Venerable disco queen Thelma Houston makes the Pride scene on Discovery Green
by Nancy Ford
It’s almost closing time in the club. Circa 1977. Glitter sticks to sweaty cheeks, thumpa-thumpa rhythms pulse in the ears of patrons as they begin leaving the dance floor and begrudgingly head toward the door in search of the next adventure. Then, just a few minutes before the invasive house lights come up, the familiar strains begin.
The keyboard spills top-to-bottom in an anti-crescendo. The determined, no-nonsense bass line insinuates itself. Here come the strings. And then finally we hear it—that unmistakable “mmm mm mmm, ohhh, ohhh, ohhh” as she pleads her case: She can’t survive. She can’t stay alive. Her heart is full of love and desire for you.
Don’t leave me this wa-a-aaay!
And once again the frenzied clubbers stream back to their abandoned stations under the disco ball, spellbound, responding affirmatively to the legendary last-call call, all longing for just…one…more…mad twirl on the floor.
That last call has lasted more than three decades for Thelma Houston. Before arriving in Houston to headline Discovery Green’s Rainbow on the Green celebration, the disco queen chatted with OutSmart about her career, her not-cousin Whitney, and how one of the greatest dance anthems of all time almost didn’t happen.
Nancy Ford: First, I definitely need to thank you for all the dance-floor pleasure “Don’t Leave Me This Way” has given my friends and me over the years. It was absolutely the top song of all time in all my favorite clubs, at closing time. But it never got us out the door! It always brought us all back to the dance floor, and all jazzed up again. So thanks!
Thelma Houston: [Laughs] Oh, well, thank you very much. That makes me feel so good. The thing about that song is, even now, when I do it in my show, it just automatically brings people to their feet. They want to stand up, or they want to dance if there’s any dance floor anywhere. Or they’ll dance by their tables. It’s such a good feeling that it turns out that the biggest hit I’ve had up to this point has been a song that brings so much joy to people. You couldn’t ask for anything better than that.
That’s certainly true. How did the song happen to come to you, in the beginning?
The song had been recorded by Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes. And Suzanne de Passe was the A&R person—we were very fortunate back in those days to have an A&R person at the record company. She was concerned with not just the hit of the moment, but concerned about forging out a career for you.
I had been on the Motown label for a few years. I was recording as if that were my job—to record, trying to find a song. What had happened was, “Please Don’t Leave Me This Way” came along at a time just when the dance market was beginning to become very, very popular. The DJ pool became powerful—almost as powerful as a radio station. If the club was into your song, that forced radio to jump on it. So it was all a matter of timing.
Also, a lot of people don’t know this: Berry Gordy was the person that would make the decisions about what songs were going to come out on the Motown label. He wasn’t really into the disco dance thing. He saw me as more of an artist, say in the style of a more modern Dinah Washington, so he passed on [the song]. But Suzanne believed in it. She was a very smart person and could see what was going on with the music industry, and also with the dance community, which was primarily the gay community at the time. She went with it. She had to say, “I really believe in this, and I’m going to go for this.”
As it turned out, it was a good thing that she did that.
That’s for sure. When you sing “Don’t Leave Me This Way” now, does it conjure the same emotion still today as it did back in the ’70s? How do you maintain that?
Well, like I said, I get such joy watching people get up and dance to it. People request it. It’s so funny—people think that I might not do it.
What a letdown that would be!
And the older I get, the more I realize how fortunate I am to still be performing and still be doing something I really enjoy so very much. I’m just joyful when I perform. It never gets tiring for me.
Thanks for visiting Houston for our Rainbow on the Green celebration, in June.
Right, right! I don’t think I’ve ever done one in Houston.
I think you’ve probably done one just about everywhere else, though.
[Laughs] Just about, just about.
Really, has there been a year since “Don’t Leave Me This Way” hit that you haven’t done a Pride Fest, somewhere? It seems like every June you are somewhere, celebrating Pride. What’s the most unusual Pride celebration you’ve ever worked?
The most unusual one, I think, was in Sydney, Australia, in the ’90s. They probably have the biggest one in the world. And they had kept [my appearance] a big secret. I still don’t know how they managed to do that.
They knew what I was going to wear, and they had dancers wearing coordinating outfits to what I was going to wear. They had all this choreography, and I have no idea how they got it together, because I wasn’t there to rehearse. And all of these fireworks and pyrotechnics—I mean, it was just amazing how they pulled it off. That was probably one of the most exciting ones. It was kept such a secret. I was in town for just a few days, and nobody knew I was there, even.
You must’ve been wearing your hat and dark glasses!
[Both laugh] It was big fun. They said, “Okay, you’re going to come on, on Sunday morning. You’re going to close the Pride.” They wanted me to do just that one song. They said, “Ten thousand people are going to be there. When you finish, don’t take it personally, but they’re going to get out of there like you’ve never seen before.” [Both laugh]
I see that you’re doing a Sylvester tribute in some of your shows. Were you friends with Sylvester [a leading ’70s gay disco king]?
We didn’t call each other all the time or anything like that, but when we worked shows together, we would find a way to maybe have dinner or to hang out or exchange funny stories—you know, things of that nature. We were both early supporters of gay causes, doing fundraisers for HIV and AIDS. Those kinds of things brought us together. It was so funny, I remember telling him, when I was going to the gym—well, I still go the gym, but back in those days aerobics was so big and everybody was having aerobics classes—
Oh yes. “Let’s Get Physical.”
Right! And all these little ladies would come in there, and they’d be, “Oh, put that guy on [the boom box]!” And I would tell Sylvester, “Brother, you would be amazed at the people who just love you!” And he would get such a big kick out of it! [Both laugh]
Little did they know, right?
That’s a great story. Well, you know, the ’70s, when you were first touring, was such a heavy time of drugs and sex and disco balls, and all that. How did you manage to avoid the path of self-destruction that so many artists succumbed to in that era?
Well, let’s put it like this: we’re not saints—we all participated, and whatever. You see what’s going on, but okay, let’s not get carried away with it. You have to step away from it. Plus, I had children when I was starting in the business. I had my first child at 18 and my second child by the time I was 21, so I had a foundation. I had children that I had to be responsible for. I think for me that was a grounding factor. It was like, “You can go crazy, but you can’t go too crazy.”
Luckily for me, I had my mom who helped me take care of them. And my grandmother was living at the time. My family members—everybody was helping me. And I couldn’t let people down. First of all, I was doing something that nobody [in my family] had done. They thought I was a little nuts anyway ➝
for doing that kind of work. It was like, “Okay, we’re doing this now, and we’re helping you out, but don’t go crazy!”
You were still grounded in your family.
Exactly, and luckily for me, I always lived on the West Coast, and when I was home I was going to the PTA and doing all the things I needed to be doing. When I would go back to New York, I’d go to work at Studio 54, Paradise Garage, the Saint. All these different clubs would contribute to your hotel and your airfare, so you would end up doing all these clubs. So when I was there, most of the time I was so busy working I wouldn’t have time to do anything else! I would just be going from one club to the next club to the next club.
This was back in the day when DJs were king. Now it’s coming back. Sometimes, a club will have a DJ instead of an artist, because basically they can get more out of a DJ.
Speaking of family, you’re not related to Whitney Houston, are you?
No, I’m not.
Did you ever work together?
No, we never worked together. I did work with her cousin. Dionne Warwick and I toured together in Australia one time. It was at that time, while we were on tour, that Dionne invited me to go with her to visit Whitney, who was working at a casino that had just opened in Melbourne. And so I went with Dionne. They wanted to catch up with each other, because they hadn’t seen each other in a while. I was like, “Now don’t bring that up, don’t be asking all these stupid questions.” I didn’t want to say, “Hi Whitney, do people always ask you if we’re related?” So I had planned not to do that.
So when we met, she says, “Oh, do people always ask you if we’re related?” [Laughs] I said, “Yes, all the time.” And she said, “What do you say to them? I just always tell them yes,” because if you say no, they [don’t believe it.] They say, “Aren’t you Cissie’s . . . ?”
I thought it was very funny. She was very wonderful, and just very sweet and nice.
People were always asking me that. It was so weird. I would always say, “No, we’re not related,” and people would always say they were sure we were, and I would let it slide. But when she passed away and people were coming to me with condolences, I felt at that time like we were almost . . . you know . . . In a way, I would almost want to say, “Well, thank you.”
Well, if you two are not related, then certainly you were connected.
Exactly. It was just a weird thing. If I’m feeling like this, oh my God, what is her poor mother feeling? It’s still hard for me to believe that she’s not here.
As you’ve gone from Pride event to Pride event and seen our changes and our struggles over the years, what is the most important thing, do you think, that you’ve learned from your ’70s and ’80s audiences, that you want to pass along to your current audiences?
The thing for me that I try to pass on to everyone is, nothing is promised to you. You never know from day to day what’s going to happen, so it’s best to try to live each day to the fullest, and try to be mindful of other people as you go along.
I find that if we take care of each other, or even just say a kind word to somebody, you never know what that one thing can do for some person that day. I just think, take the time for gratitude. That’s what I’ve learned and that’s what I try to convey. I think that if we did that it would probably be a better world.
Thelma Houston performs at Rainbow on the Green, June 22, 8 p.m. • Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney St. • discoverygreen.com.