There comes a time in every Irma Thomas show when she calls for the audience to shout out requests. For some fans that becomes a chance to make sure all the greatest hits get played; for others it occasions a round of Stump the Band. “People ask for things to see if I can still do them, I think that’s the main reason,” she says. “There’s quite a few that I’ll remember melodically, but not lyrically—so if I can find the lyrics online I’ll give it a try.”
Her upcoming show at Satchmo SummerFest should be no different. Booking the soul queen to headline marks a departure for Satchmo, which is traditionally a jazz-centric event. “I’ve always felt from the very beginning that I was a rhythm and blues singer,” she says, and notes that she only saw Louis Armstrong up close once, when he was Zulu King rolling down St. Charles Avenue. “I have some jazz things that I’ve recorded—‘This Bitter Earth,’ ‘Heart Full of Rain’ [both from her latter-day Rounder albums]. But I mainly did those to show my versatility; it’s not really something I’m drawn to. I could make the show different if they required it. But since they’re not requiring it, I’m just going to be Irma.”
One song that always gets requested is “Don’t Mess With My Man,” her first single from 1959. Though it’s a far cry from the ballads she became known for, she’s glad to sing it—she’s just surprised that it’s usually the guys requesting it. “That was my first recording. I auditioned for Ron Records on a Monday, then I recorded it on Wednesday or Thursday. I could definitely relate to the lyric; I was married but not with him at the time. I started getting shows right away, but wasn’t making big money because I didn’t know how much to charge. I played a lot of servicemen’s bases at the time. And I remember one night at a nightclub, I was doing ‘Don’t Mess With My Man’ and some lady jumped up and said, ‘Yeah, sing that one!’ And her husband cold-cocked her right there in the club. A lot of guys think they’re the man instead of the husband in that song—my husband always says he’s both of them.”
The greatest of her hits, however, are the emotive ballads—“It’s Raining,” “Ruler of My Heart,” “Wish Someone Would Care”—that she did with producer Allen Toussaint. Intense as they are, she doesn’t need to be in a particular emotional place to sing them. “A good song sells itself, and when I’m onstage I’m just enjoying myself. I’d say I enjoy ninety-six percent of the songs I sing.” And the other four percent? That would be “Time is On My Side,” which she didn’t do for years because she was sick of being asked why she was covering the Rolling Stones (they of course covered her). She only reinstated it after Bonnie Raitt insisted they do it together. “I wasn’t angry at them because they were only doing what every British artist was doing—copying American artists and making megabucks. They never professed to be great singers—they were a great act, great entertainers.”
If the requests are getting more exotic lately, it’s because more vintage material is seeing the light of day. In recent years there have been two reissues of little-known ’70s sessions—both essential if a bit outside her mainstream. The first, Full Time Woman, collects a bunch of comeback attempts for Atlantic in 1972, some done with producer Arif Mardin and others with Wardell Quezergue. It’s predictably all over the map, but her tough and funky take on Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” makes it more than worthwhile. Thomas has disparaged those sessions in the past, saying the producers were trying to turn her into Diana Ross (certainly true in some cases). Nowadays she just says she never heard the CD because nobody at the label sent her one.
More interesting was a set of sessions for Jerry (Swamp Dogg) Williams the following year. Various tracks were compiled over the years, but the full album In Between Tears got a full reissue more recently. Expanding her usual persona, Williams cast her in a feminist concept album, with songs and spoken bits telling the story of a woman leaving an abusive marriage. “I call that man-bashing,” she says. “But that’s what was going on at the time it was recorded, you had women’s lib and the burning of bras. They weren’t bad songs lyrically, some of them told pretty decent stories. What I didn’t like was that he had me singing in keys that I wasn’t comfortable with. So it sounds to me like I’m screaming the whole way through.”
She’s still adding new songs to her repertoire; the last thing she released (on a limited-release CD single) was Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” She was originally commissioned to sing it at a 60th birthday party, then recorded it with a spoken dedication to her fans added. “That is my song for them, my thank-you song. A lot have been fans since they were teenagers, not realizing I was a little bit older than them. And now they’re bringing their babies, and their babies’ babies.”