Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement in Music: Irma Thomas

In 1960 Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas showed up to audition at WYLD studio in New Orleans for Joe Banashak and Larry McKinley of Minit Records. The fledgling label was holding an open call for singers, session musicians and songwriters and the respondents included Art and Aaron Neville, Jessie Hill, Joe Tex, Larry Williams, and Benny Spellman. Toussaint showed up to accompany singer Allen Orange, but the 22-year old pianist walked out with creative control over the label’s entire roster. Allen was about to make music history with Irma and the rest of the New Orleans R&B legends at that session. Now, a little more than 45 years later, Allen and Irma are reunited in receiving Best Of The Beat Lifetime Achievement Awards.

Although both Toussaint and Thomas lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina, they are busy working again. Among other projects, Toussaint just finished up a recording with Elvis Costello at Piety Street Studios that will be released in Spring 2006. Toussaint had previously produced the Yoko Ono song “Walking On Thin Ice” for Costello’s Punch The Clock. Irma Thomas, who re-located to Gonzales, Louisiana, is busy recording a new album and also traveling, most recently to New York and London.

Irma Thomas

“I don’t really do songs too much that don’t have stories”

Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, may well be the greatest woman R&B vocalist ever. The only thing that separates her from Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Gladys Knight, Tina Turner, or any other candidates for the honor is the absence of the kind of music industry promotional push it takes to create national hit singles.

Most of her priceless recorded moments—a catalog of excellence which stretches over more than 40 years—were made under the auspices of independent labels that lacked the distribution and clout to create such a hit. Her 1964 emotional flamethrower of a ballad “Time is On My Side” never got the promotion it deserved because it was released on Imperial only as a B-side, yet it became a blockbuster when Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones paid Thomas and producer Allen Toussaint the ultimate compliment of recording what amounted to a cover band version of the song.

Thomas has a rich, expressive alto voice that can handle an impressive technical range, but unlike so many other soul divas she doesn’t treat her voice as a monumental celebrity in its own right. Thomas manages to inhabit the songs she sings like a great actor, always finding the emotional center of the piece and telling a compelling story. She is, as a result, very careful about choosing the right material. But once she’s behind a song she uses her voice as the subtle instrument it is, working the melody for every nuance. Her sense of pacing and rhythmic inventive is the essence of soul. She can always find a surprising way to phrase against the pulse of the rhythm section, and the sheer emotional impact of her technique stamps her as a true product of the New Orleans music world.

“I don’t really do songs too much that don’t have stories,” said Thomas. “They are all, to various degrees, about being in love and out of love. That’s the ability of the artist—to be able to put themselves in any predicament that they need to do to get the job done.”

Born on February 18, 1941 in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, Irma Lee moved to New Orleans as a child and got her standard vocal training in the choir of the local Baptist church, auditioned for Specialty records at 13, became a mother at 14, then married, had another child, divorced and was married again by age 17. Irma had two more children with second husband Andrew Thomas but the marriage didn’t last and at age 20 she was raising four kids by working as a waitress at New Orleans’ Pimlico Club. She sat in with the house band led by Tommy Ridgley and promptly lost her waitress job, but Ridgley arranged for Thomas to get a recording deal with the Joe Ruffino-owned local label Ron records, which released the single “You Can Have My Husband (But Don’t Mess with My Man).” The song has been identified with Irma ever since. Thomas was already a fully-matured talent and the record made it to 22 on the Billboard R&B chart.

Allen Toussaint recruited Thomas for Minit Records, where she clicked immediately with a saucy rendition of Ernie K-Doe’s “I Done Got Over It.” Toussaint wrote and produced material tailored to Irma’s talents, including the enduring tearjerker “It’s Raining,” which became a popular cover tune and was used in the soundtrack to the Jim Jarmusch film Down By Law; and the great “Ruler of My Heart,” which was adapted at Stax/Volt to create Otis Redding’s “Pain In My Heart,” once again identifying a Thomas classic with another performer.

Minit’s successes drew the attention of the Los Angeles-based Imperial Records, which picked up Thomas’ contract when it acquired the label. She wrote and recorded the dramatic “Wish Someone Would Care,” which became her first national hit, charting in the pop Top 20. The flip side, “Breakaway,” was a New Orleans favorite that saturated local radio airplay in 1964. Thomas reached to the bottom of her deep well of emotion on the heartbreaking “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand),” the A-side of “Time Is on My Side.”

Imperial tried other producer/songwriter combos attempting to cash in on Thomas’ prodigious talent. She recorded a pair of Van McCoy Tunes, “Times Have Changed” and “He’s My Guy,”; cut “I’m Gonna Cry Till My Tears Run Dry” and “The Hurt’s All Gone” with Jerry Ragovoy and even tried a James Brown-produced answer song to “It’s A Man’s World,” “It’s A Man’s-Woman’s World” before leaving the label in 1966.

Thomas went on to record “Cheater Man” for Chess Records in 1967 in Muscle Shoals at Rick Hall’s Fame studio and followed with “A Woman Will Do Wrong” and Otis Redding’s “Good to Me,” which hit the R&B charts in 1968. Hurricane Camille forced Thomas to relocate her family to California in 1969. She recorded for several labels before returning to New Orleans in 1976, where she made a few records before opening her own club, the Lion’s Den.

Irma’s home cooking and intimate live performances at the Lion’s Den revived her legendary status in New Orleans in between tours of Europe, where her popularity never waned.

Thomas’ career enjoyed a revival in the United States in 1986 with the release of a great album on the independent Rounder records label, The New Rules, which emphasized her vocal strengths by presenting her in classic, straight ahead R&B settings. Another strong record, The Way I Feel, followed in 1988, and by the time the galvanic Live! Simply The Best came out in 1991 Thomas had regained her reputation as a soul music diva. The album earned Thomas a Grammy nomination and Rounder quickly followed it up with another studio set, True Believer, then a return to her gospel roots with Walk Around Heaven.

Thomas continued to record for Rounder, releasing the outstanding The Story of My Life before combining with two of her most accomplished acolytes, Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson, for the magnificent Sing It! When she was making The Story of My Life songwriter/producer Dan Penn dropped by and ended up writing several songs on the album. Thomas and producer Scott Billington decided that her next project would be a recording of four Penn classics including “I’m Your Puppet” and nine new Penn songs written for Irma, including a collaboration, “Irma’s Song.”

Irma is a genius in the studio, but her live performances are unforgettable. She is in total control of the band onstage, even to the point of calling unrehearsed numbers and directing head arrangements on the spot. Her annual Jazz Fest sets are legendary. When she tells her fans to “put your backfield in motion” it never fails to ignite a brushfire of excitement. “In New Orleans, we celebrate everything,” she says, but Irma Thomas brings the celebration wherever she goes.