Thelma Houston - Jumpin' Jack Flash
Miss Thelma Houston
Way back in August (when the days were warm, and we were all younger...) I posted Merry Clayton’s smokin’ hot version of the Rolling Stones ‘Gimme Shelter’. At the time, I mentioned that I would eventually post what I consider to be the perfect companion piece to that recording, Thelma Houston’s cover of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’. Today, in accordance with the Funky16Corners rule of week the last, i.e. more postings on our powerful funk and soul sisters, I bring you that very same song. Mention the name Thelma Houston to most folks, and the tune that comes to mind is her 1977 epic reworking of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. It was not only one of the high points of the disco genre as a whole, but one of the great records of the 70’s, a masterpiece of dynamic invention, perfectly constructed around Miss Houston’s powerful voice. You may be a card-carrying member of the “disco sucks” army (I used to be), but I can’t imagine anyone not digging that record to some degree (though if you haven’t heard the HM&TBN original, it can be a revelation). Houston was born in Mississippi, and relocated to the West Coast as an adult. She started recording as a member of the Art Reynolds Singers. After leaving Reynolds she recorded a few 45s for Capitol in 1966 and 1967. She was heard by Marc Gordon (manager of the 5th Dimension) who got Houston a contract with Dunhill records. It was there that Houston made her connection with none other than Jimmy Webb. That name might not be all that familiar these days, but in 1969 Webb was as hot as songwriters get, having penned a multitude of chart hits for Glen Campbell and the 5th Dimension among others. Webb hits like ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘Up Up and Away’ and ‘McArthur Park’ were showcases for his highly personal style which managed to bridge the gap between sophisticated, impressionist writing and top 40 success. While his chart successes were incredible, to really grasp the breadth of his vision you need to listen to the albums on which Webb was able to craft entire “song cycles”, like the 5th Dimensions’s 1967 LP ‘The Magic Garden’ (which was reportedly a favorite of the late Nick Drake). Another such LP was Thelma Houston’s 1969 LP ‘Sunshower’. Like ‘The Magic Garden’, ‘Sunshower’ was composed entirely of Jimmy Webb songs, with the exception of a single cover tune. The cover on ‘Sunshower’ was ‘Jumpin' Jack Flash’. The Stones original was a huge chart hit in the spring of 1968. It still stands today as one of the great rock records of the late 60’s, and a landmark in the Stones transition from their brief period of Flower Power into the favorite band of pool cue-wielding outlaw bikers. As incongruous as a cover of ‘Gimme Shelter’ seemed, that strangeness grows a few iterations with ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, especially when considering the involvement of someone like Jimmy Webb. There are few songs in the Stones catalogue that are so thoroughly “theirs”; but I guess that the tune is so powerful, the riff so iconic, that the temptation to put ones own mark on it was too strong for many to resist. Aside from one by the mighty Leon Russell, I can’t think of another cover that works up enough steam and menace to stand proudly in the same room with the original – except for the Thelma Houston’s. Opening with chiming electric guitars - already a departure from the “wall of mud” in the original – drums and tambourine, Thelma drops in with guns blazing, scaling heights that Jagger and co. could barely imagine. As the song moves along, the listener is tempted to forget that Jimmy Webb is somewhere in the background twiddling the knobs – unless of course you’re listening closely. Ever so gradually a background chorus enters the proceedings, the guitar sound takes on a deeper, expansive tone, and then, just when you least expect it...the thunder quiets only to be replaced by a string quartet. The effect is jarring, and is just enough of a reminder that the arty, sometimes baroque touch of Webb is present, yet manages only to enhance the energy of the arrangement, ratcheting up the power where lesser mortals would have sent such a juggernaut plunging into the abyss. Thelma and the background singers come back in and she launches into the final verse with a scream that in another context might have been labeled “blood-curdling” but inside this framework remains powerfully soulful. I am flabbergasted that this record wasn’t a hit – somewhere. As far as I can tell, it managed to scrape the bottom of the Top 50 in New Haven, CT, and nowhere else. Houston left Dunhill in 1970 and signed to the Motown subsidiary Mowest in 1972. She would record for the Motown organization through the 70’s, and RCA, MCA and Reprise in the 80’s. She still performs today. Interestingly enough, her ‘Greatest Hits’ LPs both reach back to include ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’.