Out of the hundreds of celebrities I have met and interviewed, I have only been really starstruck four times in my life, this is the fifth. Thelma Houston The Diva of Divas.
One of the Original Diva’s of music, Houston has crossed so many boundaries, broken as many rules in the industry, left a legacy that will be impossible to match for a very long time. She has been an icon in the LGBTQ Community for so long, when she started it was just called “The Gay Community”. She was the first woman on Motown to have won a Grammy, as she came to the public eye with the 1977 disco gem “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, but that barely scratches the surface of her history. She has worked with the greats, not to name-drop, but… Stevie Wonder, Patty Labelle, Smokey Robinson, Chaka Khan, Mavis Staples, and the completely unknown kid Lenny Kravitz. And those were just the early days. She does a mean tribute to her late friend Aretha Franklin, and has performed with The Communards (who she inspired to cover Don’t Leave Me This Way), recently she has worked with the Dance Music producer Bimbo Jones, with a song “Turn the World Around”, that sounds as current as anything you would hear in a club today, and then to no one’s surprise, Alternative Musical Icon, Morrissey. Having performed around the world in Pride parades, and for The Pope in Rome, with such a resume at age 73, and her new band “42” she clearly has a bright future ahead of her.
Jeremy Hinks: I have to say this is quite an honor, because for you, the history and career is nothing short of tremendous.
Thelma Houston: Well thank you, I’m glad to be here.
JH: So, here is my history with you, I’ll explain. It was in 1983-84, I was living in Washington DC, and I would record Saturday afternoon reruns of Soul Train on the local station. That was a great place to get the good soul, and R&B music, George Clinton, Marvin Gaye, those guys. And I remember very clearly seeing your legendary performance. There you were on this stage in a white polyester suit, above this sea of afros, just blowing us all away with “Don’t Leave Me This way”. It was one of my favorite episodes. Then a few years later, I heard the Jimmy Sommerville version on the new wave radio station, and I had to go home and dig through 10 tapes of Soul Train reruns to find your performance, and it was just as awesome to listen to them both, and compare them. But it was you that made the song incredible to begin with, and still is the gold standard.
TH: Well, I’ll tell you a funny story about that with Jimmy Sommerville. We both happened to be working in Europe, and it was my off night, and I went to his show, and his manager knew that I was there, so he gave me a microphone so that when Jimmy started singing “Don’t Leave Me This Way” I started singing it with him walking up to the stage. And he just freaked, it was so much fun, and he had NO idea I was even there, so it was this huge surprise for him. That was so funny, he was so gracious. One other time, we were both doing Pride in New York, and you know the Pride parade in New York is huge. And I was on one float, singing “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, and then later on miles down, he was singing “Don’t Leave Me This Way” too. So that was fun, and it was once again all comes full circle.
JH: Wow, add that to your work with, god, take your pick, Stevie Wonder, Nile Rodgers, whomever. So, for me, 83-84, was great on the pop side, we had Cyndi Lauper, and Pat Benetar kind of singers, and the soul singers were starting to vanish. We were getting the stuff like Janet Jackson, and Whitney Houston, who didn’t have or weren’t able to give us what you, Chaka Khan, Grace Jones, Donna Summer, and some of the greatest voices had for so long. So we were on a real drought of great female soul singers for years, it took a long time to get back into it with ones I did like. You never seemed to have faded though, clearly.
TH: Yeah, disco got a kind of bad name around then, everybody thought they could come up with that formula with that disco beat, I can’t remember what it was, I think it was 130 beats per minute. But that if they could do that beat, and then put whatever on top, it was going to be great and be a “Disco Hit”. A lot of it to me, there was some good music, there were good SONGS, it wasn’t just about a beat, but they were stories that people could be able to dance to as well. Then when they started hating on disco, a lot of it changed, because people didn’t feel that it was even real anymore. For me, I couldn’t get jobs in one area, but I could in another, but if they had that air quotes about “Disco”. But the good thing about all of that is, that it’s STILL around, and people are STILL dancing to the old stuff, the good stuff.
JH: Well, several jokes about that, I think I am the ONLY straight, white male Grace Jones fan, I love her, and I stack you up with her.
TH: Oh yes, love Grace, Grace is my girl!!!
JH: Anyway, The BEE GEES were the ones who killed Disco, lets face it. They put out that awful “Spirits Having Flown” album, that had, like you said, the “Disco Formula”, the 130 beats per minute, lush strings, stolen ABBA riffs, crap lyrics, and falsetto, TOO MUCH FALSETTO. After that album came out, It was a bunch of white guys overdoing it. No one could disco seriously because those guys took themselves seriously, killed all the fun.
TH: So you think the Bee Gees did it?
JH: Yeah, “Tragedy” and “More than a Woman ” and “Stayin Alive”. None of that even came close to what you all gave us. I mean, look at Sylvester, … Actually, let’s talk about Sylvester. I LOVED THAT GUY. Actually right before your publicist called me, I had “Hard Up” playing on my shuffle. *( Sylvester James was a gay disco icon, who died of AIDS in 1988)
TH: Yes, I LOVED Sylvester, I do a wonderful tribute to him in my show.
JH: I’ve heard it’s great, he was one of your buddies as I understand.
TH: It isn’t like we talked to each other all the time, or on the phone, but when we were on the same bill for the gig, we would hang out, have a bite to eat or whatever. BUT, with him hanging out, he had us both laughing all the time, he was just such a fun person. I had such admiration for him before I even had a hit. When he would come through Los Angeles as “Sylvester and the Two Tons of Fun”, and I went to all of the shows. That was the best show, his energy, charm, I loved what he stood for.
JH: I was 13 when he died, so I missed out on all of that, but I’ve seen your Sylvester show on YouTube, and it’s wonderful. So, he lived up to the reputation?
TH: OH YES!!! He was such a kind person, and he always felt very strongly about bringing legitimacy and organizing the LGBTQ community, back then it was just called the “Gay Community”. He was very involved in that.
JH: Well, the whole joke of the war of icons, he was called the “Queen of Disco” but others say it was Donna Summer who really held the title. Lemme ask you, jumping right in, 60 years of Motown, the first woman to win a Grammy on Motown, a beyond impressive resume. At that time when you were taking the heyday, two part question, what was it that made you decide to become the voice that you were for the community, and next, was it difficult in your social circles to be supportive of it.
TH: Lemme start off by saying that, as far as a friend of the LGBTQ community, my friends and supporters, some of whom are people I had gone to school with, I’m talking Jr High school, these were my friends, and “my people”, did my hair, whatever. So when this AIDS thing was happening, and we didn’t even know what it was, but our friends were getting sick with this, trying to figure out what it was, in the meantime, we had to take care of each other. People needed rides to the doctors, people needed food brought to them, had people take care of them, little things like that. So it was out of necessity with our friends. But as the movement became more organized, and get people to really understand what it was, and get people to stop seeing it like if you touch somebody you were going to catch it. For those of us at that time, it turned to where I am in this time of my life, I’m in my twilight years, and now it’s natural for friends to be dying of natural causes, heart attacks, and poor health, it’s acceptable. Back then, we were so devastated by who we were losing, and how many people were dying. We were young, and that was going on, we were scared. I was going to funerals so often, just too much. That was my involvement, it was out of necessity, but what you do for your friends.
JH: Well, I know you were also in the Gospel circles, ’cause I know you still had a lot going on with that through your career.
TH: Well, I started doing the Gospel singing prior to getting a record contract. I was with a Gospel group called the “Art Reynolds Singers”, we ended up doing a gospel album for Capitol Records. We would do shows at churches, and one time we went to Philadelphia. And you know how on the R&B stations on Sunday morning they will have a “Gospel Show”, this big station had one of those big shows, where they had all these artists with hits on the radio. People were requesting for our music to be played on the radio, and then that was our first time to perform on this great big show with these artists. And that was the first time I actually met Patti LaBelle, she was in this group called Patty and the Blue Bells. I don’t even remember who else was on that show.
JH: WAIT, Does it even matter who else was on the show? WOW, this is history man.
TH: See, I’m telling you stuff that I never get to talk about, I hate answering the same old questions, “Who did you work with here, What was your favorite place to play, tell me about so-and-so.” I like telling people stuff that they might not know. So, we were doing Gospel, and everyone was performing in their regular clothes, and we were in our robes, it was great. We were singing “Jesus is Just Alright with Me” and the song “Glory Glory Hallelujah”, which was later covered by the Byrds, and The Doobie Brothers did “Jesus is Just Alright with Me” I still think Michael McDonald does it in his current show. (She sings a few bars of it in Michael McDonald style, and yes I am laughing).
JH: See, you have done so much, I would say, Smokey Robinson, you do a fantastic Aretha tribute, it’s all just phenomenal, and you just said a moment ago that you are in the “Twilight Years” and everyone is naturally dying off with failing health. I watched your performance there, and you were still kicking it, I mean, very animated, active, full of energy. Okay, 83-84, taping Soul Train and watching the reruns. I didn’t realize it at the time, but you were lip syncing it, ’cause that’s how they did it back then.
TH: Oh yeah, that was the only way to do it back then, unless you were on the shows like “Midnight Special” or Phil Donahue, Glenn Campbell, those shows with the big budgets, there you could really perform live. That is so funny, all they had was the stage, and this dummy microphone, and they played the track. And I was then, and I still am now, TERRIBLE with the lip syncing, and so they would have to pull that camera angle back, cause I would be there adding words into those songs that were nowhere in that track. It was a different way back then. I’m not knocking it, but looking at the shows now, to see them perform and think, how can they dance like that, and sing, and not be out of breath. But these people lip syncing, they got it down, I never did.
JH: So when I was watching the Motown performance, and that blew me away, I mean really you tore it up, you sounded incredible, and in fact better than the first time I saw it on Soul Train. And this is 40 plus years later. To see you with all the energy, as animated as you were, I could see it in your face, you were really having fun, you were OWNING it. You kept that so well, I’m not ripping on your ‘77 performance, but clearly, it was so much better seeing you do it live. I wish I could get to your upcoming Vegas show, but can’t squeeze it in.
TH: So, what part of the country are you in now?
JH: I’m in Salt Lake City Utah.
TH: Oh, well let me tell you something interesting about that, I have been involved in “Gay Pride” parades since the very beginning, when it was maybe two or three cars coming down Santa Monica Boulevard. And, I was doing the Pride Festival in Salt Lake City on the grounds of City Hall, and there is more of a family kind of celebration in Utah. I saw how much it has changed for people, and how people have changed their hearts. I think one day soon, its just gonna be “People” that’s my hope.
JH: Well, I’m in the thick of the fight here in Utah, my wife and I we take our kids to march in the Pride parade, my wife and I do photography work for LOVELOUD, and Encircle, they are both outreach groups for the youth. That is our love for the community, and we are actually pushing for the day that “Gay Pride” is a potluck picnic at a city park, and they play Frisbee, and that’s it, cause nobody cares anymore. It will happen, I mean Pride is a great party, but I hope it gets to where nobody cares.
TH: Well, I had the opportunity to go to Cuba for their Pride, they don’t call it Pride. But during the week of the celebration, they have seminars, medical seminars, workshops. They have so much information and resources, it’s an everyone kind of thing, families. I thought it was interesting, an outreach to inform those who need information, to embrace those who are gay, or LGBTQ, and here are the solutions to some of these problems. And you think “Backwards Cuba ” and see that they are clearly much further ahead than the United States on this. It was very eye opening for me.
JH: To hear you say that’s an eye-opening experience, after everything you have been through, is very impressive. The reason they try to make Pride so family friendly here is because Utah has the highest rate of LGBTQ teen suicides in the entire country, because of the religious stigma. These kids are getting kicked out of their houses, being shunned and mistreated so badly, that we are constantly fighting that. So that’s why we got involved, that was to reach out to them all. I mean, I started by marching in a parade, and offering to photograph at a concert for free, then its lead me here, talking to you, one of the great icons and allies of the gay community. You are so celebrated for your efforts with the AIDS outreach efforts in West Hollywood, your name is synonymous with that.
TH: I did it, because there were friends that needed it, and that was what you do, and then there is another organization, called “The Minority Aids Association” which dealt with AIDS and HIV in the minority communities. And that was to being more education and information and resources to the community. I felt the need for that, and donated what I could for them. Wherever it is that I can do something, I will do it. Everyone has their thing, mine is early childhood education, and everything for the LGBTQ communities.
JH: Well, I’m looking at your concerts roster, you are playing Vegas, these casinos, and Epcot, can I just say, to see you still kicking it at this age, its impressive. Bravo to everything you have done so far, but what’s in front of you, cause you are obviously having the time of your life.
TH: Yes, I am having so much fun, and I am probably working more, and I’ve never taken it for granted, but I have always been happy being able to do the work that I do. But there is a realization coming in this season of my life, there is an appreciation for having a career I still love, and I still have a passion for. I find myself to be one of the lucky ones.
JH: Well, to see you still feeling, sounding, and and performing so well, it’s incredible, I saw one well-known performer a while back and he was, well, “washed up”, and there is a lot of that going on. You are not, you sound better than you ever did. You have everything to be proud of, and that you spoke for the community when no one would listen to them, but they would listen to you.
I’m going to move on, and, you said you don’t like being asked the same questions about Smokey Robinson, and whoever, BUT… I do want to ask, I can’t avoid it. Can I bring up the Bimbo Jones business?
TH: Oh sure
JH: Okay, that song was great, it dropped you back into sound absolutely current. There wasn’t a hint of nostalgia in that, you sounded like it was brand new, you were brand new, like you were the hottest new voice out there. I thought that you sound so new, and so fresh, and so magical, after so long, no offense to your age, that is astounding. My hat is off to you, but how did you pull that off?
TH: Well, we rewrote it, that’s all, and we recorded it 3 years ago, and he said “Okay love, let’s see what we can come up with” with his English accent. But, I think I sounded so current, and young because I work out a lot, I exercise, and that is one of the things I do on a regular basis, I find that helps me a lot with singing and energy level. It comes through in you voice, and in your being.
JH: I was born into the world 10 years late for a lot of the music that I like, but this next person I want to mention is one for my age group and who I listened to a lot since I was a teenager… How did you ever end up working with Morrissey? Everyone is astounded at this. No one works with Morrissey, and the song is so good, and it’s so different, does not sound like it’s yours, and certainly doesn’t sound like Morrissey, it’s such an amazing clash of sounds and styles, and I think it should be the opening theme of a James Bond film.
TH: Okay, an unlikely story, yes, no one works with Morrissey, some years ago I was writing with a young man, a bass player. We were doing a fundraiser, and we just clicked, and we formed a little band. He had a DJ setup, and he would play bass and sample, and our group is called “42” ’cause that’s the difference in our ages. So we did this cover of Morrissey ‘Suedehead’ and I had never heard of the guy. The reception was great, and we did a Foo Fighters’ song too. We did a little 45 of ‘Suedehead’, and then a few years later, I got an email from Morrissey, and he asked me if I would like to record with him. So I worked with him in the studio. So when he played at the Hollywood Bowl recently, he had me perform at his after party. And I just found out that the song is going to be THE SINGLE he released for this album. In the studio he was just a gentleman. And when I asked him “Well, how do you want me to do this?” He said “Well, I don’t really know, I don’t usually work with people on vocals, so, I’ll do my part, and you sing however you think it should sound.” He took a back seat and didn’t tell me how to do anything, he just let me sing.
JH: So you are getting dropped in front of a totally new generation for an audience, that’s incredible. You even got an audience and performed for The Pope. So, what’s next? Are you going to call up KISS and do something with them, cause, I think that’s the only band you haven’t worked with.
TH: I would LOVE to work with KISS! Those guys are great, that would be a lot of fun. (I was kidding, she wasn’t).
JH: Okay, my final question, I ask everyone this one. What would your message be, what would you say to the young kid, the LGBTQ youth, who is afraid to come out, suicidal, and in a vulnerable state?
TH: Wow, that’s one I’ve had to think a lot about over the years. I would say, find the resources available, the information that is out there for you, because there is a lot, there are groups of people who love you and want to help you. Learn as much as you can to navigate through this, and it will get better, find the people who can and will support you, and you will see life getting better, there are enough people who love you, find them.
- Saturday, April 25th Thelma will be performing in Las Vegas, NV. at Sam’s Town Casino For tickets go to: www.TicketMaster.com and put Thelma Houston in the Search Bar to find the show.
- Friday, May 8th and Saturday, May 8th Thelma will be performing in Orlando, FL. at Disney’s Epcot where she will be performing 3 shows a day at the America Gardens Theatre located in the American Adventure Pavilion. These concerts are part of the Garden Rocks concert series and the 2020 International Flower and Garden Festival.
Thelma’s photos from http://thelmahouston.com/