This Way to Houston
A LONG ROAD AND, EVENTUALLY, A GRAMMY
A friend e-mailed me the other day: “Great, under-appreciated diva is exiled to package shows for most of 42 years, gets three minutes on national TV at age 72 and TAKES COMMAND!”
Yes, that’s Thelma Houston performing “Don’t Leave Me This Way” on Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration, broadcast in the U.S. a couple of weeks ago. The friend, Sean Ross of Edison Research (whose regular Ross On Radio column about music and programming is always worth reading), summarised the scenario perfectly, so what better time to revisit the story of the record?
Produced by the late Hal Davis, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” still stands head and shoulders above many of Motown’s 1970s chart-makers, and I first wrote about it for The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits. The following is adapted and expanded from that.
Once upon a time, Thelma Houston recorded gospel music with Art Reynolds. She worked with the composer of “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park,” Jimmy Webb. She interpreted the songs of Laura Nyro, Kris Kristofferson, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and Sammy Cahn.
She made a live, direct-to-disc album before most people knew what that was. She worked with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis before most people knew who they were. And she received a Grammy nomination before most people knew who she was.
Houston’s calling card has always been her versatility – and in 1976, that was a problem. “Everybody in the world had produced her,” Hal Davis explained to me for the Billboard book, “and nobody could come up with a hit. We needed to bring Thelma home.”
That’s an understatement. Between 1971, when the singer was signed to the MoWest label, and 1976, when “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was released, she’d hit the charts just once. That was with “You’ve Been Doing Wrong For So Long,” which was Grammy-nominated in ’74 for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. (Thelma’s competition then was Aretha Franklin, Millie Jackson, Shirley Brown, Etta James, Ann Peebles and Tina Turner; Aretha won, with her version of Motown’s “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing.”)
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” was authored by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Cary Gilbert, and originally recorded by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Houston told Billboard recently that it was Motown’s Suzanne dePasse who thought she should try the song. “I felt good about it when it was done,” the singer said, “[and] that people would sure enjoy dancing to it. But I had no idea it would become the hit that it did.”
GETTING LUCKY AT PARAMOUNT STUDIOS
Davis laid down the basic track in late 1975, during the same period that he shaped “Love Hangover” for Diana Ross. Both were cut at Paramount in Los Angeles (“that was my lucky studio”); he used the same core of players, including Art Wright on guitar, Henry Davis on bass, and James Gadson on drums, with the Waters on background vocals.
Wright’s propulsive lead guitar was the instrumental signature of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and “Love Hangover.” The musician also arranged the Houston track, making the most of Henry Davis’ fluid bass lines and Gadson’s sizzling hi-hat. “James had a good feel for things, and tempos that were just right,” said Wright. “He was an excellent time-keeper with good intuition. I’d write out the part, and he’d read it and say, ‘Can I take any liberties?’ Sometimes, if there were no liberties to be taken, then I’d specify that.”
Wright confirmed that the track for “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was cut some time before Houston’s vocal, with the result eventually appearing on her Tamla album, Any Way You Like It. “The original was done at the Motown studios, then we would have gone outside to Paramount. Hal hated to have to be locked in, in-house. He was one of the few that [Motown] would allow to work in an outside studio.”
Davis also used Wright as one of the background vocalists with the Waters and, perhaps, Oma Heard. “Oma had a sound Hal liked,” said Wright. “He was pretty loyal to anyone he worked with.”
Discos were hungry for diva-fronted tracks with enough length (and beats-per-minute) to jam the dance floor, so the 5:39 minutes of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” swiftly exploded out of Any Way You Like It towards the end of 1976. It topped the Billboard National Disco Action Top 40 for six straight weeks that December and into January ’77.
But before that, there was a problem with the American Federation of Musicians. As “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was being recorded, explained Hal Davis, “we were seven minutes into the tune, and the guy walked in from the union, saying, ‘Hey, we’ve been hearing that you’re cutting these long versions. You can’t keep doing that, we’re going to have to start charging extra.’
“I think it was three minutes to six, and when it hit six o’clock, he says, ‘You can’t keep going.’ We were jamming: we had a vamp going, the cats were playing, and this crazy joker from the union said, ‘Well, I’m going to stop the date.’
“I jumped out of my chair. ‘If you go out there [into the studio],’ I said, ‘it’ll be the first time you’ve been knocked out.’ I knew I had a beautiful masterpiece, and he had no feeling. But by that time, it was five minutes past six, and the guys had quit playing. They came in [to the control room] and said, ‘We did this for Hal, and he don’t have to pay nothing for the union.’ Now, how many guys can you get to do that?”
A BAD MOOD TURNED GOOD
Even so, the boss was not impressed when Davis visited Berry Gordy’s home with the result. “Berry was in a bad mood when I played that one. He said, ‘Put it on.’ I sat on the end of his bed, and the next thing I knew, he was standing up on the bed, jumping up and down in his shorts, saying, ‘Hey, man, you’ve got a smash. It’s so long and it’s so good.’”
After issuing Any Way You Like It on October 28, 1976, Motown shipped “Don’t Leave Me This Way” as a single (edited to 3:35 minutes) on November 18. It debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 exactly one month later, and eventually reached the pop chart summit in April. Because the original release was after the ’76 Grammys eligibility deadline, the recording was nominated the following year – and triumphed. Thelma took the statuette for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, the same category in which she’d lost to Aretha in ’74. This time, Houston beat out competition by Natalie Cole, Diana Ross, Dorothy Moore – and Aretha.
Earlier this year, the singer took part in “An Evening With Thelma Houston” at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, where she was presented with a replacement for the award which honoured her greatest hit. The original had been broken into pieces during the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, California. Evidently, she didn’t want to leave the Grammy that way.
Music notes: more than 20 albums by Thelma have been issued over the past 50 years, although not all can be found on digital streaming services. Fortunately, Any Way You Like It is available, as is her 1975 direct-to-disc experiment with Pressure Cooker, I’ve Got The Music In Me. That includes Houston’s take on Stevie Wonder’s “To Know You Is To Love You,” although compressed digital sound doesn’t do the album any favours. The singer has remade “Don’t Leave Me This Way” more than once, while on her 2007 album, A Woman’s Touch, she cut another song first recorded by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, “Wake Up Everybody.” In the physical realm, there have been two notable releases from David Nathan’s SoulMusic Records: an expanded, 19-track edition of Houston’s MoWest debut, and a two-CD set containing four Tamla albums, namely The Devil In Me, Ready To Roll, Ride To The Rainbow and Reachin’ All Around.