motown singers

Happy Birthday Mary Wilson!

View of Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson of the Supremes standing on stage; Diana Ross stands at microphone. Banner in background reads: “Welcome the Supremes.” April 1971.

  • Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library

On this day in music history: April 23, 1977 - “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Thelma Houston hits #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 1 week, also topping the R&B singles chart for 1 week on February 19, 1977. Written by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Cary Gilbert, it is the biggest hit for the R&B vocalist from Leland, MS. Signed to Motown Records since 1971, singer Thelma Houston’s self-titled first album for the label is met with only minimal sales. Believing in her talent, the label sticks by her, featuring her on the soundtrack to the Motown produced film “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings” in 1976. The same year, she records her third album “Any Way You Like It” with producer Hal Davis (The Jackson 5, Diana Ross). While at a party, Davis hears the song “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, featuring Teddy Pendergrass on lead vocals. With Pendergrass’ gospel inflected vocals on the song, and with Houston also having a rich, soulful voice, the producer decides it is a perfect fit for his artist. Playing the song for her, Houston agrees, and they go into the studio to record it. When “Any Way You Like It” is released in October of 1976, initially no single is released from it, as Motown has released the song “One Out Of Every Six”, a song from the comedy “Norman, Is That You?” in September. Meanwhile, club DJ’s serviced with Houston’s new album hear “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and immediately single it out for play. The song is an instant sensation is discos around the country, leading Motown to release it as a single in November of 1976. Entering the Hot 100 at #85 on December 18, 1976, it takes a long, slow climb up the chart, reaching the top eighteen weeks later. Thelma Houston wins a Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1978. Long regarded as one of the greatest songs of the Disco Era, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” becomes an anthem and rallying cry in the gay community during the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the 1980’s and 90’s, becoming a pop cultural touchstone.  In 1986, British Hi-NRG dance duo The Communards cover the song, taking it to the top of the UK singles chart for four weeks, and peaking at #40 on the Hot 100. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” is also inducted into the Dance Music Hall Of Fame in 2004.