The day before we’re scheduled to meet for lunch for our interview, I run into Thelma Houston on the street outside of Teatro ZinZanni’s spiegeltent. She’s bundled up from head to toe, well insulated from Seattle’s blustery September weather. She’s waves and continues to walk briskly, headphones on and weights in each hand.
“I love to exercise, gotta keep moving!” she says when I ask her about it the next day when we meet at Toulouse Petit for lunch.
“I thought the rain here in Seattle would be an issue but I find that I keep doing whatever I’ve got to do anyway,” says the singer and one of the stars of Teatro ZinZanni’s current show, Hearts on Fire.
Petite and compact, Thelma marches up Queen Anne Avenue all the time (“That hill is a great workout!”), has breakfast at The 5 Spot and makes her rounds of the top of hill shops. (“I’m a fan of the Queen Anne Bookstore – I love talking with the staff about their recommendations”) before heading back to the tent.
“I miss the Yarn Shop,” she says. “Christine Deaver and I really got into knitting last time I was here. A nice young man at a shop called So Much Yarn down on First Avenue taught us how to knit and we really got into it. There’s a wonderful community connection, sitting around knitting. You can’t find that in L.A.”
The current run of Hearts on Fire marks Thelma’s third time in Seattle.
“I love everything about ZinZanni – the cast, the music, the audience. The only thing I ever worry about is the costume fitting!” she jokes. “The costumes are so amazing – I have a deep appreciation for all the time, talent and effort that goes into each costume. I make a serious commitment to each one of my five costumes which are custom made for this body – I tell myself while I’m out there singing and dancing – ‘do it for the dress!’”
Staying in shape is a joyful challenge for the 60-something singer.
“I’ve set myself a serious goal of being able to climb to the top of a rope,” she states emphatically. “When Hearts on Fire played in San Francisco, I got to spend time with Bianca, the choreographer, who has a rope act. I trained with Les Petits Freres (the French tumbling act) at the gym – they were very, very patient with me and highly disciplined – they would say: ‘that was fine, Thelma, now do it again. And again. And again!’”
Thelma Houston hit it big at the height of the Disco era with her seminal hit “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” She sings it at every performance of Hearts on Fire. The very first notes of the emblematic disco anthem have the audience up on their feet without fail.
Born in Mississippi in 1946, Thelma moved to Long Beach, California, with her mother and sisters and got her start singing in church. She joined the Art Reynolds singers after having her three daughters, and was subsequently signed by Dunhill Records. Over the course of Thelma’s career so far, she has been a recording artist, a performer, an actress and a songwriter.
When asked if she ever tires of her association with disco, she smiles broadly. “Whenever music has a good melody and tells a story, it can stand up to the test of time. I love that young people are constantly rediscovering and sampling this song. It means it lives on.”
Thelma’s career has taken her from the heyday of disco and Studio 54 to an Australian tour of Fame to appearances on American Idol and America’s Got Talent.
“I really love live performance,” she says. “The anticipation, the uncertainty, you never know what’s going to happen, you have to go for it.”
“I recorded a song for a live vinyl recording in 1972 called ‘I Got The Music in Me’ produced by Sheffield Lab with Pressure Cooker,” she continues. “It was an experimental album for the time, I had to do it all in one take in the studio and it was recorded right onto vinyl. I absolutely loved everything about that experience.”
Young people play a special role in Thelma’s life. She makes time for her family, especially her granddaughter, and spends time setting high standards for physical exercise and healthy eating. She also volunteers for the NAACP.
“Recently I was invited by Julian Bond to speak at a NAACP conference in New York. He asked if I would speak about my career to a group of young people. So I did, told my story, what I would have done differently, etc. After the Q and A, I met an inspiring young homeless woman, Khadijah Williams, who is now a student at Harvard. She was recently a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s show and in fact, was invited by Oprah to accompany her to Africa to the opening of her school, but Khadijah had to decline because she was studying for finals. Khadijah and I really clicked and have kept in touch. She’s become my inspiration.”
– By Beth Brooks, Director of Communications & Marketing, Teatro ZinZanni – Seattle