With close to 50 years in the business (“But who’s counting?” she says with a laugh), Houston shows no signs of slowing down. She’ll be boarding The Ultimate Disco Cruise next month (Feb. 14-19), joining Kool & the Gang, KC and the Sunshine Band, Rose Royce and Gloria Gaynor, among others (ThelmaHouston.com for more info). And she’s still performing her 90-minute one-woman show My Motown Memories & More, now in its fourth year.
Houston’s wish list moving forward is quite simple. “I just want to continue to be in good health,” she says, “and do what I’ve been doing because I love it so much. That’s what has kept me motivated and inspired. It hasn’t always been about having a hit record.”
While chatting with Billboard, Houston -- a self-professed Janelle Monae fan -- also talked about how Motown founder Berry Gordy initially wasn’t enamored of “Don’t” and why she was “mopping the kitchen” when she learned she’d won in 1978.
Why it was difficult giving up her broken Grammy. “Someone told me years ago that I should get it replaced. And you do have to give up the old one. But though it was broken, that Grammy had all my vibes. It had been there with me through all the changes in my life. So even though I was excited about getting a new one, it was still hard to replace it. I had the three pieces sitting up proudly. People might think I was being cavalier about this, but it’s just the opposite. It meant a lot to get this [initially], and it still means a lot because everyone that records doesn’t get a Grammy.”
Not attending the Los Angeles ceremony at which she won. “This was my second nomination. For my first [best female R&B vocal performance for 1974 single “You’ve Been Doing Wrong for So Long”], I went to the Grammys in New York that year but didn’t win. When the second nomination came up, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got strong competition this time [including Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin, Dorothy Moore and Diana Ross].’ My reasoning was I wasn’t sure how I’d respond if they didn’t call my name. I was at home [in L.A.] mopping the kitchen when I got the call that I’d won. [Former Motown executive] Suzanne de Passe was saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re not here and you won.’ That’s the biggest regret I have in my career: that I wasn’t there to receive the award myself.”
How she came to record the dance anthem. “Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes recorded it first. Suzanne was Motown’s head of A&R at the time. She heard the song and thought it would be great for a woman to sing. She and Hal Davis [who produced the Jackson 5 and others] came up with its disco arrangement. I felt good about it when it was done; that people would sure enjoy dancing to it. But I had no idea it would become the hit that it did.”
Berry Gordy’s underwhelming reaction. “The song almost didn’t get released because Mr. Gordy, the first time he heard it, was like, ‘Umm, I don’t hear it.’ I was so disappointed. But Suzanne [who had signed Houston to Motown] felt strongly about the song and released it. This was during the time when DJs playing in the clubs were becoming very powerful. If a song received a good reception there, that could help push it to radio.”
Motown’s 60th anniversary this year and ongoing legacy. “Motown is where I had the most recording success. I might add that I was also the first solo female artist on the label to win the Grammy for best female R&B vocal performance. A lot of people don’t know that. But there are also lots of good memories: touring with the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations … When I wanted to be in the music business, they were who I looked up to. To have ended up on the same label and worked with them means a lot.”