Don’t Leave Me This Way original
Don’t Leave Me This Way original & two covers
In the mid 70s, American songwriters Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff and Cary Gilbert wrote “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. It’s a song about yearning and loss for a loved one who has left the relationship. The song is gender neutral – the object of desire is simply addressed as “baby”. This worked out well seeing male, female, straight and gay artists performed “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. English duo the Communards released a Hi-NRG version that was the UK’s biggest selling single of 1986. Up and coming Motown artist Thelma Houston released a disco version in 1977 which was also a number one hit. However, in 1975 Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes recorded the “Don’t Leave Me This Way” original with vocals by Teddy Pendergrass.
Don’t Leave Me This Way original late single release
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes were an act on Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label. The “Don’t Leave Me This Way” original appeared on their 1975 album Wake Up Everybody with Pendergrass singing vocals. Pendergrass had been the Blue Notes’ lead singer since 1970 but Melvin was given top billing. This caused tension between the two singers and in the end Pendergrass left the band in 1976.
The “Don’t Leave Me This Way” original wasn’t released as a single until late 1977. This was in response to Houston’s 1976 release. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way” didn’t go anywhere until Houston released her cover.
Two Don’t Leave Me This Ways at the same time
The two songs entered the UK charts around the same time. Houston’s version reached number 13 while Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ went to number five. It was their biggest UK hit. In the US, the “Don’t Leave Me This Way” original reached number three on the Billboard disco chart.
The “Don’t Leave Me This Way” original became the title track on a budget LP issued on the CBS Embassy label in the UK in 1978. Then the song was issued as a 12″ single in 1979, with “Bad Luck” on the B-side.
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes toured Europe in the late 70s. But with Pendergrass’s departure their new lead singer, David Ebo, performed “Don’t Leave Me This Way” at the group’s concerts instead.
Around the same time that Pendergrass left Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the band left Philadelphia International. Contractual terms meant that the group’s catalogue couldn’t be re-released in the US for a period of years. So despite the success of “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, there wasn’t much the band could do to promote their single in the US.
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes version
The “Don’t Leave Me This Way” original starts quietly, building up into an orchestral disco. Pendergrass has a slightly husky, very 70s sounding voice. He really gets going in the chorus. I think this version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” has the most contrasts and is a great tune.
Houston’s producer, Hal Davis, heard the “Don’t Leave Me This Way” original and liked it. The song was originally assigned to Diana Ross as a follow-up to her hit “Love Hangover”. But “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was ultimately reassigned to Houston. She recorded the song for her 1976 album Any Way You Like It.
Houston (no relation to Whitney) sung at her church and school throughout her teens. She started recording to high acclaim in the mid 60s, but failed to land a hit. Houston bounced between labels and producers. Then in 1974 she earned a Grammy nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for “You’ve Been Doing Wrong for So Long”. Things improved even more for Houston in 1976 when she recorded Any Way You Like It with Davis.
Hal Davis’s disco template
Davis used the same template for “Don’t Leave Me This Way” he’d used for Ross’s disco hit “Love Hangover”. He used the same studio (Paramount in Los Angeles) with many of the same musicians (including James Gadson on drums and Henry Davis on bass). Art Wright’s guitar was also key to the song’s dance sound. They amped up the bass and the beat, and “Don’t Leave Me This Way” entered disco territory.
Thelma Houston’s only Grammy
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” was a hit. It reached number one in the US in 1977 and fast became an international success. It topped the soul charts, the disco charts and the Billboard Hot 100. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” won Houston a 1978 Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
In 1995, several remixes of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” revived Houston’s song for a second time, sending it to number 19 on the US Billboard Dance Chart and number 35 in the UK. Houston’s song ranked number 86 on VH1’s “100 Greatest One-hit Wonders” and number two on their “100 Greatest Dance Songs” list.
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” marked the highest point in Houston’s music career. It was her only song to reach number one on Billboard and resulted in her only Grammy. Houston was never able to recreate the success she had with “Don’t Leave Me This Way”.
And what a song! It opens with disco diva notes and Houston humming. Her voice is powerful but she belts the chorus out slightly less than Pendergrass in the “Don’t Leave Me This Way” original. Houston is fantastic though, and I think this is possibly the best version of the song.
The revolutionary Communards
The Communards formed in 1985. They consisted of Jimmy Somerville, former Bronski Beat singer, and classically trained pianist Richard Coles. The name Communards came from a group of 19th century French revolutionaries.
It was only natural that the Communards cover “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. Somerville was a fan of Houston’s disco version and Coles loved the Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes version. They invited jazz musician Sarah Jane Morris to sing as guest vocalist.
Communards version & remixes
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” appeared on the Communards’ 1986 debut self-titled album. It was the first single released from the album, along with several remixes. One of the most notable was the “Gotham City Mix”. This remix was split across two sides of a 12″ single and ran for almost 23 minutes. It significantly contributed to the success of “Don’t Leave Me This Way”.
The Communards changed some of the lyrics from the 70s versions of “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. But essentially it was the same tune with the same structure. It remained a disco song, but leveraged advances made in electronic music since the mid 70s.
The Communards dedicated “Don’t Leave Me This Way” to the Greater London Council. London’s top administrative body was about to be abolished by Margaret Thatcher, and people from left wing quarters weren’t happy.
An 80s dance hit
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” was a massive hit in the UK, becoming 1986’s biggest selling single. It reached number one in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, and made it to the top 20 in other countries, including Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, France and New Zealand. In the US it was a top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the Billboard Dance chart. In 2015, the British public voted the Communards’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way” as the nation’s 16th favourite 80s song in an ITV poll.
The Communards disbanded in 1988, but in later years Somerville performed his own version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way”.
In 1992 Morris had a number one hit in Italy with her cover of Barry White’s “Never Never Gonna Give You Up”. She also included a solo version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” on her 2001 album, August.
The Communards’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way” is a dance anthem. I’m not sure the singers’ voices are as strong as Pendergrass’s and Houston’s, but they meld perfectly with the electronic music and brass instruments. I think this is the most danceable of all versions of “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, and the synth beat is iconic. Even though it’s a song about love gone wrong, there’s a joyous nature to it.
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.”Richard Coles, in Jon Kutner & Spencer Leigh’s 2005 book 1000 UK Number One Hits
There are many other covers of “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, including:
- The New Topnotes (1977) – 70s group from Hong Kong who performed covers of English-language pop songs. A very faithful rendition of Houston’s version
- Slip (1983) – dance version
- Off the Beat (1993) – a capella version
- Kashief Lindo (1997) – R&B version
- Sheena Easton (2000)
- Caroline Henderson (2000) – Swedish pop and jazz singer
- The Weather Girls (2005)
- Nicole Dib (2010) – bossa nova version
- Discohen (2016) – project by Pim van de Werken and Teije Venema exploring what disco songs would sound like if they were sung by Leonard Cohen. This is a really, really cool version
A gay legacy
I like the Discohen version a lot, but it’s safe to say that Houston’s and the Communard’s versions are the greatest covers of the “Don’t Leave Me This Way” orginal. It’s also important to note the part these versions played in 20th-century gay history. Both were dance anthems in gay clubs during their time.
In the 80s and 90s, Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” became an unofficial anthem for the fight against AIDS. An art exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia titled “Don’t Leave Me This Way – Art in the age of AIDS” opened in 1994.
Somerville commented on why he chose certain songs to cover. They…
…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.”Jimmy Somerville
Love the 80s? Read about other unknown original 80s tunes here.