If you've ever worried that age plays a major factor in life's gratification, talk to Thelma Houston. You'll likely find that, yes, it does: Kids are clearly not as full of life as their counterparts.
"I'm certainly no saint," says Houston, in what can only be described as an interview with more giggles and laughs than a classic SNL episode. "I enjoy my life, but I'm not going crazy."
Houston burst into the music world, major league, in 1977, with the smash hit "Don't Leave Me This Way," one of a handful of disco anthems, along with Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" and the Bee-Gee's "Staying Alive" that serve as a time capsule for the decade, and beyond. The 1970s are back big-time, on TV shows like The Spoils of Babylon and movies like American Hustle, and the movement is recapturing and re-invigorating the once-dismissed "Me" decade or "Hot Tub" decade. Music is the background anthem.
"People blamed disco for the demise of music, whatever," says Houston. "My answer is that music from that era has survived. We are still working: Anita Ward, Evelyn Champagne King, The Tramps... I just did an event in Palm Springs. It was sold out. They want to feel that, it's good-times music. My old fans, the grandmothers, and now the grandkids are coming to the show."
And if you noticed this interview began almost immediately with a reference to "Don't Leave Me This Way," it's because the endurance of that song led to one of the most famous partnerships since Hope and Crosby.
"I like the association," says Houston, obligingly and cheerfully, and, no doubt, repeatedly. "I believe that, having had that song as a hit, and getting a Grammy for that song, has certainly extended my career. On the other hand, sometimes people think I can only do that kind of music. It might bring the people in, but then I get to experiment."
Houston's an unwitting vessel of seventies tales and they trickle out of her like VIPs getting past the Studio 54 velvet rope. "Jimmy Webb produced my first solo album, Sunflower," says Houston, dropping one of those names that brings to mind disco balls and Solid Gold. "He wrote all the songs except for one. I didn't want to do it and he said 'Don't be acting the fool.' Over the years I've come to appreciate the fact that I recorded it."
Houston pauses at her own joke. "It was 'Jumping Jack Flash.'' Then she starts to sing it. Then we both start laughing at the silly lyrics. Then she laughs again.
"I do perform it now. At the time, back in 1969, I said, 'What is that song about? Explain this to me.''
Today, Houston is still very much experimenting. In the fall she released fortytwo, an EP that partnered her with L.A.-based Janitor, a 28-year-old producer mostly associated with the Indie Rock movement.
"He's an excellent musician," says Houston, adding that she wasn't trying to recapture her past. "We didn't write for a particular market. We just wrote for the thrill and what came from our souls and what came from our hearts."
I had no intention of bringing up the music industry's obsession with youth, nor I didn't need to. Houston dove right in: "[Janitor] came up with the name fortytwo, our age difference. It was never an issue in our writing or our collaboration. We understood where the other was coming from. Certain things in life; integrity, respect -- we can all agree on those things. If you're a hundred or seventy or seven, writers write. It's not an age thing."
The first track you'll hear from fortytwo is "Enemy," a striking ballad that pulls you in like a dramatic monologue. It's a far cry from disco, or dance, but not from Houston.
"We are ultimately responsible for being our own worst enemy," says Houston on the song's origins. "That negative side of you says that you can't do this; give it up and do something else. Look at it a different way. Maybe if I change this a little bit or whatever, it's the positive fighting the negative."
The second thing you're likely to notice about the song is Houston's powerhouse vocals, which sound as strong and full as they ever have.
"I feel that when you really look at singing, it has three parts," says Houston. "The entertainment side, the technical part, which is the instrument and the maintenance, and the other part, which is putting it together and having fun. Every once in a while I still go and take a series of lessons, just for technical reasons, to make sure you keep the things intact and not sloppy. It's like an athlete: You'd never think of just going in and doing your thing. You have to have an exercise program."
She continues: "Mostly it's having a great time. It's not, 'Oh, here we go again, another show.' I'm still excited to sing 'Don't Leave Me This Way.'"
Many singers with amazing voices started out in the gospel world. Many of them, like another singer with the same last name, had serious vocal problems as time progressed. Regardless of the long-term vocal results, gospel does seem to bring out the best in artists, at least in the beginning.
"What gospel does, if you start at an early age, it gives you confidence," says Houston. "You get immediate feedback. You get it from those sisters sitting in the church with fans and those hats saying 'Hmm, hmm, alright, yes, honey.' You know what I mean?"
"What that confidence, it allows you to explore things vocally within that safe environment... maybe I'll sing this a little differently. My mother was a Baptist, but I wanted to join a choir from a different church. My church affiliation was based solely on who would let me sing with the adult choir. I didn't want to sing little baby songs like 'Jesus Loves Me.' I wanted a solo part. That's how I did my negotiations."
In 2014, loving gay men is a job staple for popular singers. Not long after Thelma Houston arrived, it was a position of the heart.
"Do I know?" says Houston, sounding somewhat aghast at the, admittedly, lame question of whether or not she knows she has gay fans. "Are you kidding me? Surely you're not asking me that!" She then tempers her comments for a more serious conversation. "I appreciate the word 'fan,' but to me, I look at these people as supporters. These people, this community, has supported me from day one.
"Maybe because of the song... the song came out when gay people were becoming more political. It drew people to the HIV epidemic. Within our own little groups, we could find what was happening to our friends, who we needed to take food to. During the eighties, that community was still bringing me to their clubs, around the world. Are you kidding me? That was the best love, that will always be there."
And it is, in the Pride Festivals she plays and the people she still loves meeting.
"I did a major pride festival in Salt Lake City, on the grounds of the courthouse. Huge! One of the most family oriented pride festivals I've attended. Another one I did was in Omaha, Nebraska. I remember when it was just in the major cities. I remember back in the day, when the lesbian community wasn't getting along with the boys, and I didn't understand that. Now everybody's working together. I've seen so many changes. To me, it feels and looks as if there's been more of a change in the straight community, in the acceptance. Everything just seems to be coming together like it's supposed to be."
Thelma Houston has to say goodbye, and all I can think of is how I'd love to hear her talk, and sing, all night. I'm trying to think of something professional to say, businesslike, cause you never want to cross the line between talker and recorder. After a short lull in her voice, she says something that makes me forget my job, and just laugh, again.
"Of course, we better be getting ride of these Tea Party people and stop with all the in-fighting. But that's another story."
I couldn't have asked her to leave it any better way.
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