Born Irma Lee, 18 February 1941, Ponchatoula, Louisiana
Since the early 1960s, Irma Thomas has been known as The Soul Queen of New Orleans. She has experienced more than her fair share of setbacks, but managed to bounce back each time and to this day she maintains a loyal and diverse fan base. Young, old, black, white - Irma's appeal knows no age or racial barriers.
Irma Lee received her singing training on Sundays at the Home Mission Baptist Church in New Orleans, where her parents had moved when she was still an infant. At 14 she was forced to leave school because she was pregnant. Her first marriage lasted less than a year and at the age of 17 she married a second time, to Andrew Thomas, whose name she would keep after her second divorce in 1966. She had three more children, and when she was 18 Irma took a job as a waitress working at the Pimlico Club in New Orleans. There she was discovered by band leader Tommy Ridgley who hired her as a vocalist and got her signed to Joe Ruffino's Ron label. Her first record, "Don't Mess With My Man" (aka as "You Can Have My Husband"), was written by Dorothy LaBostrie, of "Tutti Frutti" fame. Released in November 1959, it went to # 22 on the R&B charts in May 1960. The song would become a permanent staple in her live performances. The follow-up was the similarly styled "A Good Man", which didn't catch on nationally, but helped build Irma's local reputation. Irma refused to resign with Ron, claiming Ruffino underpaid her for her record royalties.
Her career took on a new impetus when she signed with Joe Banashak's Minit label in late 1960. The first Minit release was the haunting ballad "Cry On", a big change from her earlier blues-based recordings. Allen Toussaint arranged and produced Irma's Minit sessions, played piano and wrote most of her material (usually under the pseudonym Naomi Neville, his mother's name). Her soul classics from this period include the atmospheric "It's Raining" (a UK Top 10 hit for Shakin' Stevens in 1981) and "Ruler Of My Heart", which Otis Redding successfully turned into "Pain In My Heart" in 1963.
Minit was then acquired by Imperial, who were just as swiftly swallowed up by Liberty. Irma started recording for Imperial in January 1964, in L.A., with Eddie Ray as producer and H.B. Barnum as arranger. Her first four singles for Imperial (all released in 1964) made the Billboard Hot 100, but they would remain the only pop hits of her career. The Imperial debut was the biggest hit : "Wish Someone Would Care", Irma's own composition, peaked at # 17. The reverse, the bouncy "Break-A-Way" (written by Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley), was a complete contrast and almost too good for a B-side. The song would go on to be an international hit for England's Tracey Ullman in 1983. Next came the beautiful "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is" (# 52), which was also coupled with a song that could have been an A-side in itself, "Time Is On My Side". It was covered by the Rolling Stones, who scored their first US Top 10 hit with the song. Irma even had to quit singing "Time Is On My Side" for some time, because audiences wouldn't believe it was hers. "Times Have Changed" (# 98) and "He's My Guy" (# 63), both written by Van McCoy, completed the quartet of 1964 hits. The later Imperial sessions (1965-66) were mostly held in New York (produced by Jerry Ragovoy) ; for "Take A Look" (1965) she was reunited with Allen Toussaint in New Orleans.
When Chess Records signed Irma in 1967, they brought her to the trendy Muscle Shoals studio to record, and it looked like she would once again be back in the international spotlight. But sadly it wasn't to be. Irma didn't go along with the percentage that Chess wanted and consequently her three Chess singles didn't get national promotion. A shame, because they were first-rate. "Good To Me" (Chess 2036, written by Otis Redding) still went to # 42 on the R&B charts in 1968, her last chart entry. Irma's complete Chess recordings (12 tracks) were later assembled on the LP "Irma Thomas Down At Muscle Shoals" (Chess GCH 8104, 1991).
Her stint at Atlantic/Cotillion (1971-72) produced similar results : 15 tracks were recorded (eventually released on the CD "Full Time Woman" in March 2014), but only one single was issued at the time.
Irma continued to record for small labels throughout the 1970s, but with no real success. She had relocated her family to Oakland, California in 1969, but returned to New Orleans in 1975. That year she met Emile Jackson, who became her third husband in 1977 and also her manager. As far as I know, they are still together. She has regularly played clubs and festivals ever since, and recorded many albums for Rounder Records, most recently "Simply Grand" (2008).
The Soul Queen of New Orleans recorded mostly outside of New Orleans and few of her recordings have a typical N.O. sound. One of the exceptions is "Look Up" (released on Minit's sister label Bandy), thanks to Allen Toussaint's ferocious piano. For me the 1961-65 sides for Minit and Imperial remain the high spot of her long and illustrious career.
More info : http://www.soulexpress.net/irmathomas.htm
Further reading : the chapter on Irma Thomas in Jeff Hannusch's book "I Hear You Knockin'" (Swallow Publications, 1985), page 225-236.
Discography : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/ithomas.htm
Recommended CD's :
Acknowledgements : Jeff Hannusch, John Broven, Pete Nickols.
Dik, August 2014
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