelma Houston stemmed from Leland, Mississippi. Nestled in the Mississippi Delta, Leland's local gospel and blues stations gave the singer her foundation in music. "Radio, at that time, was probably not something that every household would have had," Houston recalls about her childhood. "The Mississippi Delta area was the poorest area. At that point, my mother was doing sharecrop work. She was picking cotton.
"When my grandmother moved in with us, my mother did everything from housekeeping to maid's work to cooking. The job that she was most proud of was working in a doctor's office. In those days, a doctor would actually go out and visit people in their homes. My mother would go with him to make house calls. He taught her firsthand how to run certain tests."
Before Houston's grandmother moved in, a woman named Mrs. Emma Eubanks cared for young Thelma while her mother worked. "She played piano for the church and Sunday School," Houston continues. "She told my mother that every time she would practice a song, she'd notice that I'd sing along and I could sing it just like she was singing it." At just three years-old, Houston lent her prodigious voice to the church choir. She continues, "The first song that I remember singing was a song called 'In the Garden'. I would sing that at Sunday School or on the programs that they would have for children."
At ten years-old, Houston and her family moved to Long Beach, California. She joined the choir and glee club at Franklin Junior High School, earning the admiration of teachers and fellow students. The PTA organized an annual talent show that helped raise money for school activities and field trips. Houston was a natural contender. "Because I was in glee club someone suggested that I go and audition," she recalls.
Houston met her biggest fan at the audition — the school principal, Mr. "Buck" Catlin. "I think the principal, in his heart of hearts, was one of those old Vaudeville guys. He loved show business," she continues. "He heard me sing and said, 'You know what? I'm going to play for you. I want you to sit up there and sing this song.' It was 'My Baby Don't Love Me No More'. He played the piano. That's the song I did in the seventh grade.
"Mr. Catlin told me, 'You know what kid? If you keep your nose clean, and you stay out of trouble, I think you're going to have a huge career in this business.' 'You think so Mr. Catlin?' He said, 'I know so. You've got what it takes. If you keep working at it, you're going to be a star.'"
Houston became the school's main draw during her third year in the talent show. "My mom had me and my two other sisters," she continues. "She said, 'I can't keep buying these gowns!' [laughs] Mr. Catlin went somewhere and he rented me this beautiful white gown. The theme of the show was going to be a nightclub. We had the chorus girls, the comedy acts, the calypso acts. We had flaming torches. I was at the very end of the show."
Tellin' It Like It is! (1966) by the Art Reynolds Singers. Courtesy of Capitol Records.
To raise additional money that year, Mr. Catlin brought the school band into a Long Beach studio and recorded an album that they sold in conjunction with the talent show. Issued on yellow vinyl with a purple label — the school's colors — The 1958 Franklin Junior High School Band Recording featured Houston singing "Someone to Watch Over Me". It marked her very first appearance on record.
Houston continued to hone her musical talent in high school. Though she'd always excelled at singing, she now had to earn top marks on sight-reading tests. "That teacher over there was named Mr. Collins," she recalls. "Under his tutelage, I had to learn how to read music. I'd been in band, I played the flute. To me, I related reading music to playing the flute. When I got to high school, I couldn't do both band and vocal, so I chose vocal. Prior to that, I was relying on my ear entirely.
"I got a 'C' on the first test. I had never gotten a C in anything having to do with the voice! I went to Mr. Collins and I said, 'Mr. Collins, I think you must have made a mistake.' He said, 'In what way?' 'You gave me a C. I've never gotten a C.' He said, 'You have a beautiful voice, probably one of the better voices I've ever heard. However, let me get my book here. We had a written test here, you did poorly on that. On our sight-reading test you got a C-minus.' To make a long story short, by my twelfth year, I was, 'A ... A ... A.'" Smitten by Houston's voice, Mr. Collins even arranged to cover her expenses for private singing lessons.
Just before completing high school, Houston's life took a dramatic turn — she fell in love and got pregnant. Two months after graduating in June, she had her first child and wed the following January. Three years later, she gave birth to her second child.
In between, Houston began singing with the Art Reynolds Singers, a Long Beach-based gospel group founded by composer-pianist Art Reynolds. "Art Reynolds wrote pretty much all the music and played the piano," she explains. "There were five singers. At least four soloists in there could have been an individual on their own yet they blended together. We would sing in different churches. We got a little name for ourselves around this California area. A guy came to one of our rehearsals, took the tape back to somebody that he knew, and we got a record deal with Capitol Records."
The Art Reynolds Singers brought Houston national exposure. "We went out on a promotional tour," she says. "I had never even been on a plane before." Released in 1966, Tellin' It Like It Is! featured the act's signature songs ("Jesus is Just Alright" and "Glory, Glory Hallelujah") and spotlighted Houston's lead vocal on "Every Now and Then". Billboard praised the group in its review, commenting, "The line between gospel and pop music grows thinner with this outstanding and highly salable package that artistically combines both" (1 October 1966).
Capitol soon offered Houston a solo deal and released a single, "Baby Mine". The singer promoted the secular tune while performing with the Art Reynolds Singers, happily adjusting to life on the road. She recalls, "I said, 'This is what I gotta do! This feels so right to me!' The group didn't feel quite as strongly about it as I did. Art was married and had children. He didn't feel that he could quit his job. The other girls didn't have anyone, but they didn't leave their jobs.
"In the meantime, I got a divorce from my husband. I got a job at this nightclub in our area. Clubs have karaoke shows now but back then they would have talent shows. They'd give 25 dollars or whatever to the winner. It was a big draw on Thursday nights. I started going around and hanging out.
"For almost a year, I had told this guy named Pee Wee to put me down to sing. I'd say, 'Don't put me at the top, put me at the bottom.' Just before it would be time for me, I'd say, 'Pee Wee, not tonight.' I did this I don't know how many times! Finally, after about maybe a year, I'd say, 'Pee Wee....' and he wouldn't look at me.
"Pee Wee was a man who was very talented and had been in show business at some point in time. I think he saw something in me that was an incompletion of himself. He knew what I was capable of doing. He said, 'If you don't go up there, it's going to be on you. I'm calling your name.' He called me. I got up there and I did a song. It was probably an Aretha Franklin song. The crowd went nuts! The owner of the club, Big Tate, offered me a job. That started my working in clubs and learning how to go from that gospel factor into the nightclub thing."
Now a star attraction, buzz started to build around Houston's Friday and Saturday night appearances. Before long, she accepted an offer to perform at a private club called the Factory, just outside Beverly Hills. The club was an ideal venue for agents to showcase their artists among Hollywood producers and executives. "They asked, 'Could you do a gospel segment too?' I called the Art Reynolds Singers to come. They came up there and we tore it up." That night, Houston shared the bill with Al Wilson. Fortunately, Wilson's manager, Marc Gordon, was there too.
Ever since the early '60s, Marc Gordon had charted an impressive course in the industry. He partnered with Hal Davis, who he'd initially managed, and formed a production team. In 1962, Berry Gordy hired the duo to open and administer Motown's L.A. office, where Gordon eventually became President.
Just before leaving Motown in 1966 to manage Johnny Rivers' Soul City label, Gordon met a group called the Versatiles. Gordy had listened to their demo but ultimately passed on signing the group. Impressed by their sound, Gordon began managing the Versatiles and introduced them to Rivers, who suggested they change their name. With a new moniker — the 5th Dimension — the group signed with Soul City and became one of the era's biggest acts. Gordon added Al Wilson to his client list, bolstering the Soul City roster with another dynamic talent.
The night that Gordon saw Houston at the Factory, he knew he'd discovered his next artist. "He gave me his card and asked me if I was interested in being a solo artist," she recalls. "I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'I'd like to have a meeting with you.' I lived in Long Beach and he wanted to have a meeting up in L.A. I didn't even have a car! I got a ride to the meeting. I told him about my contract and that I did have a record out on Capitol. I said that I had two kids and I had to take care of them. He said, 'I want you to think about how much you think you're going to need to take care of your situation with your children. Let me know and then we'll talk about it.' I went home and I talked to my mother about it. She said, 'How are you going to make money?' I had a meeting with Marc again. I said, 'This is what it's going to take' and he said, 'Well we can do that.'"
Gordon secured a deal with ABC-Dunhill and matched Houston with singer-songwriter-producer Jimmy Webb, who he'd first met at Motown when Webb wrote for the label's publishing division, Jobete. Webb had since become a celebrated force in the industry, having composed the 5th Dimension's first big hit ("Up, Up and Away"), as well as pop standards like "Wichita Lineman", "MacArthur Park", and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix". The combination of Webb's gripping arrangements and Houston's full-bodied voice created a pop masterpiece, Sunshower.
Released in August 1969, Sunshower won accolades from critics but stalled in the marketplace. The singer recorded a few more singles for ABC-Dunhill, most notably Laura Nyro's "Save the Country", before parting with the label. "Marc became discouraged," she confides. "I became discouraged. As the 5th Dimension became bigger and bigger, and Marc expanded more, our relationship became ... I wouldn't say strained but it became like he wasn't there as much. I spent more time making decisions on my own."
Las Vegas would spark the next chapter of Houston's career. While the 5th Dimension opened for Frank Sinatra at Caesars Palace, Gordon booked a gig for Houston at the casino's 250-seat lounge, Nero's Nook. "At that time, when you worked for the hotels in Vegas, a gig would be from four to six weeks, sometimes longer, but a minimum of one month," she explains. "After about six weeks, you'd build up a slight reputation. Word of mouth would spread."
Suzanne de Passe, the future President of Motown Productions, frequently attended Houston's show in between preparing Diana Ross for her own Vegas production. Hired by Berry Gordy in 1968 as a Creative Assistant, de Passe was only months away from her promotion to Vice President of Creative Operations for the company's new headquarters on Sunset Boulevard when she saw Houston.
Sunshower (1969) by Thelma Houston. Courtesy of ABC-Dunhill Records.
"Suzanne would come to the show and bring different people," Houston continues. "They were there all the time. They knew about Sunshower. That album wasn't a commercial success but most people in the industry knew about it. I started being wooed by Motown. They started telling me that I was going to be on this brand new label (MoWest). They offered me a deal.
"Now, let's go back to 1964. I'm sitting there with my silly-dilly husband at the time. I'm pregnant with my next baby and (Motown artists) are going to England. Those are my peers. They're my age group. I'm thinking, They're out there doing it! I'll never do anything like that. For Motown to think that I was great, and with all of these people that were on that label that I admired so much, of course I'm going to want to go to Motown! I told Marc Gordon that's what I wanted to do. He said, 'Well if you do that, I can never work with you again.' I had to make the choice. I did. I chose to go there."
Houston Goes (Mo)West
Motown infused Houston's career with renewed energy upon her arrival in 1971. At the time, many of the label's major artists were pushing boundaries in their own careers. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder had more autonomy over their albums, Diana Ross was preparing to portray Billie Holiday for Paramount Pictures, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams left The Temptations, and Michael Jackson was recording his first solo album. Conceived as a label that crossed genres and formats, MoWest seemed like the perfect vehicle to harness Houston's versatility in everything from gospel to pop.
Under the artistic direction of Suzanne de Passe, Houston began cutting material by a variety of songwriters and producers. Unlike her experience with Jimmy Webb, the songs were not necessarily tailor-made for Houston. She explains, "Doing Sunshower was the first time I'd been exposed to material that was written for me in the secular field. My expectations were to always have that and to always be able to record the way that I recorded with Jimmy: having time to go in and sit at the piano, work out the song, then go into the studio, sing with the track, and work it out with the band. I thought everybody recorded like that because, in a way, that's the way we did it with the Art Reynolds Singers since we knew the material so well.
"When I got to Motown, they started sending me these tracks that were already done. 'Here, try this.' It was like going to a recording school. I was not there when they cut the track but I still had to deliver. I still had to make it believable."
The UK edition of Thelma Houston opened with a song written by established Jobete writer Pam Sawyer and newly-signed tunesmith Michael Masser, "No One's Gonna Be a Fool Forever". Adorned with horns and strings, the song's melody echoed the kind of symphonic pop Houston had recorded with Webb. The song's introduction was somewhat unconventional, with Houston introducing the song by singing the last line of the chorus. "They were always trying to be a little bit more inventive," the singer shares. "It worked very well on that song."
Thelma Houston (1972) by Thelma Houston. Courtesy of Motown Records.
"No One's Gonna Be a Fool Forever" was one of four tracks cut by house producers Mel Larson and Jerry Marcellino, who'd later score success for Michael Jackson with their productions of "Ben" and "Rockin' Robin". In addition to their self-penned "Nothing Left to Give", which was added to UK pressings of the album, and the B-side "Pick of the Week", Larson and Marcellino produced a soulful reworking of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee". Houston had sung the song in her live set and imbued the lyrics with gospel vigor, wholly distinguishing it from Janis Joplin's chart-topping version.
One of Houston's personal favorites on the album was another song that had been a recent pop hit, "Stealing in the Name of the Lord" by Paul Kelly. A rollicking tale about a double-dealing preacher, the singer's incendiary vocal recalled her roots with the Art Reynolds Singers. "I loved it," she exclaims. "I loved the story. It had that gospel kind of thing that I loved singing. I do it now in a medley in my show. I do 'Glory, Glory Hallelujah', 'Jesus is Just Alright', and then I close with 'Stealing'."
"Stealing in the Name of the Lord" also teamed Houston with Hal Davis, the ex-partner of the singer's former manager, Marc Gordon. Even before the release of Thelma Houston, MoWest had issued "I Want to Go Back There Again" in late-1971, a song written by Berry Gordy and Chris Clark that Davis produced for Houston. "The producer I worked with the most at Motown was Hal Davis," Houston says. "I was with Hal more than anybody. I thought Hal was a genius at what he did. You were on your p's and q's in the studio. If you had friends that you thought were going to come in and say anything other than, 'Ooh that sounds great', you did not bring them in Hal Davis' studio! You wouldn't be going in there to have a party."
Houston served a chilling performance on Bunny White's "Blackberries", a song produced by Alfred Cleveland and Edward Langford that conveyed the horror of slavery. "That was our protest song," Houston comments. "I thought Bunny's songs were like movies. It's a very clever way of talking about slavery and how young people are no longer going for this course. It's time to change." Along that continuum, the Joe Porter-produced "Black California" emphasized that, despite the Civil Rights Movement, racial discrimination remained a toxic condition in the U.S.
Of all the producers who worked on Thelma Houston, Porter oversaw the majority of the tracks. His contributions dominated the U.S. edition of the album, which featured only ten songs versus fourteen tracks on the UK version. "With Joe, I sat down and we picked material," says the singer. "It wasn't a dictatorial kind of thing." Working with arranger Michael Omartian, Porter's touch also powered "And I Thought You Loved Me", "Do Something About It", and the torchy "There's No Such Thing As Love".
As the principal producer on Thelma Houston, Porter's tracks had a stylistic continuity. The work of songwriter Patti Dahlstrom was a crucial ingredient in that consistency and supplied the album with its emotional core. In fact, the U.S. version of the album opened with "What If", the song that landed Dahlstrom a songwriting deal with Motown. "I was co-writing with someone who took my songs to Herb Eiseman at Jobete," Dahlstrom shares. "I wasn't with him at the appointment. (Motown producer) Deke Richards was walking past the door. He heard my demo of 'What If', stopped, and stood listening to it in the doorway. He asked Herb who'd written it. Herb looked at my name on the tape box and said, 'Patti Dahlstrom'. Deke said, 'Sign her.'"
Houston became the first Motown artist to cut Dahlstrom's songs, bringing depth and resonance to songs like "What If", "And I Never Did", and "I'm Letting Go". Dahlstrom continues, "Thelma singing anything is just heaven to me. I am so grateful she cut my songs, to hear her voice wrapped around my thoughts was just touching and inspiring to me. It is always a major compliment when an artist cuts a songwriter's tune. They usually get about 2,500 songs sent per project (according to big producers I know) and they narrow that down to about 15 or 20. Ten make the final cut to the album, so that's better than one in a hundred. To have three songs on one album is just such a gift, a direct validation of my music."
Similarly, Artie Butler, whose arranging, producing, and songwriting credits span more than five decades of pop music, considers working with Houston one of the more joyful experiences of his career. "What I remember about Thelma is that she was so much fun," he says. "She had a bubbly, fun-to-be-with personality. I remember that vividly. She had a great, great laugh. Her working patterns were wonderful, her attitude was great. She has a phenomenal, dynamic personality. I haven't, sadly, worked with her since, but I truly remember her being just a sheer joy to be with in the studio, and a pleasure in rehearsing. I'd love to work with her again."
Fortunately, Houston also got along well with Joe Porter. "Joe was pleasant to work with," she says. "Every producer that I have ever worked with has always been respectful of me and allowed me to be what I wanted to be in the studio because I always got the job done." The sessions for Thelma Houston also produced another collaboration between Houston and Porter on "If It's the Last Thing I Do", which later surfaced on Any Way You Like It (1976).
The fifth production team behind Thelma Houston included a singer-songwriter who'd soon record her own Motown set, Gloria Jones. Teaming with Pam Sawyer, Jones co-wrote and co-produced the bracing "I Ain't Going Nowhere" and "I Ain't That Easy to Lose", which smoldered with Houston's cries of "No, no, no!" ("That was their version of 'If I Were Your Woman'," Houston laughs.) In fact, Houston had first met Jones through Hal Davis. The two immediately struck a rapport. "Gloria was so fun," she continues. "She's so talented and she is so funny. I love to laugh and I laughed a lot with her."
When MoWest released Thelma Houston in the summer of 1972, the label chose a cover photo that depicted the singer in performance. Bathed in crimson and purple hues, the image captured the spirit of Houston's impassioned style on songs like Andrew Cooper's "There Is A God", which appeared on the U.S. edition of the album following Valerie Simpson's own version on Exposed (1971). Music critics raved about the range of material. "The powerful, driving voice of Thelma Houston is at its best in this delightful debut album from MoWest," Billboard stated. "The artist's originality, coupled with the superb Joe Porter production, makes this package an instant winner" (12 August 1972).
"They gave me this huge billboard of the cover right there on Sunset Boulevard," Houston recalls about Motown's promotion for the album. "I sincerely believe that the intent of MoWest with Thelma Houston, Syreeta, and all of those people that were on that label at the time, was very big. They really were wanting it to be successful."
Any Way You Like It (1976) by Thelma Houston. Courtesy of Motown Records.
However, billboards and advertisements in trade magazines could only generate a certain amount of sales, a reality shared by Houston's label mates. MoWest's all-encompassing approach to genres might have hindered its ability to cultivate a distinct identity, especially since the label's parent company was still perceived as a predominantly R&B label, despite the crossover success of its top acts.
Houston offers her own perspective on the commercial limitations of the album. "We were just a little bit ahead," she says. "They just didn't know what to do with a young black woman who could sing like that. They wanted you to sing the blues. You couldn't sing anything intelligent. I just had to accept that crap and keep on going the best I could."
Just like the Commodores, who also launched their Motown career on MoWest, Houston would achieve her greatest success later in the decade. In the four years between Thelma Houston and the singer's next full-length Motown album Any Way You Like It, the company continued to experiment with Houston and issued a number of one-off singles like the Grammy-nominated "You've Been Doing Wrong For So Long". Houston explains, "Anything before Any Way You Like It, Motown was just trying to get singles. I think that's probably why the songs are so small! I would just go in and cut and then they would take things and put them together."
Suzanne de Passe even matched Houston with Michael Masser, who produced an entire album for Houston that Motown ultimately shelved. "Piano Man", "I'm Just a Part of Yesterday", "Together", and "Do You Know Where You're Going To" were rescued from the sessions and released as singles in a number of different territories. The latter was written especially for Houston, two years before the lyrics were recast as the theme to Mahogany (1975) starring Diana Ross. Outside of Motown, she also teamed with the band Pressure Cooker to cut I've Got the Music in Me (1975) for Sheffield Labs, a technologically groundbreaking album recorded live in the studio directly to master disc.
Motown realized that Houston worked best with producers one-on-one instead of singing to pre-recorded tracks. "Because I kept making such an issue of that, eventually I started being told who was going to be recording a track for me so that I could get there and be assured that it would be in my key and I could be there while they were doing it," she says. "They had not been accustomed to doing that before with their artists but they started to respect how it worked for me. In most cases, the producers liked me to be there."
With the release of Any Way You Like It on Motown's Tamla imprint, the record company finally delivered a hit commensurate with Houston's considerable talents. Produced by Hal Davis, "Don't Leave Me This Way" topped the pop, soul, and disco charts in 1977. Houston also became the first female artist at Motown to win a Grammy Award when "Don't Leave Me This Way" won "Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female" the following year. "Anybody my age, and under, thinks of Thelma Houston as a disco diva," she says. "That's fine. I don't mind that. Disco and dance music have been very good to me. I've had a great career from it but there are some other things that I've recorded."
The singer's time at Motown, of course, accounts for only one portion of her career. Following her final album for the label, Ride to the Rainbow (1979), she recorded for RCA, MCA, Reprise, and Shout! Factory. Amidst Houston's international gigs, appearances on American Idol and America's Got Talent, plus charitable work with organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the NAACP, the City of Hollywood declared 29 January 2003 "Thelma Houston Day". Elsewhere, she was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame (2004), honored as an "Apollo Legend" by Showtime at The Apollo, and performed at inaugural events for President Barack Obama. In 2010, she reunited with Jimmy Webb for a special benefit at the GRAMMY Museum, singing selections from Sunshower. Most recently, she gave a show-stopping performance of "Don't Leave Me This Way" on the CBS television special "Motown 60: A GRAMMY Celebration" (2019).
Currently preparing her show Thelma Houston: My Motown Memories and More for the Michael A. Guido Theater in Dearborn, Michigan (29 June), Houston's also wrapping a new EP that features her collaborations with Lethal (Snoop Dogg) and her son Rodney Houston. "It's so special to me," she says. "The emphasis is on love — self-love, universal love, romantic love that's enduring." Houston already previewed her forthcoming cover of "Love Train" at the 2017 Women's March in Los Angeles, the same event where she dedicated a specially tailored version of "Don't Leave Me This Way" to President Obama. She'll unveil the infectious, horn-driven single "ISLY (I Still Love You)" on Spotify and other streaming outlets before the EP's official release.
Decades later, however, Houston still appreciates the uniqueness of her Motown debut. "I think it's a great project," she says. "I do a lot of traveling between Long Beach and Los Angeles. I listen to it in pieces. The most exciting thing about it is the musicality of it, the usage of live music. I'm so pleased with this material now."
All those years ago at Franklin Junior High School, Mr. Catlin was right — Thelma Houston had what it took to become a star. Thelma Houston shows just how high she soared.