A soulful vocalist with a slow-boiling delivery nurtured from singing gospel in her youth, R&B artist Thelma Houston enjoyed one of the biggest hits of the disco era with her heartfelt 1976 song "Don't Leave Me This Way." The song largely defined her career, which experienced more ups than downs over the course of four decades. But if Houston was disheartened by her lack of additional chart success, she did not show it; after all, the song had granted her a second career as a television actress, as well as icon status among the gay community, which adopted the number as a rallying cry in the fight against AIDS. Houston continued to mine the song well into the 2000s, proving that a great tune never loses its ability to move bodies and spirits.
Born Thelma Jackson on May 7, 1946 in Leland, MS, she was raised by her mother in Long Beach, CA. Like many R&B performers, she began singing as a child in her local church, which later led to a stint with The Art Reynolds Singers, a popular gospel group. Her vocal talents caught the attention of 5th Dimension manager Marc Gordon, who helped her land a deal with Dunhill Records. Acclaimed songwriter-arranger Jimmy Webb produced her solo debut, Sunshower, which reached No. 50 on the Billboard R&B chart. Houston signed with Motown Records in 1971, but her efforts for the label went largely unheard, save for the 1974 single, "You've Been Doing Wrong for So Long," which rose to No. 64 on the R&B charts.
At the same time, she began to experiment with acting roles on television, including the sketch comedy series "The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine" (ABC/ITV, 1971-72) and the made-for-TV drama "Death Scream" (ABC, 1975). That same year, Houston recorded a version of "Do You Know Where You're Going To," which was shelved and then re-recorded by Diana Ross as the theme to her feature film "Mahogany" (1975). Houston's fortunes changed for the better in 1976 with the release of her third album, Any Way You Like It. Its lead single, a cover of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' "Don't Leave Me This Way," became one of the biggest hits of the disco era, reaching the top position on both the Billboard singles and R&B charts in February 1977. The song later made Houston Motown's first female solo artist to earn a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance. However, the album's second single, "If It's the Last Thing I Do," failed to repeat the success of its predecessor, foreshadowing her subsequent releases for Motown.
She generated only modest hits with "I'm Here Again," from her fourth album, The Devil in Me (1978) and "Saturday Night, Sunday Morning" from Ready to Roll (1979), though the single "Love Masterpiece" enjoyed strong sales thanks to its inclusion on the double-platinum Thank God It's Friday (1978) soundtrack. By the early 1980s, Houston had left Motown for RCA, where she collaborated with then-fledgling producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on the Top 20 R&B single "You Used to Hold Me So Tight." However, her subsequent albums for the label found few listeners, which Houston attributed to the industry-wide backlash against disco occurring at that time.
Houston's acting career flourished during the 1980s, thanks to well-received guest appearances on series like "Cagney & Lacey" (CBS, 1981-88). She scored another prominent soundtrack hit at the end of the decade with a gospel take on the Bill Withers classic "Lean on Me" for the 1989 Morgan Freeman feature of the same name. During this period, "Don't Leave Me This Way" had received a second lease on life as an unofficial anthem for the AIDS movement. Several significant art exhibitions used the song as part of their message about the grief caused by the worldwide epidemic.
In 1990, Houston scored a Top 5 dance hit with the title track to Throw You Down, her first solo album in over six years. A 1995 remix of "Don't Leave Me This Way" further bolstered her presence on the dance charts. Houston herself was busy as a member of the superstar gospel group Sisters of Glory, which teamed her with Chaka Khan, Phoebe Snow and CeCe Peniston. The act later added Mavis Staples for appearances at Woodstock '94 and an audience with Pope John Paul II in Vatican City. In 2000, she toured Australia with a stage musical production of "Fame," and opened for Cher on her "farewell" tour in 2003. Two years later, she won an episode of the NBC reality competition series "Hit Me Baby, One More Time" (NBC/ITV, 2005) with back-to-back renditions of "Don't Leave Me This Way" and Alicia Keys' "Fallin'." Her biggest hit remained her calling card well into the 2000s, granting her high-profile 2009 performances on "American Idol" (Fox, 2002-16) and "America's Got Talent" (NBC, 2006- ).
By Paul Gaita