This is the 91st post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
By the mid-1970s, Teddy Pendergrass had sung lead vocals on a string of hits for soul group Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, including “I Miss You,” “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” “The Love I Lost.” But despite Pendergrass having been the lead singer since 1970, it was Melvin who got top billing in the group. The tension between Melvin and Pendergrass could not be resolved, so Pendergrass left the band in 1976.
The last Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes album to include Pendergrass was “Wake Up Everybody,” released in 1975. It was produced by the legendary duo of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who also wrote about half the songs on the album. The record had several noteworthy songs, including the title track and “Tell the World How I Feel About ‘Cha Baby.” But the album’s biggest contribution to pop culture (and the eventual heyday of disco) was the fourth track.
More than six minutes long, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was a slow burn that took a minute to get going. A minute later, Pendergrass erupted into the chorus:
Oh baby, my heart is full of love and desire for you
So come on down and do what you’ve got to do
You started this fire down in my soul
Now can’t you see it’s burning, out of control
So come down and satisfy the need in me
Cuz only your good loving can set me free
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way” peaked at Number 5 on the UK charts and Number 13 on the Swedish charts. But that didn’t happen until 1977, more than a year after “Wake Up Everybody” had been released. That the song did well on the charts was, in part, because of another version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” on the charts at the same time. It was this version, by Thelma Houston, that made the song an international hit.
Throughout her teen years, Houston had performed at her church and her school. By the end of the 1960s, she had recorded with The Art Reynolds Singers, a gospel group. She moved into secular music in 1969 with her album “Sunshower,” produced by Jimmy Webb of “MacArthur Park” and “Wichita Lineman” fame. The album included a pretty good cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” but the record didn’t do well on the charts. Her next few albums had been critically praised but were just as lukewarm commercially.
When Houston worked on her fourth album, “Any Way You Like It,” producer Hal Davis had her record “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” By playing up the bass and the beat, Davis and Houston pushed the song into disco territory. The irresistible dance track became an immediate club staple, and blew up worldwide. Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” peaked at Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at Number 13 in the UK. Additionally, it charted in countries all over the world, including Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, Austria, and Germany.
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” has become the centerpiece of Houston’s legacy, as it earned Houston her only Grammy and was her only song to reach Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. She never recreated the international success she had with that song.
But to be fair, not many others had much success with the song, let alone the huge success Houston had. Many artists tried, though.
The New Topnotes was a Cantopop group in Hong Kong in the ’70s, and the group’s go-to schtick was to perform popular songs in English. On “Don’t Leave Me This Ways,” The New Topnotes delivered a rendition faithful to Houston’s. Too faithful.
Norman Harris was a founding member of MFSB, which functioned as the house band for many songs that came out of Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label. The mostly-instrumental version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” that appeared on Harris’ 1980 album “The Harris Machine” seemed to blend aspects of Houston’s version with parts of the original by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. It felt almost like a karaoke track, because while there were no verses, it did have the chorus, as if we were to sing along. And I gladly would.
With breathy vocals and shimmering synths, Slip’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” now sounds like a checklist of the quintessential elements of dance music in 1983. And that’s not a bad thing.
Just like her version of “It’s Raining Men,” Carol Jiani’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was a slow burn, taking its time to build up. But then it blew up.
None of these versions moved the needle in terms of taking attention away from Houston’s cover. Hers was still the standard-bearer, in part because none of these versions were huge, attention-grabbing hits. But in 1986, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” became an international hit yet again.
The Communards was a duo formed by ex-Bronski Beat frontman Jimmy Somerville and classically-trained pianist Richard Coles, taking their name from the French revolutionaries who briefly ran Paris in 1871. With English singer Sarah Jane Morris, The Communards recorded a version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” that kept the song’s disco aesthetic while updating it to reflect the advances that keyboards had made in the previous decade. Between Coles and Somerville, they were split on which version they had preferred: disco fan Somerville loved Houston’s version, whereas Coles preferred the original by Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes. Coles didn’t care if any purists who loved those versions hated the cover by The Communards. In Jon Kutner’s and Spencer Leigh’s 2005 book, “1000 UK Number One Hits,” Coles said, “I hate music snobs who resent you doing a totally different, off-the-wall electro-dance cover of an old song. People might throw their hands up in horror when they hear it, but we’re not James Last.”
If anyone did resent the version by The Communards, it didn’t hurt the song’s commercial success. It reached Number 1 in the UK, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and reached the top 20 in other countries, including Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, France, and New Zealand. The Communards had other songs that charted in the UK, but none of them went to Number 1, nor did they have the same international attention.
Somerville and Morris each ended up performing the song on their own. In those versions, one can hear what they each brought to the version they did together. Morris included “Don’t Leave Me This Way” on her 2001 album, “August.” She released a single version of the song in 2002.
In 2007, a remix of her version appeared on “Chill Out Cafè, Vol. 10.”
And on Somerville’s 2016 album, “Live And Acoustic At Stella Polaris,” the album ended with “Don’t Leave Me This Way.”
No artist has had the international success that Somerville, Morris, and Coles had with The Communards’ version. But there have been some good (and not so good) versions in the years since then.
University of Pennsylvania a capella group Off the Beat included a version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” on its 1993 album, “Where’s the Band?” A cappella can be a polarizing genre, but even if a capella is your bag, you still might not like it. And as a non-enthusiast, I base that solely on the fact that The Recorded A Cappella Review Board did not care for the album or this particular track.
Dancehall artist Kashief Lindo came from a long line of reggae performers, as many in the Lindo family contributed the genre, including Wailers keyboardist Earl Lindo, Hopeton Lindo, the producer Jack Ruby (born Lawrence Lindo), and Kashief’s father, Willie Lindo. Kashief Lindo never had a breakout album or song, but he persevered anyway. On his 1997 album, “What Kinda World,” he recast “Don’t Leave Me This Way” as a sunny reggae song that sounded reminiscent of Aswad’s “Don’t Turn Around.”
Scottish singer Sheena Easton — who recorded “9 to 5 (Morning Train),” “For Your Eyes Only,” and “Sugar Walls” — included a version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” on her 2000 album, “Fabulous.” Two of the songs on “Fabulous” were originals, but the rest were covers of songs from the ’70s and ’80s. Like many of the other covers, Easton’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was a Hi-NRG dance track sounded like you’d expect a Hi-NRG dance version of the song to sound, but what was jarring is that it sounded too modern, polished, and cold for the woman who gave us “9 to 5 (Morning Train).”
That same year, Swedish pop and jazz singer Caroline Henderson covered “Don’t Leave Me This Way” for her album, “Delores J: The Butterfly.” Like Easton’s, Henderson’s cover was dripping in drumbeats and keyboards, but this version had more soul to it, as it was warmer and more inviting.
The Weather Girls, best known for “It’s Raining Men,” recorded “Don’t Leave Me This Way” for the album “Totally Wild!,” released in 2005. Of course, this wasn’t the same Weather Girls: when Martha Wash decided go solo, Izora Armstead continued The Weather Girls with her daughter, Dynelle Rhodes. When Armstead died in 2004, Ingrid Arthur took her place. “Totally Wild!” had a lot of covers of disco songs, and on “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” one can hear that familiar Weather Girls’ sound, even if neither of the women who defined that sound appeared on the track.
Like The Weather Girls, the classic Motown group The Temptations also continued with changing lineups. By the time The Temptations released “Reflections,” the only original member left was Otis Williams. The album saw the group tackle 15 classic songs from the ’60s and ’70s. Just as it was an adjustment to hear Easton perform over Hi-NRG dance tracks, it was a change to hear The Temptations singing over modern keyboards. Of course, it might not have startled the diehards who stuck with the band, but to this casual listener, it was a big leap.
Andy Abraham was a contestant on the second season of the UK series, “The X Factor.” Abraham was runner-up to winner Shayne Ward. But despite not winning the contest, he was able to go on to get a record deal. In 2006, Abraham released two albums, both of which featured mostly covers material. The second album, “Soul Man,” had Abraham singing a soulful cover of “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” He seemed to be channeling his inner Pendergrass, but in doing so, he didn’t leave any original mark of his own on the song.
Jose Galisteo was also a contestant on a singing show: “Operación Triunfo,” based in Spain. And like Abraham, he didn’t win the season he was on, either. His version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” from his album “Remember” was so full of beeps, boops, and drum machines that it got in the way of his vocals. It was as if he was duetting with R2-D2. The song could work at an after-hours gay bar or in a gym playlist, but would be too distracting in most other venues.
The stage version of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” adapted from the 1994 movie “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” premiered in 2006. The jukebox musical drew from a variety of iconic dance songs, including “It’s Raining Men.” In the performance of “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” Tony Sheldon and Jeremy Stanford led the song before the cast joined. Hearing a large group sing the song like a choir gutted the emotional resonance of the song and made it a campy sing-along. And given the nature of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” that was perfect.
Juliana Aquino — whose cover of “I’m Every Woman” appeared in the review of that song — covered “Don’t Leave Me This Way” for her 2008 alum, “Disco [meets] Bossa.” The concept of applying bossa nova to disco could seem like a gimmick, but if you’re into both genres, the schtick works.
Similarly, Nicole Dib recast “Don’t Leave Me This Way” as a bossa nova song as well, but her breathy version was more sunny and laid back, whereas Aquino’s version had tinges of jazz. Dib’s version appeared on the 2010 album “Milk Bossa Disco” and the later on 2017’s “Colors of Bossa 6.”
On Jason Donovan’s fifth studio album, 2010’s “Soundtrack of the 80s,” the Australian actor and singer paid tribute to some of the biggest songs of the decade. Given that “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was originally a hit of the ’70s, I’m assuming he’s paying tribute to The Communards’ version. Like his cover of Yazoo’s “Only You,” Donovan’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was maybe too close to the source material, but I don’t mind, as I seem to be a sucker for anything that man records.
Just like Abraham, Dami Im was introduced to the world through “The X Factor,” though she appeared on the Australian version of the show. After she won the contest in 2013, she released her debut album later that year. Im’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” didn’t reinvent the song, but did display the talents that helped Im win “The X Factor.”
The project DISCOHEN was conceived by producer Pim van de Werken and singer Teije Venema, and the premise was simple: What would disco songs sound like as performed by Leonard Cohen? The debut album, “Popular Positions,” expanded upon that idea, featuring songs from the ’70s and ’80s, and not just disco. Venema said, “We see it as a musical tribute. Both to Leonard Cohen and to these beautiful songs.” It’s hard to disagree with him there; the Cohen-ized version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” seemed right on the mark.
Of all these covers, the versions by Houston and The Communards have remained the standard-bearers. In a way, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” is similar to “Killing Me Softly With His Song” in that, to a broad audience, the two best-known versions of each song are covers. (Yes, just as Houston was not the first to record “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” Roberta Flack was not the first to record “Killing Me Softly With His Song.”)
That being said, I am confident that the original “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes is better known than the original “Killing Me Softly With His Song” by Lori Lieberman. After all, Harold Melvin and Teddy Pendergrass have had their fingerprints on some of the most popular songs in soul and R&B. That their version of this song has been eclipsed by Houston’s should not be an indication of the quality of the original. Pendergrass’ delivery on that song is just as moving and affecting as Houston’s. And I mentioned above, both versions influenced The Communards’ version.
For Somerville’s part, he has said he approached disco covers with the hope of claiming them as his own. Besides covering “Don’t Leave Me This Way” with The Communards, he covered Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” with Marc Almond while Somerville was still in Bronski Beat. As Somerville told The Quietus:
Looking back at the history of the politics of disco, it was about gay men, black men and also women having an uplifting celebration in the face of adversity and discrimination. While it is easy to dismiss disco as a throwaway genre — stuff like the Bee Gees and “Saturday Night Fever” — it is actually about a whole movement of emancipated people seeking liberation…
..[The songs Somerville covered] are all iconic gay songs and part of gay history. What I wanted to do was to take them away from the women who sang them. It was time to take these songs and have them sung by a gay man for gay men. When I was a kid, those songs were being danced to as a celebration for people who were finding some kind of voice. I wanted to take the radical step of singing them myself as a gay man to truly claim them.
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” ended up having a different (and more somber) connection to the LGBTQ community when the American Foundation of AIDS Research commissioned 22 American artists to design “public space statements.” Among the works of art created for the project was artist Nayland Blake’s piece in which he paired the phrase “Don’t Leave Me This Way” with a simple bouquet. When the National Gallery of Australia exhibited art exploring the effects of AIDS around the world, Ted Gott wrote a companion book, “Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS.”
I’ve reviewed many songs that came to take on a bigger meaning outside the writer’s intent. “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and “Respect” both became empowering anthems, and “Seven Nation Army” became a go-to sports chant. That “Don’t Leave Me This Way” came to be a shorthand for disco, gay identity, and AIDS only demonstrates how the song managed to take on a life of its own, if not several lives.
You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.
Sign up for the weekly newsletter here.