Thelma Houston needs no introduction. Any LGBTQ person of a certain age will at one time or another have danced euphorically opposite their date to her number-one 1977 “Don't Leave Me This Way,” chanting “You started this fire down in my soul / Now can't you see it's burning out of control…”
The song won the Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and indelibly connected her to our community. For while Houston’s powerhouse vocals took her from gospel to Motown to R&B, it was disco that put her in the charts and propelled her into the hearts of gay men and women because at that time, it was only in the nightclubs that same-sex dancing was permitted and LGBT culture and self-expression had a public space. The Gay Liberation movement peaked during the disco era and when AIDS put pause to both, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” became a bittersweet anthem to same-sex love and to the devastating impact of AIDS on our community.
It’s fitting then, that Houston is headlining RED is the Night. Aunt Rita’s Foundation, whose mission is to end HIV in all Arizona communities and demographics, has scheduled the fund-raising and awareness event RED is the Night, with proceeds benefiting 14 partner agencies that provide critical health, housing, and HIV prevention services in Arizona.
No stranger to performing for Arizona audiences, Houston is looking forward to her visit. I caught up with Houston ahead of her concert on September 25.
It's been a tough time with this pandemic. As a musical performer, how have you coped these past 18 months?
Thelma: Well, you know, on the one hand, for me, it was very devastating because I'm a family oriented person. I have grandkids and I have a great grandchild that was born at the start of it. And so isolating was very difficult. But on the other hand, because I realize you have to be are you still even as an entertainer, somehow make yourself visible in some way, you know, because people can easily forget it. So I had to learn Zooming, I had to go out and buy me a ring light, and I set up my house to make different areas. I created a library with all my books, which was like for my fireside-with-President Roosevelt-feel [laughs] and I just grew in other areas. But I tell you, I was so excited, I played my first performance this month with Michael Feinstein and Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis. It was a wonderful concert with the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra. And I'm telling you, I've always been grateful to be doing what I love doing, but I'm telling you — gratefulness —the realization of how important it is to be in front of a live audience.
Your number one hit in 1977 “Don't Leave Me This Way” was a big hit for the gay community because disco euphoria was the only place a lot of our people found joy and acceptance. What is music in your life? What does it mean to you personally?
Thelma: I do see music as being as being the universal language. And I do see that music is very powerful, music and art. I just think to me it's almost spiritual, music.
You mentioned music as a universal language but we have had so much division in this country in the past few years. What are your thoughts on that?
Thelma: I just think that to me, the last few years have been going in a downward spiral and the pandemic was almost like the straw that broke the camel's back to me. It was almost like, things that have been so important to me like Civil Rights, which was a great achievement in the ‘60s, it felt like it was all being stripped away. And there's so much fear of people, instead of reaching out a helping hand, it's like everybody's snatching them back…and it's made it a very desperate feeling. And the pandemic added to that by making us more isolated, not being able to reach out to other people and being with ourselves and thinking our own thoughts and not being able to share too much. I'm hopeful for the future. But right now, it's a very scary thing because I believe that we're at a point where our democracy could easily be taken away.
You’ll be seeing many people and uniting them all at RED is the Night in Phoenix, Arizona for Aunt Rita’s Foundation for HIV awareness. And how apt that we have this initiative during another health crisis?
Thelma: It’s the most important thing! If you don’t have your health the rest of it doesn’t matter. I mean, it doesn't matter if you have money and all that. Health is the backbone of everything.
Can you give us a little taste of what kind of what might your show be like?
Thelma: Well, for this kind of a show, this is RED is the Night party, I'm thinking that people are going to want dance music. Coming out of out of having to be by ourselves, it’s really enjoyable when people can get out and dance. There's nothing better than Motown music to get people in that kind of party mood. It was also memories of a better time. So I’ll be doing some of that and of course, “Don't Leave Me This Way,” I recorded that while I was on the Motown label. So of course, that's going to be up and front and center. So that's what we're going to be doing. We're going to get people to feeling happy to be out and be among other people. And I think that can kind of bring people closer and bring them back together.
Do you feel the music industry is getting better for women. What’s your feeling about women's rights in the business?
Thelma: Women love other women artists because they can relate to their songs and they buy their music and they support them. I think women have made some progress. I mean, in terms of being behind the board, producing and writing and having positions in record companies and so forth. But there's a whole lot of work to be done at the corporate level jobs in the music industry. But then there's also a lot of avenues for women to be powerful, like Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez, they can have these big empires, create their own wealth and so forth. And I think that's great.
It's a bit of a shock when somebody like Taylor Swift doesn't even own her own material.
Thelma: And the thing with Britney Spears! So we do have a long way to go.
You've got a lot of gay fans, you are a legend in our community.
Thelma: Well, some of my biggest and staunchest supporters when I was just starting out — the ones that were telling me to hang in there, my good friends — were gay and gay men, and why that is, what was the attraction, I don't know. One — we grew up together, he was my hairstylist — and we grew up together but we didn't hang out a lot as we were growing up but as we matured and I met again at the beginning of my career, he was one of my best supporters and one of my friends. And then when this terrible disease [AIDS] started happening and we didn't know what it was and why people were dying, and we just had to support each other and help each other out when we could and do whatever it was, that needed to be done for our friends. So it just kind of happened that way. And “Don't Leave Me This Way” was in the movie Looking For Mr. Goodbar, a big movie, and it was on the soundtrack and the song was getting a lot of play in the clubs and they were shooting some of the scenes in the clubs and they kept playing my song over and over and over. And I think that was how that happened. My song actually started from being played in the clubs as opposed to on the radio and that forced it onto the radio.
And lots of gay people were going to the clubs.
Thelma: And so that kind of was the marriage of my song and the gay community on a large scale. But prior to that, my support system…you know, it's so funny, I'm getting ready to do a documentary show called “Unsung” and they wanted to speak to some friends that were there at the beginning of my career and get their impressions of what was going on at the time and how was I as a person… And I was thinking and thinking and thinking. And they're all gone. There's no one… All of my big support people; people I’d cry to say, ‘This isn't happening. Why is this going on? Why, why?’ And they would say, ‘Thelma, hang in there girl, you know you got it. You know you're bad. You know it's going to happen for you. Oh they just crazy, don’t pay any attention to them…!’ These were the people. But they’re not here.
And the AIDS pandemic took all those people. And this pandemic has made us afraid to see each other, to hug each other. Life isn’t worth it without each other.
Thelma: No, it's not. It's really not. To have a different opinion, to have a conversation, that was the best thing for me. And to see my granddaughter, my two great grandchildren… I got to hug [my granddaughter] yesterday for the first time in a year.
RED is the Night is going to be very joyful and bring people together. Any message to your Arizona fans, your fans?
Thelma: Oh, I'm just so excited to get to Arizona. I love working in Arizona. And I'm just so excited to see everyone and, you know, just have a good ol' love fest. That's what I'm looking forward to.
RED is the Night is on Saturday, Sept. 25 at 6 pm at Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 N. Central Avenue. The evening begins with cocktails at the hosted bar and appetizers in the garden. Dinner in the main hall precedes Houston’s performance. Tickets range from $175 to $250 for VIP front row seating and tables are $1500 to $2500 for VIP from seating for eight. To register, visit www.auntritas.org.