In the late sixties Jimmy Webb had just written Wichita Lineman for Glen Campbell when he began working with Thelma Houston, a woman he declared to be ‘the most prodigious talent I have ever encountered.’ Now mainly remembered for her disco hit Don’t Leave Me This Way, Thelma Houston’s performance on the Sunshower album shows a singer of distinctive depth, who was willing to experiment with style and genre. Webb’s music was a mix of gospel flourishes, lush orchestral arrangements and yes even a hint of country music. This album remains an underrated and overlooked classic which displays the ambitious nature of both songwriter and singer.
Thelma Houston was born in Mississippi where she sang in church, before moving to California aged ten (there is no family connection with the other singer bearing the same last name). She joined the gospel group The Art Reynolds Singers and in 1968 was introduced to Jimmy Webb by The Fifth Dimension’s manager Marc Gordon. After hearing only three songs of Houston’s audition Jimmy knew he wanted to produce her. Together they began working on what would become Sunshower.
From the start she was given a chance to choose which of Webb’s songs she would record and how she would sing them. Thelma said that Jimmy ‘would let me do my own interpretation…and let me sing the song how I felt it.’ The strength of her emotional connection to the music is clear throughout the album. What’s also clear is how this special this collaboration was – Webb in his recent autobiography described their musical connection as a form of ‘telepathy’.
The album opens with the title track – a majestic swoop of gospel infused country which hits the highest hallelujahs. Everybody Gets To Go The Moon is a euphoric take on the space race, celebrating the potential future of humanity. Those idiosyncratic lyrics that defined Webb’s work are present here but it’s the optimistic uplifting message which makes this one memorable (a version of the song by The Three Degrees featured on The French Connection soundtrack).
To Make it Easier on You is a dramatic ballad, which showcases Houston’s vocal power. The beginning of Didn’t We strips things back to mainly piano and the aching sound of Houston’s heartbroken voice. We almost made it, she sings as the strings weep behind her.
Crazy Mixed Up Girl still features in Houston’s live sets and as it’s a more upbeat number, you can see how it fits more closely with her later disco recordings. The strings are still present but you can dance to this one and it’s a song celebrated by Northern Soul enthusiasts. Someone is Standing Outside is another epic gospel number filled with messages of compassion and faith. It’s one of the highlights of the album and feels way ahead of its time.
The only cover on the album is a version of Jumpin Jack Flash (there’s some great footage of her performing this up on YouTube). Originally Houston was reluctant to record the Stones’ song but she decided to trust Webb’s judgment, correctly so since it has become one of her signature tracks. It’s a great arrangement, showing she can rock and roll with the best of them, even if it is somewhat out of place within the context of this album.
This is Where I Come In has that wistful feel of many of Webb’s songs and has heartbreak enough to easily be interpreted by a country singer. All these songs feel so different than the soul music of the time, maybe closer to Bacharach in style than anything else.
Pocketful of Keys is the story of an everyday working man, full of specific details so characteristic of Webb’s songwriting. This is Your Life is a beautiful song dedicated to her wayward love, this is your life you’re wasting, she sings with her sorrow in every note. Cheap Lovin is another upbeat song which fits with Houston’s later disco oeuvre, celebrating monogamy over casual relationships.
On the epic closer If This Was Your Last Song, the mix of gospel, soul and country really pays off. It’s a simple declaration really about celebrating each moment of life and appreciating what you love. If this was the last song that I’d ever sung I’d want it to be about you. This one, like many others on the album, has a dramatic filmic quality, like the soundtrack to a lost sixties movie.
At the time of its release Sunshower was a critical success but commercially it sank without a trace. Houston said ‘It was a time when black women were supposed to sing R&B. They wanted us to sing all R&B music, which I love, that is my roots. However, I think that because “Sunshower” wasn’t a strict R&B type of record, it didn’t get any attention. Which is very sad, because I think it’s one of the best albums that came out of that era.’ It’s hard to argue with Houston’s assessment of the album’s worth. What’s depressing is that such genre issues continue today for many black artists.
After this album Houston signed to Motown but it took years before she had any luck with the label, only a switch to embrace disco trends brought her success. Despite being the first woman on Motown to win a Grammy (how is that even possible?) Don’t Leave Me This Way did not lead to long term popularity and she parted ways with the label in 1980. A later reunion with Webb on Breakwater Cat did not recreate the magic of the sixties either. As with many great female soul singers the lack of access to quality songs, along with the need to follow ever changing trends, hampered her later career.
Sunshower had the ambition to be an important and timeless record. Even if it was a commercial failure, the fact it was overlooked by the general public is no indication of its undeniable quality. Sunshower has majesty and beauty in such abundance it is almost overwhelming at times. Webb in his meticulous dedication to the music aimed for flawless perfection and Thelma Houston rose to meet his challenge.
I was lucky enough to be gifted this album by my sister who saw it at a school clearance and knew I would love it. It’s funny how serendipity makes some albums fall into your lap like that. If you have a moment to spend with Sunshower you will surely feel the same gratitude.