There are moments during a conversation with Thelma Houston when the Grammy-winner of the 1977 Motown disco hit, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” becomes so passionate about the new things unfolding with AIDS/HIV research and activism that you realize you are speaking to somebody who is more than a music legend.
Here’s a woman who can chat up the inspiring work Desert AIDS Project (DAP) is doing with as much bravura as she does her signature anthem. About the former, Houston says she is excited about how DAP is helping build momentum for creating a new global narrative on HIV treatment.
Specifically, the 90-90-90: Treatment For All initiative, where 90 percent of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status by 2020. Certainly this will be among the main topics of conversation during the 24th annual Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards Feb. 10, one the Valley’s most prominent galas, and one which has raised millions of dollars for DAP to care for people living with HIV.
Houston is the gala’s after-party headliner. Ross Mathews hosts and En Vogue performs after the awards are given to a set of locals who have diligently dedicated their time and energy to ensuring DAP provides compassionate care to individuals who need it. This year’s honorees include Tony Marchese, owner of Trio Restaurant, who will receive the Partners for Life Award, and Dr. Shubha Kerkar, senior physician specialist, will be recognized with the 100 Women Award.
Houston recently spoke about her work for HIV/AIDS causes and her musical career with Palm Springs Life.
Palm Springs Life: You have a long history of HIV activism.
Thelma Houston: I do, and I am excited about the purpose of this event. With 90-90-90, who would have thought that we would have come to this point? We may not have cured AIDS — yet — but my goodness, what a difference has been made.
PSL: Why is important for you to support AIDS/HIV causes?
TH: First of all, when you have been given a gift, a part of that is, in some way, to give something back to the community. You’re not supposed to take everything and keep it for yourself. [AIDS/HIV] just hit so many people that were close to me. At that time, there weren’t any organizations, per se. You just did what you did to help out.
PSL: And the LGBTQ community embraced you, too.
TH: We mutually supported each other and it has continued on to this day.
PSL: Most recently you’ve been involved in the theatrical production, “My Motown Memories,” which chronicles your life all the way up to “Don’t Leave Me This Way.”
TH: You know how there are times in your life when you are going through something — a happy period, something extraordinary — and when that happens, you remember some kind of music or song that you associate with that time period. That’s why “My Motown Memories” happened. When I took a look at my life, from junior high school until “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” I realized that the music of Motown was always there.
PSL: You were around the likes of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Mary Wilson.
TH: When Motown moved west, they signed me to the label. I became the new one. These were people I had been dreaming about and there I am, a few years later, on the road with them. You can have a dream and have that dream come true — if you are persistent about it.
PSL: So, what thrills you most about performing?
TH: I love that people enjoy it. When it was recognized that I could carry a tune and could sing, I was 3 years old. When you are a kid and you do something and people like what you are doing, you go, “Hmmm. Let me do that again.” So, I would sing in church. It started then. As long as I can keep doing it, I will. Up until the point where I get up there and people go, “Oh, poor her!” [Laughs]
PSL: Some word association. What comes to mind when I say … Marvin Gaye?
TH: Oh. My. God!
PSL: Stevie Wonder?
TH: A musical genius.
PSL: The Temptations.
TH: Lots of fun. I toured with them in Japan and Hong Kong. There’s nobody like them.
PSL: What helped you move through some of your more challenging moments in your life?
TH: At some point, we are all challenged. We ask: “Am I doing the right thing?” In my case, while the Motown artists were having hits, I married very early and had children. For me, I had to get over doubt.
PSL: How so?
TH: My mother helped. She was a very strong individual. At first, she thought I was out of mind — to become a singer. But once I made the commitment to do what I said I was going to do, she said she would help with the kids. She told me, “You are not going to give up. And don’t let people run over you. Speak up for yourself!” After that, any time I may have voiced a concern or something, she said, “Oh well.” She never told me to stop. She said, “Cry your little tears, wash yourself, and get back out there.” Only in the ’80s, when I was surprisingly dropped from a record label, did I feel that real doubt. But then, I started getting job offers to perform in other countries and I really released the idea that I had to be in the studio recording. I opened myself up to other possibilities. It launched my career forward—without having to have a “hit” record.
PSL: One more thing: What’s some of the best advice you’ve been given about life?
TH: Somebody in the business once told me, “Remember, the same people you meet on the way up the ladder, are the same people you are going to be on the way down. Be careful how you treat people because you never know where they are going to be on the ladder.
The Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards Gala, 5:30 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Palm Springs Convention Center, 277 N. Avenida Caballeros. 7 p.m. (dinner and awards). 9:30 p.m. after party. For information, visit desertaidsproject.org.