In the UK in 1977, Thelma Houston’s version of ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ was locked in a chart battle with the original rendition by Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes. The Melvin version, on Philadelphia International and with lead vocals by Teddy Pendergrass, charted first and peaked higher, reaching No. 5; Thelma’s single, on Motown, had to be content with a No. 13 UK ranking.
But it was very different in the US, where Melvin’s recording failed to make the R&B or pop charts at all, leaving Houston as the hands-down victor, and a Grammy-winner too. On 23 April 1977, fully two months after it had topped the US soul chart, her interpretation of the song written by Philly composer-producer giants Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff with Cary Gilbert moved to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. It went on to win the Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
This was the finest hour of crossover success for the already vastly experienced singer from Leland, Mississippi. She had debuted in 1969 with the classy Sunshower album, written (apart from a take on the Rolling Stones’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’), produced and arranged by none other than Jimmy Webb.
But it didn’t connect in any great sales numbers with an audience, and when Houston made her first pop chart showing, on ABC Dunhill, in 1970 with a version of Laura Nyro’s ‘Save The Country,’ it was only a moderate success. Then it was another four years before she ever appeared on the R&B listings, by now on Motown but again with a modest seller, ‘You’ve Been Doing Wrong For So Long.’
While Houston was making her Any Way You Like It album for Motown in 1976, her producer, Tamla stalwart Hal Davis, heard the Melvin recording of ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ at a party. With disco fever raging, he had his artist record an interpretation that mirrored the slow, brooding intro of the original, but then kicked into a four-on-the-floor treatment that worked in the clubs just as well as on both pop and R&B radio.
When the Los Angeles Times asked Houston why she thought she had had to wait so long for her moment of glory, she said: “I can’t put my finger on what the problem has been. I don’t want to blame anybody. I only know that I’ve been trying as hard as I can.”
Thelma has only reached the pop top 40 once more in America, with 1979’s ‘Saturday Night Sunday Morning.’ But she recorded some impressive material in the 1980s, notably the 1984 R&B top 20 hit and dance floorfiller for MCA, ‘You Used To Hold Me So Tight.’ In 2019, Houston was in the spotlight among the Motown artists of many eras who reunited for the Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration TV special.