Thelma Houston ‘Four Original Classic Albums on Motown’ 2CD (SoulMusic) 4/5

Disco diva extraordinaire for Motown, Thelma Houston, scored with the mammoth hit single and reprise of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, and attempted to follow that up with a series of other albums for the label. While none hit the dizzy heights of that refined soulful single, there is still much to take in on this excellent value for money set of re-issues (some albums seeing the light on CD for the first time and as such essential for fans of Houston) that takes the story of her tenure at Motown through to the very end in 1979 from her debut back in 1971. First of, ‘The Devil In Me’ from 1977, which tried to repeat the formula of the disco classic, with a Mike and Brenda Sutton penned uptempo song in ‘I’m Here Again’ which hints at ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. It performed respectably in both the R&B and dance charts, and on the 12″ version that is included here, the instrumental break down would become a firm favourite of seminal DJ Larry Levan. The sound of Philly had permeated soul music by the mid-1970s and that is reflected here by the lush strings on the ballad, ‘Baby, I Love You Too Much’, and on ‘I Can’t Go On Living Without Your Love’. A second album, ‘Ready To Roll’ (1978), was the stronger and funkier of the albums on the first CD, and this was due in large part to the excellence of the arrangements by Hal Davis. In an uptempo vein, ‘Love Is Comin’ On’, was ideally suited to the dance floor, while ‘Midnight Mona’ was an astute number that deserved to be the A-side rather than the B-side when it came out on 45.

For the third album offering, the title track to, ‘Ride To The Rainbow’ (1979), was another disco oriented piece that was a moderate success, but of interest was a cover of The Miracles’ ‘Love Machine’, with an oh so familiar bass line riff and percussion. A personal favourite from the album is the classy soulful disco of ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’, while the harder edged ‘I Wanna Be Back In Love Again’, continued the use of lush strings and plucked bass. A left-field winner is the McCrary’s penned ‘Imaginary Paradise’, that fuses gospel background harmonies with more contemporary soul and funk tinges. Pick of the ballads is the co-written Stevie Wonder and Syreeta Wright song, ‘Just A Little Piece Of You’. The final album, ‘Reachin’ All Around’, did not actually surface until 1982, but was recorded in 1979 and is a varied affair. This is typified by the use of a medley comprising, ‘Stormy Weather’/’I Can’t Stand The Rain’, an interesting combination of blues-inflected jazz, with Stax soul, and as a bonus, ‘Love Masterpiece’ is taken from the film soundtrack to ‘Thank God It’s Friday’.

Incisive sleeve notes from David Nathan who is clearly a big fan of Houston, and full discographical details including the original album covers and those immediately identifiable mid-1970s Motown mustard and brown label, and older royal blue with map motif that came to personify the Motown sound in the mid-late 1960s. Thelma Houston belonged to a different generation of Motown artists, but was nonetheless a key ingredient in the label’s continued success during the mid-late 1970s.

Tim Stenhouse