Some singers churn out records on a regular basis. Then there’s Thelma Houston. The woman who, along with Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor defined the Disco Era, hasn’t released a record in 17 years-itself possibly a record for a singer with name recognition, at least among the disco cognoscenti.
If you mention Thelma Houston to younger gay men, you may get the response, "Thelma Who?" But for those who lived through (and survived) the ’70s, the name evokes the age of the disco ball, the clone look and nights-into-day on the dance floor. And no song better typifies that age than Houston’s anthemic "Don’t Leave Me This Way," with its pleading storyline of love lost underlined by a throbbing bass hook and Houston’s understated yet passionate vocal delivery.
So, what’s she been doing all that time? And why the long wait for a new CD?
"There were no offers," the singer says matter-of-factly in a phone interview from her L.A. home. "When I learned I could have a career without having product all the time, it freed me up."
Houston frankly acknowledges that the topsy-turvy state of the music industry has made it more difficult for someone like her--a diva perceived as coming from another era--to generate heat with the suits in the front office. But she’s come to realize that alternatives like the Internet and personal sales at her concerts free up artists like herself to put out the kind of music she likes.
"There’s such diverse tastes in music that there should be an opportunity for everyone to enjoy what they want," she says. "Some people miss melodic music. Let’s face it: I’m a mature woman. For me to sing pop songs is ridiculous. My story is a little bit different, not that the music has to be staid or tired."
What prompted Houston to return to the studio was a meeting with producer Peitor Angell, who’s got a back-story of his own. Since moving to L.A. from New York 13 years ago, he’s carved out a niche as a film scorer, composer and producer of dance music that harks back to the days when singers actually had voices and used them.
Angell’s first love has always been R&B, and his discography reflects that, including three songs written and produced for Pat Hodges, and a CD for Sweet Inspirations. When the two met through a mutual acquaintance, they immediately bonded over their love of the old R&B standards.
The result of their collaboration is A Woman’s Touch. The hook is that all of the songs were originally recorded by men. Angell says the framework came about almost by accident. "Looking at the choices it seemed as if most of the songs we were discussing were initially recorded by male singers," he says. "So I suggested we keep all of the songs for the CD initially recorded by male singers."
The choices range from Smokey Robinson’s "Ain’t That Peculiar" to a Sylvester medley to Sting’s "Brand New Day," all infused with Houston’s smoky vocal lines and Angell’s retro Philadelphia Wall of Sound-type lush productions. There are also some talking intros, unusual for a compilation CD, which Angell says references Old Style divas like Millie Jackson and Marlena Shaw.
Houston cites the arrangements as giving the songs the proper surroundings. "Peiter lives in that era," she says. "When we first got together, we were talking about the CD I wanted to do. He pulled out all these records he listened to all the time."
Despite the 17-year-recording respite, Houston has always had a loyal fan base. "I enjoy the gay crowd," she says. In turn, she’s worked on AIDS benefits since the early days of the epidemic. She’s been especially active in pediatric AIDS and organizations that bring companion animals to people with AIDS. West Hollywood acknowledged her work a few years back with the proclamation of a "Thelma Houston Day."
For his part, Angell is currently working on two CDs, both, he says, in a "very ’60s international big-band mode. The first is a collaboration with singer Kristi Rose, with whom he worked on an off-Broadway show 26 years ago, on a CD of German, English and Italian songs-"Petula Clark meets Frank Sinatra in Monte Carlo." The second is a tribute to the Swinging London sound of the ’60, "a soundtrack for a film that’s never been made." The two CDs will be released under the brand name of Monte Carlo & His Orchestra, which brings to mind Sean Connery in a tux asking for "shaken, not stirred" while at the 21 table.
Like Houston, Angell is realistic about the recording industry: "It’s crashing." But like her, he says he finds that liberating. Although the record companies are sticking more and more with tried-and-true (and, increasingly tired) artists, he’s working on projects that interest him and that he finds fulfilling, rather than just pushing product.
And Houston? She remains busy performing in legitimate theater productions and doing concerts. She’s excited about seeing more and more younger faces in the crowds. When the expected dance remixes of "A Woman’s Touch" hit the clubs, there may be a lot more.
For more information about Thelma Houston, visit her website.
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Boston University Theatre, runs through December 3, November 15 is Out & About Club for members of the GLBT community and includes pre-show reception, for information and tickets to go www.huntingtontheatre.org