Disco Icon Thelma Houston Plays the Hard French Winter Ball

A longtime Teatro ZinZanni performer, Thelma Houston is a love masterpiece.

One ironclad axiom for adulthood is that people who really enjoy their high-school prom tend to peak early and sell used Buicks for a living. Going with a member of the opposite sex and wearing the formal wear of the gender you were assigned at birth isn’t absolutely mandatory for kids like it used to be, but it’s hardly unheard of for that adolescent rite of passage to be an awkward ordeal even now. This is why the Hard French Winter Ball is the best. We can dance with whoever the fuck we want, wearing whoever the fuck we want, and, by and large, our skin is better now.

The soul-and-Motown DJ collective’s monthly parties on El Rio’s patio wrapped up last year, sadly. But like Hard French Hearts Los Homos — the post-Pride party that takes over Mezzanine — the winter formal is an unmissable tradition full of sequins and powder-blue cummerbunds. And just as Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes headlined last June to universal acclaim — the shrapnel on the walls was from when this writer exploded, sorry ’bout it — Hard French has secured another icon: Thelma Houston.

That’s the Thelma Houston who performed at Carnegie Hall with Smokey Robinson. The Thelma Houston whose 1977 disco hit “Don’t Leave Me This Way” won her a Grammy for Best Female R&B artist. The Thelma Houston who’s been involved in HIV activism for more than a quarter-century. The Thelma Houston who, alongside Phoebe Snow, Albertina Walker, and CeCe Peniston — as the gospel act Sisters of Glory — sang at Woodstock ’94 and, later, before Pope John Paul II. 

“You haven’t heard anything until you’ve heard Phoebe Snow sing a Mahalia Jackson song,” Houston tells SF Weekly. “It’s amazing.”

Although best known as a vocalist, Houston, 71, has a number of acting credits to her name, including a year-long tour of Australia with a production of Fame. But for several seasons, she worked with Teatro ZinZanni, the Cirque du Soleil-esque troupe that originated in Seattle and which performed on the Embarcadero until 2011, when it was unceremoniously booted to make way for the ignominious America’s Cup yacht race. (There are plans to return.)

“I was just looking at the Teatro ZinZanni photos,” Houston says. “That was such a fun period for me. … When you do those shows, you’re there for at least two or three months, so I had an opportunity to know the city a little bit.

“My character was Madame ZinZanni,” she adds. “When the show was first offered to me, I had obviously never heard of it before, because I live in Southern California. And when they described it to me, they were saying, ‘Well, they’re going to have these acrobatic acts and in a surrounding that’s for all intents and purposes in a tent…’ and I said, ‘Mmm-hmmm, are you telling me you want me to play in the circus?’ ”

To allay her skepticism, the rep faxed Houston a story describing the company’s aesthetic in greater detail.

“The newspaper article was about Joan Baez playing a character at this Teatro ZinZanni,” Houston recalls, “so I thought, ‘Joan Baez?’ I’m thinking if Joan Baez can go to the circus, I guess I can too.”

More recently, she’s been in a theatrical production of songs and stories called My Motown Memories, which chronicles her life from her adolescence through “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” by way of her interactions with Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and others.

“There’s times in your life when you’ve had these passages, things that were happening that were really important to you,” she says, “and there was some music that was playing that reminds you of that time, right? That’s how I use the music of Motown, because I was a teenager and they were teenagers — but they were already living their dream, and their dream was to be entertainers and make records, and that’s what I wanted to do.”

It wasn’t easy at a time when hierarchical record labels denied many performers much creative control — doubly so if you weren’t a songwriter as well as a singer. Motown was, in Houston’s words, “a singles label,” so she was steered toward charting a big hit, hoping to be paired with someone who could write ably for others.

“Good songwriting is when other people can sing that song and it can still be effective because it’s a great song with a good story and a good melody,” Houston says. “I was kind of, during that period of time, going where they thought the hits were — and that’s what I followed. Whoever felt that they had the song that I could make a hit, I was in the studio recording it!”

There was a merciless quality to it all. If a song wasn’t exactly in your range, it would be given to someone else in a heartbeat. Interference from A&R people and the egos in the recording booth forced her to toe a line between maintaining a sunny disposition at all times and standing up for herself.

“You have to go, ‘Oh, good morning, how are you? Let’s get this made, baby!’ You had to have that positive energy about things. So you know, after a while, I did get a hit made after being there,” Houston says of “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” which climbed inch by inch to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in the spring of 1977.

“And I tell you,” she adds, “People can say what they will. But one good — not one good, one great big no. 1 crossover hit can give you an entire career.”

Hard French Winter Ball featuring Thelma Houston, Saturday, Feb. 3, 9 p.m.-2 a.m., at Grand Theater/Gray Area, 2665 Mission St. $20-$25; hardfrench.com

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