Disco diva Thelma Houston was a gay activist before it was cool
In a recent op-ed for Advocate magazine, out musician Eric Himan blasted organizers for having straight performers play Pride celebrations. He made some valid points, but even Himan might carve out an exception for Thelma Houston. Sure, her signature song, “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” is a must for any disco collection, but she’s also been overtly involved with the queer community since those early days of disco.
From playing the iconic gay Dallas club The Old Plantation to her AIDS activism before the disease even had a name, Houston is undoubtedly an ally of the highest measure. She continues and combines her passions for entertaining and awareness at Razzle Dazzle Dallas when she headlines the eighth MetroBall, a benefit for the Greg Dollgener Memorial AIDS Foundation.
In an interview before her show, Houston (no relation to Whitney, by the way) discusses her role in today’s generation, how she paid tribute to her contemporary Donna Summer and how she might have fared if American Idol were around when she began.
Dallas Voice: Without knowing it, you were an AIDS activist early on. How did that happen? Houston: Way back then, my gay friends were getting sick and dying and we didn’t know what was going on. So, in small ways, I would do these benefits to help them with their medical problems. Unfortunately, we still have to do this. I want people to come out and support a great cause and enjoy the night. I’m looking forward to Dallas.
Donna Summer was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What did that say to you about the era when you both hit it big? I think it gave us some validity as a music genre. It always should have because there were great songs and we had live musicians playing in the studio. Now it’s just called different names, but people like to dance. It’s a good feeling. I just recorded “Last Dance” and “MacArthur Park” for a tribute album to her. Those were great songs that bring back good memories. I was devastated when she passed.
Oooh, any juicy stories from there? Yeah, but only off the record! [Laughs]
You performed on American Idol for a disco-themed show. How do those shows that jumpstart careers resonate with you? It’s a different time for music. These contestants don’t get the chance to make mistakes and hone their craft. They make their mistakes in front of millions. But I get into it. I’ve called in and voted. I think [winner] Candice Glover is fantastic. She’s a singer! But it’s also funny to see how some talents get passed over like Jennifer Hudson and look at her now.
If Idol was on back when you were starting, how far do you think you would have gone? Oh, honey, not very far because I wouldn’t have auditioned. My hats off to those who make it, but I would never stand in those lines. Never!
Good thing you’re an idol already.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 31, 2013.