By Darlene Donloe
After 45 years of performing and 23 studio albums Thelma Houston is still rockin’.
The iconic and legendary singer whose 1977 anthem Don’t Leave Me This Way garnered her a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, hasn’t missed a beat.
This weekend the songstress, who has been featured on American Idol and America’s Got Talent, brings her musical stylings to the Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood in Chris Isaacson Presents Thelma Houston: My Motown: Music, Memories, and More.
Her new 90-minute show takes fans on a musical journey through her hit-filled career.
I recently caught up with Houston to discuss the show and her career.
DD: Describe the show. What can audiences expect?
TH: The first line I speak in my show after I’ve been singing a little while is: “This is my musical history.” That’s what it is. It’s my musical history starting from the idea when I was initiated by my principal in junior high school. He thought I could have a career. Then we move on to my time at Capitol Records, ABC Dunhill and Motown.
DD: Did you write this show?
TH: I didn’t write it, but I had all these experiences. In this show I do a Motown medley about eight minutes long. It’s every song that was a hit on Motown. I’ve been doing that for years because when I started on the road, I hadn’t had a big hit record yet. A genius arranger named Gil said he’d put together a medley of songs that will make people get up out of their seat. He said I needed to have that kind of song.
People have been asking me over the years –did you record any of those songs? I didn’t want to do a Motown revue. I started thinking about my experiences with people that I really admired. People like Smokey Robinson. I did Carnegie Hall with him. I also worked with the Four Tops and The Temptations. Stevie Wonder produced something for me.
DD: What was it like to be a Motown artist?
TH: I didn’t join the Motown label until they moved to LA. They started MoWest – that’s when I joined. For me it was a dream come true. I always wanted to be on the Motown label. My biggest hit came while at Motown. The name is powerful. Growing up those people were my peers. To me it was like going to a college or university because you learn how to work with different people, how to be professional, getting the job done, being able to work with any number of producers and knowing the material. It all shaped you and made you a professional.
DD: In 1977 your career hit meteoric status changed with the hit song, Don’t Leave Me This Way. You won a Grammy Award for that song. You’ve been singing it for a long time. Do you ever get tired of singing that song?
TH: NO! I’m probably one of a few people when asked would say, ‘No’, I don’t get tired. For me, if you don’t have a hit record your exposure is limited. That’s unfortunate. That song was it for me. It gave me my career. A hit will give you 10, 15 even 20 years. In my case it’s also been in movies. It’s in the movie, The Martian right now. As a result of the song, I have four bookings next summer for the Pride Festival. I never get tired.
DD: Don’t Leave Me This Way has been your signature song since the 70s when disco was king. Do you miss disco?
TH: Disco got so much attention. Some rebelled against the sound. In a way I see it. In a way some people thought they could sing anything with a beat. They thought they could put any kind of words to it. The good thing about this music is - this past summer I was invited to sing on the shore in New Jersey. On the show were groups like the Village People – we sold out. People were having such a good time. I have some corporate dates where I play their conventions. On the closing night they give their people a big disco party. It’s still popular. I have no shame that my hits were from that era.
DD: After all these years – what happens when you hit the stage?
TH: I’m always a bit nervous and apprehensive. I hope it never goes away. I’m excited after all these years. I’m still grateful that this is a way I can earn a living. You take a big risk when you’re your own boss. Next week I’m in New Orleans. I have something in December. I don’t. know what’s happening in February. It’s all day to day. I’m so happy I chose to do this. I thank God and I’m grateful. I’m a fortunate person.
DD: What is the secret to staying relevant?
TH: I have kids and grandkids. They will keep me relevant. They tell me what’s going on. I like a lot of music that’s out there right now. I have to keep it together. I believe in exercising. I’m not trying to stay young, but rather grow old gracefully. I can’t believe I have 90 minutes of stuff. How am I going to remember it all? You just gotta keep going.
DD: What does music and performing do for you?
TH: Well, there are times when I like silence, too. Good music gives me a happy feeling. I like gospel, jazz, rock n roll and R&B. I have to feel there is something about it that’s real. When I hear music or sing, I feel something within my body. I wish I could verbalize it. It’s a very strong feeling. It’s powerful. If it’s real, I feel it.
DD: How do you get up for a show? Do you have any rituals?
TH: It’s a 90-minute show. I stay consistent with my exercising. I also go to my vocal coach, the same one I’ve been going to for 30 years. I run. I try to do vocal warm ups. I run the stairs to open my voice up.
DD: The music industry has changed over the years. Your thoughts about today’s music?
TH: It depends. Right now I’m into the Weeknd. (she sings) “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you.” I’ve been liking that for a while. I bought it. I also like Beyonce, Bruno Mars and Janelle Monae. There are a lot of people I like. I still like Aretha Franklin. In the era I came from – there were so many good singers. There were singers like Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle. The vocalists now, well, there just aren’t as many as in my day, but they still bring something to the table.
Thelma Houston, Catalina Bar & Grill, 6725 W. Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood on Friday, Oct. 23 and Saturday, Oct. 24 at 8:30 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m. for cocktail and dinner service. Single entrée or drink minimums apply. Admission: $20-$35 and VIP seating is available (including front row seats and a meet-and-greet with Houston) for $50. Tickets may be obtained online at www.TicketWeb.com or by phone at (866) 468-3399. For more information, visit ThelmaHouston.com, ChrisIsaacsonPresents.com, or TicketWeb.com.