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Thomas, Irma

Irma Thomas

Singer

The story of R&B singer Irma Thomas seems the ideal candidate for a film biography. "Honey, my story sounds like a black version of the Loretta Lynn story," Thomas once joked with a writer from the New Yorker. The Louisiana native cut her first record while a teen single mother in the late 1950s, and went on to have a nominally successful recording career. During her early peak, a combination of the 1960s British Invasion groups and cataclysmic weather put her career under water in New Orleans, so she packed up her four children and moved to California, alternating performing gigs with a day job as a sales clerk. Returning to New Orleans in the mid-1970s, Thomas has since enjoyed the support of a loyal fan base and has had a successful recording career on Rounder Records, culminating in a 2006 Grammy Award.

Recorded for the Ron, Minit, and Imperial

Born Irma Lee on February 18, 1941, in the small town of Ponchatoula, Louisiana, Thomas's family moved her to New Orleans when she was still a baby. She learned her craft while singing in her Baptist church choir, and she reveled in gospel artists like Mahalia Jackson and the Five Blind Boys. However, as she became a teenager, she embraced the secular sounds of artists like Pearl Bailey, Ruth Brown, Lavern Baker, Faye Adams, and Lowell Fulsom, and her father's favorite, Percy Mayfield. After her sixth grade teacher entered her in a talent contest, where she won first place singing Nat "King" Cole's "Pretend," she unsuccessfully auditioned for Art Rupe's Speciality label at the tender age of 13.

A mother at 15, her first marriage ended quickly despite the arrival of a second child. She then married Andrew Thomas, whose last name she still uses professionally, and gave birth to two more children before divorcing him. To support her family, the 20-year-old Thomas found employment in restaurants around New Orleans, usually as a cook or dishwasher. While waiting tables at the Pimilico Club in New Orleans, Thomas boldly asked bandleader Tommy Ridgely if she could sing a number. "I do know I was a ham," Thomas told Advocate writer John Wirt. "I didn't have any problems with standing up and singing in front of an audience." Thomas's performance with Ridgely went over well with the audience and she soon began splitting up her singing and waitressing shifts, much to the annoyance of the club's manager. Forced to choose between waiting tables or singing, she chose singing and was promptly fired.

With Ridgely's help, Thomas began playing in other New Orleans clubs and auditioning for various record labels. She cut her first record, "You Can Have My Husband (But Don't Mess With My Man)," in 1959 for the local Ron label; it was an immediate hit, peaking at number 22 on the national R&B charts, but scoring much higher in New Orleans. Today the song is equally well-known as a staple of blues shouter Koko Taylor's repertoire. After a dispute over royalties, Thomas left Ron and signed to Minit Records, where she began collaborating with legendary producer and writer Allen Toussaint. The songs released during this era—"It's Raining" and "I Done Got Over It"—achieved "a modern soul sound, but with a powerful blues interest," noted Down Beat writer Terri Hemmert. Her chart prospects improved when after a brief stint on Bandy, she signed with Imperial, where her label debut, "I Wish Someone Would Care," reached number 17. Despite solid regional bookings, Thomas was certainly not getting rich off the proceeds of her hits. "That was the scheme of things when I got into this business," she recalled to the Advocate, referring to the raw deals young African-American artists were sometimes signed to in exchange for their talent. "It had nothing to do with my being young and naive. … That was a situation where what you didn't know did hurt."

Another song Thomas recorded during the early 1960s was not particularly successful for her, but it went on to bigger fame when covered by another act, a young, undiscovered English rock band called the Rolling Stones. When the Stones recorded her "Time Is On My Side," it became their first Top Ten hit, reaching number six during late 1964. Thomas continued to perform it for a number of years, but eventually ceased because fans thought she was paying homage to them.

Moved to California

Thomas worked the New Orleans/Gulf Coast circuit for the rest of the 1960s, but unfortunately the popularity of her particular brand of R&B had waned in favor of British acts, the Motown sound and, later, the Philly sound and disco. Switching to Chess Records in 1967 did little to perk up her flagging career. On a personal level, when Hurricane Camille wiped out all the clubs at which she had been booked along the Gulf Coast in 1969, Thomas packed up her children and moved to Los Angeles.

From the start, things were difficult for Thomas in California. "It was a very cliquish situation," she told Wirt. "It wasn't what you knew and how good you were, it was who you know. I didn't know anybody." She took a job as a lingerie sales associate at a Montgomery Ward department store, and performed in local clubs as well as farther north around San Francisco and Oakland. She recorded for such independent labels as Canyon and Roker before Atlantic Records offered her a deal. However, she viewed the sessions as disastrous. "The producers wanted me to sound like Diana Ross," Thomas recalled for St. Petersburg Times reporter Tony Green. "I have no idea why, because I have my own voice, which I feel is just as strong as hers. To me the whole session was a joke." The studio work in L.A. went nowhere, but Thomas did eventually land steady work performing in the Oakland and San Francisco area. After a time she relocated her family farther north, and got herself transferred to a Montgomery Ward store there.

For the Record …

Born Irma Lee on February 18, 1941, in Ponchatoula, LA; married & divorced first husband (name not known); married Andrew Thomas (divorced); married Emile Jackson (her music business manager), 1976; four children.

Worked as a restaurant cook; began performing in New Orleans clubs, 1958; released first single, "You Can Have My Husband (But Don't Mess With My Man)," 1959; signed to Minit Records, late 1950s; during the early 1960s recorded "Time Is On My Side"; recording career sidelined by other trends in music; worked as a sales clerk in Montgomery Ward department store in Los Angeles, CA; signed with Atlantic Records, early 1970s; also recorded for the Cotillion label, mid-1970s; began performing again in New Orleans, late 1970s; signed to Rounder Records and released comeback album The New Rules, 1986; appeared on such television programs as Austin City Limits and the 48th Annual Grammy Awards; appeared in films Make it Funky!, New Orleans Music in Exile, and New Orleans Story.

Awards: Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album, for After the Rain, 2006; Blues Music Awards, Soul Blues Album of the Year, for After the Rain, 2007; recipient of numerous humanitarian awards for public service work in New Orleans.

Addresses: Record company—Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140, website: http://www.rounder.com. Management—Emile Jackson, P.O. Box 26126, New Orleans, LA 70186-6126, phone: 504-245-1719, fax: 504-246-3542. Website—Official Artist Website: http://www.irmathomas.com.

During the 1970s Thomas recorded some material for the Cotillion, Swamp Dogg, and the oddly named Fungus label without much success. Yet, when visiting home she found that New Orleans audiences were again eager for her particular brand of soul. She began traveling back and forth between California and Louisiana, and when she found herself spending more time on the road than at home, she moved back to New Orleans in 1976. Performing in the plethora of blues and R&B clubs that her hometown had to offer, Thomas also found love when she met Emile Jackson one night. A year after they were married, Thomas made him her business manager. "I figured [my husband] would be the best judge of whether I wanted to do something or didn't want to do it," she told the New Yorker in 1988. "And I figured he'd have my financial interests at heart, because they'd be his financial interests, too."

Made Comeback at Rounder

Once her club career was on solid footing, Thomas began recording again. The recordings she created for Maison de Soul, RCS, and Sounds of N.O. (New Orleans) varied in quality. Due to lack of distribution and promotion, they barely sold outside of New Orleans.

When a New Orleans writer saw Thomas perform one night, however, he recommended her to the famed jazz, R&B, gospel, roots and soul label Rounder Records for their forthcoming compilation New Orleans Ladies. The record company liked her work so much they offered her a contract, and her comeback began in earnest with the 1986 LP The New Rules. She worked closely with producer Scott Billington, and other stellar recording efforts followed, including The Way I Feel and True Believer. "Thomas now joins ranks with Tina Turner and Ruth Brown, women who have made significant contributions to the R&B scene of the '50s and '60s and have returned decades later with fresh energy and maturity," Hemmert wrote.

Rounder sent Thomas on tour, and one particular gig at a club in San Francisco owned by 1970s rocker Boz Scaggs was put down on tape. The result was Irma Thomas Live: Simply The Best, a strong set featuring her own band The Professionals. Released in 1992, the album earned her a Grammy Award nomination. Rounder also offered the singer a chance to explore another facet of her musical abilities on vinyl: gospel. Back in New Orleans Thomas had become the featured soloist in her church's gospel choir despite a busy secular recording and performing career. The First African Baptist Church of New Orleans was the city's oldest African American congregation. In 1994 she used her love of this musical form when recording Walk Around Heaven: New Orleans Gospel Soul. Two big names in the city's gospel scene, Sammy Berfect and Dwight Franklin, collaborated with Thomas on the record. It was her first pure gospel effort. As the singer explained to Green, she refused to "mix the two; when I'm on stage I basically sing R&B and blues. I was raised in the church, so I know mixing the two is wrong." Ron Wynn reviewed Walk Around Heaven for CD Review and asserted that "Thomas simply sings God's music with the same passion, power, and integrity she's always brought to her own."

Thomas, who tours extensively, no longer shies away from performing "Time Is On My Side" in her well-attended club appearances. Contemporary singer Bonnie Raitt convinced her to start singing it again one night at the Hard Rock Cafe in New Orleans. "Go ahead on and sing it regardless of what people think," Thomas recalled Raitt saying, according to the Advocate. "Just sing it! You do it better than they do anyway." Thomas also began a venture that hearkened back to her early years when she opened her own club, the Lion's Den—she cooks food at home and carts it in for the audience. The singer also uses her local celebrity in New Orleans for various good causes, in particular as an advocate for at-risk youth. Happy to have such a rich life after so many years of hard work, Thomas claims to feel more comfortable with her voice at a later age. "It has matured, yes," she told Wirt. "I can hear a major difference in the voice of the 17-year-old and the voice of the 54-year-old. My voice has deepened somewhat. I have a better grasp and understanding of music and how to perform it than when I was younger."

Thomas made her first international appearance in 1994 and has found herself booked more frequently throughout America. She was playing a gig in Texas when Hurricane Katrina devastated her beloved New Orleans in 2005. Her musical response was the powerful acoustic disc After the Rain, which had been in the works before the storm. "This is raw Irma," she told BroadwayWorld.com. "Very acoustic. It kinda brought me back to going to school, when we did thing[s] a cappella, maybe one instrument, maybe a piano." The album, which seemed to comment on the disaster and its aftermath through the lyrics of established songs by the likes of Arthur Alexander, the Drifters, and Blind Willie Johnson, won Thomas a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blue Albums.

As a result of these events, Thomas has unintentionally generated a lot of attention just when many felt that her career was winding down. Juggling a full complement of bookings, and with plans for an autobiography and film documentary, she has viewed the sudden upsurge philosophically. "I am getting a lot of work," she told Broadway World.com, "a lot of interviews [about New Orleans], and they have all been to the good. I am looking at it this way: I am kind of like the ambassador, in a sense, that everyone is not doom and gloom in New Orleans and that we are getting through this, one day at a time."

Selected discography

Singles

"You Can Have My Husband (But Don't Mess With My Man)," Ronn, 1959.

"It's Raining," Minit, 1961.

"I Done Got Over It," Minit, 1963.

"Two Winters Long," Minit, 1963.

"I Wish Someone Would Care," Imperial, 1964.

"Time is On My Side," Imperial, 1964.

"Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)," Imperial, 1964.

"Times Have Changed," Imperial, 1964.

"He's My Guy," Imperial, 1965.

"Good to Me," Chess, 1968.

Albums

Wish Someone Would Care, Imperial, 1964; reissued, Collectables, 2006.

Take a Look, Imperial, 1968; reissued, Collectables, 2006.

In Between Tears, Fungus, 1973.

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Island, 1976.

Soul Queen of New Orleans, Maison de Soul, 1978.

Irma Thomas Sings, Bandy, 1979.

Hip Shakin' Mama, Charly, 1981.

Safe with Me [Live], Paula, 1981.

The New Rules, Rounder, 1986.

The Way I Feel, Rounder, 1988.

Ruler of Hearts, Charly, 1989.

Something Good: The Muscle Shoals Sessions, Chess, 1990.

Irma Thomas Live: Simply The Best, Rounder, 1991.

True Believer, Rounder, 1992.

Time Is On My Side: The Best of Irma Thomas, Vol. 1, EMI/America, 1992.

Walk Around Heaven: New Orleans Gospel Soul, Rounder, 1993.

Turn My World Around, Shanachie, 1993.

Live at the Kingfish, RCS, 1994.

Sweet Soul Queen of New Orleans: The Irma Thomas Collection, Razor & Tie, 1996.

The Story of My Life, Rounder, 1997.

(With Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson) Sing It!, Rounder, 1998.

My Heart's in Memphis: The Songs of Dan Penn, Rounder, 2000.

If You Want It, Come and Get It, Rounder, 2001.

A Woman's Viewpoint: The Essential 1970s Recordings, Ace, 2006.

After the Rain, Rounder, 2006.

Sources

Books

Jancik, Wayne, The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders, Billboard, revised and expanded, 1998.

Periodicals

Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA), May 5, 1995.

Chicago Tribune, June 16, 1994.

CD Review, July 1994.

Blues Access, Spring 2000.

Daily World (Helena, AR), October 4, 1995.

Down Beat, May 1990.

New Yorker, July 11, 1988.

Rolling Stone, June 16, 1994.

St. Petersburg Times, October 21, 1994.

Online

Grammy.com,http://www.grammy.com/GRAMMY_Awards/49th_Show/list.aspx. (February 12, 2007).

"Irma Thomas," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com. (September 5, 2007).

"Irma Thomas," Internet Movie Database,http://www.imdb.com, (September 5, 2007).

"Irma Thomas—Soul Queen of New Orleans," Broadway World.com,http://www.broadwayworld.com/viewcolumn.cfm?colid=11956, (September 5, 2007).

Additional information for this profile was obtained from Rounder Records publicity materials, 1995.

—Carol Brennan and Ken Burke

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"Thomas, Irma." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Thomas, Irma

Irma Thomas

Singer

Became a Minor Success

Attempt at Major-Label Career Failed

Career Resurrected in Mid-1980s

Selected discography

Sources

The story of R&B singer I rma Thomas seems the ideal candidate for a film biography, one that would pick its leading lady from the younger generation of soul divas that carry on Thomass legacy. Honey, my story sounds like a black version of the Loretta Lynn story, Thomas joked with a writer from the New Yorker once. A native of New Orleans, Thomas cut her first record while a teen single mother in the late 1950s, and went on to have a nominally successful recording careeralthough she never made as much money from it as those behind the scenes. The British Invasion and cataclysmic weather put her career under water in New Orleans, so she packed up her four children and moved to California, alternating performing gigs with her sales clerk job. Returning to New Orleans in the mid-1970s was the beginning of a change of fortune for Thomas, and since then she has enjoyed a successful recording career on Rounder Records as well as the support of a loyal local fan base. A celebrity in her hometown, Thomas puts her good Grammy-nominated name to use in charity work and as the proprietor of her own club.

Thomass launch into the music business seems a veritable rags-to-riches tale. A mother at 15, to support her familyone that grew to four children by the time she was 20Thomas found employment in restaurants around New Orleans, usually as a cook or dishwasher. However, one job had her waiting tables in an R&B club, and when famed bandleader Tommy Ridgely played there one night, the seventeen-year-old Thomas boldly asked if she could sing a number. I do know I was a ham, Thomas recalled about herself to Advocate writer John Wirt, in part because of her years of experience singing gospel in her church. I didnt have any problems with standing up and singing in front of an audience.

Became a Minor Success

Thomass performance with Ridgely went over well with the audience and she soon began splitting up her singing and waitressing shifts, much to the annoyance of the manager; he made her choose one or the other, and she chose the microphone. Soon Thomas began playing in other New Orleans clubs and along the Gulf Coast. She cut her first record, You Can Have My Husband (But Dont Mess With My Man), in 1959; it was an immediate hit. Soon she signed to Minit Records and began collaborating with local producer and writer Allen Toussaint. The songs released during this era Its Raining, I Done Got Over It, and I Wish Someone Would Care, achieved a modern soul sound, but with a powerful blues interest, noted Down Beat writer Terri Hemmert. Almost all of them made the R&B chartswith I Wish Someone Would Care, reaching Number 17although Thomas was certainly not getting rich off

For the Record

Born c. 1941 in New Orleans, LA; married Emile Jackson (a music business manager), late 1970s; four children.

Worked as a restaurant cook; began performing in New Orleans clubs in 1958; released first single, You Can Have My Husband (But Dont Mess With My Man), 1959; signed to Minit Records, late 1950s; during the early 1960s recorded Time Is On My Side, a song subsequently recorded by the Rolling Stones to great success; recording career sidelined by other trends in music; worked as a sales clerk in a Montgomery Ward department store in Los Angeles, CA; signed with Atlantic Records, early 1970s; also recorded for the Cotillion label, mid-1970s; began performing again in New Orleans in the late 1970s; signed to Rounder Records, mid-1980s; released comeback album, The New Rules, 1986.

Selected awards: Simply the Best: Live was nominated for a Grammy Award, 1991; recipient of numerous humanitarian awards for public-service work in New Orleans.

Addresses: Record company Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140.

the proceeds. That was the scheme of things when I got into this business, she recalled for the Advocate, referring to the raw deals young African American artists were sometimes signed to in exchange for their talent. It had nothing to do with my being young and naive. That was a situation where what you didnt know did hurt.

Another song Thomas recorded during the early 1960s was not as successful for her as her other releases, but it went on to bigger fame when covered by another act. Back then, a young, undiscovered English rock band called the Rolling Stones were devotees of American soul and R&B music; their early repertoire consisted of covers of songs by the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B. Kingand Irma Thomas. When the Stones recorded her Time Is On My Side, it became their first big hit. Thomas continued to perform it for a number of years, but eventually ceased because fans thought she was paying homage to them.

Thomass recording career suffered further at the hand of fate. She performed the New Orleans/Gulf Coast circuit for the rest of the 1960s, but unfortunately the popularity of her particular brand of R&B had waned in favor of British acts and the Motown sound (and later the Philly sound and disco); when a hurricane wiped out all the clubs at which she had been booked along the Gulf Coast in 1969, Thomas packed up her children and moved to Los Angeles.

Attempt at Major-Label Career Failed

From the start, things were difficult for Thomas in California. It was a very cliquish situation, she said in the Advocate interview with Wirt. It wasnt what you knew and how good you were, it was who you know. I didnt know anybody. She took a job as a lingerie sales associate at a Montgomery Ward department store, and she performed in local clubs as well as farther north around San Francisco and Oakland. Eventually Atlantic Records offered her a deal, and she went into the studio to record, with disastrous results. The producers wanted me to sound like Diana Ross, Thomas recalled for St. Petersburg Times reporter Tony Green. I have no idea why because I have my own voice, which I feel is just as strong as hers. To me the whole session was a joke. The studio work in L. A. went nowhere, but Thomas did eventually land steady work performing around the Oakland and San Francisco environs. After a time she relocated her family farther north and even got herself transferred to a Montgomery Ward store there.

During the 1970s, Thomas recorded some material for the Cotillion label, and when visiting home found that New Orleans audiences were again eager for her particular brand of soul. She began traveling back and forth between California and Louisiana, and when she found herself spending more time on the road than at home, she moved back to New Orleans in 1976. Performing in the plethora of blues and R&B clubs that her hometown has to offer, Thomas also found love there when she met Emile Jackson one night. A year after they were married, Thomas made him her business manager. She had been dissatisfied with her previous one, and as she told the New Yorkerin 1988, I figured [my husband] would be the best judge if whether I wanted to do something or didnt want to do it. And I figured hed have my financial interests at heart, because theyd be his financial interests, too.

Career Resurrected in Mid-1980s

When a New Orleans writer saw Thomas perform one night, he recommended her to the famed jazz, R&B, gospel and soul label Rounder Records for their forthcoming compilation New Orleans Ladies. The record company liked her work so much they offered her a contract, and her comeback began in earnest with the 1986 LP The New Rules. Throughout the 1990s other recording efforts followed, such as The Way I Feel and True Believer. Thomas now joins ranks with Tina Turner and Ruth Brown, women who have made significant contributions to the r&b scene of the50s and60s and have returned decades later with fresh energy and maturity, Down Beats Hemmert wrote.

Rounder sent Thomas on tour, and one particular gig at a club in San Francisco owned by 1970s musician Boz Scaggs was put down on tape. The result was Irma Thomas Live: Simply The Best, released in 1992 and earning her a Grammy Award nomination. The new label also offered the singer a chance to explore another facet of her musical abilities on vinyl: gospel. Back in New Orleans Thomas had become the featured soloist in her churchs gospel choir, despite a busy secular recording and performing career. This house of worship, the First African Baptist Church of New Orleans, is the citys oldest African American congregation. In 1994 she used this experience and love of the form when recording Walk Around Heaven: New Orleans Gospel Soul. Two big names in the citys gospel scene, Sammy Berfect and Dwight Franklin, collaborated with Thomas on the record. It was her first pure gospel effort, and as the singer explained to Green in the St Petersburg Times, she refuses to mix the two; when Im on stage I basically sing R&B and blues. I was raised in the church, so I know mixing the two is wrong. Ron Wynn reviewed Walk Around Heaven for CD Review and asserted that Thomas simply sings Gods music with the same passion, power, and integrity shes always brought to her own.

Thomas also tours extensively, and does not shy away from performing Time Is On My Side any longer in her well-attended club appearances. Contemporary singer Bonnie Raitt convinced her to start singing it again one night at the Hard Rock Cafe in New Orleans. Go ahead on and sing it regardless of what people think, Thomas recalled Raitt saying when she spoke with the Advocate. Just sing it! You do it better than they do anyway. Thomas also began a venture that hearkened back to her early years when she opened her own club, the Lions Denshe cooks food at home and carts it in for the audience. The singer also uses her local celebrity-hood in New Orleans for various good causes, in particular as an advocate for at-risk youth. Happy to have such a rich life after so many years of hard work, Thomas claims to feel more comfortable with her voice at a later age. It has matured, yes, she told Wirt in the, A avocate. I can hear a major difference in the voice of the 17-year-old and the voice of the 54-year-old. My voice has deepened somewhat. I have a better grasp and understanding of music and how to perform it than when I was younger.

Selected discography

Singles; on Minit

You Can Have My Husband (But Dont Mess With My Man), 1959.

I Wish Someone Would Care, 1964.

Also recorded Its Raining, I Done Got Over It, and Time Is On My Side.

LPs; on Rounder except where otherwise noted

Wish Someone Would Care, Imperial, 1964.

The New Rules, 1986.

The Way I Feel, 1988.

Ruler of Hearts, Charly, 1989.

Something Good: The Muscle Shoals Sessions, Chess, 1990.

True Believer, 1992.

Irma Thomas Live: Simply The Best, 1991.

Time Is On My Side: The Best of Irma Thomas, Vol. 1, EMI/America, 1992.

Walk Around Heaven: New Orleans Gospel Soul, 1994.

Sources

Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA), May 5, 1995.

Chicago Tribune, June 16, 1994.

CD Review, July 1994.

Daily World (Helena, AR), October 4, 1995.

Down Beat, May 1990.

New Yorker, July 11, 1988.

Rolling Stone, June 16, 1994.

St. Petersburg Times, October 21, 1994.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from Rounder Records publicity materials, 1995.

Carol Brennan

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"Thomas, Irma." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Thomas, Irma." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/thomas-irma

Thomas, Irma 1941–

Irma Thomas 1941

Vocalist

The Stones Stole Her Thunder

Back On Track

Selected discography

Sources

Her best-selling record, Wish Someone Would Care, was proof that soul singer Irma Thomas was at least as good as her contemporaries, such as Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick. Her influence reached such legendary acts as Otis Redding and the Rolling Stones, both of whom scored hits with covers of her songs. But Thomas herself enjoyed little commercial success. She was even forced to take a job at a Montgomery Ward store to support her children. She ultimately got her career back on track and was able to make a living singing. Rolling Stone called her a vocal dynamo, but Thomas also was known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans.

She was born in Ponchatoula, Louisiana in 1941, but Irma Thomass childhood was short-lived. She had her first child at age 14, and was a mother of four and twice divorced by the time she was 19. As a girl, Thomas admired Pearl Bailey and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and was fired twice from waitress jobs for singing at work.

At age 16, while working as a cocktail waitress, she sat in one night with veteran New Orleans bandleader Tommy Ridgley and his band, the Untouchables. Ridgley was so impressed with the teenagers vocal talents that he didnt waste time getting her into the studio to record her first single, called (You Can Have My Husband But Please) Dont Mess With My Man, which was released on Ron Records. The song eventually climbed to the Top 30 on the R&B chart.

At 23, Thomas was sent to Los Angeles to record for Imperial Records, which had acquired her contract. The resulting album, Wish Someone Would Care, was a hybrid of her roots in blues and soul and the West Coast pop sound. The album showcased Thomass charged, tremulous voice, according to Rolling Stone critic Parke Puterbaugh, and featured the work of up-and-coming West Coast songwriters Randy Newman and Jackie DeShannon. The title track, which Thomas wrote, was a Top 20 hit, a major accomplishment for an American singer in the year of the British Invasion, when most chart-topping singles were coming from English bands. Wish Someone Would Care was Thomass best-selling record.

The Stones Stole Her Thunder

On Wish Someone Would Care, Thomas recorded a version of Time Is On My Side, which became her

At a Glance

Born Irma Lee on February 18, 1941, in Ponchatoula, LA; married Emile Jackson c. 1976; children: four. Education: Business degree.

Career: Soul singer. Debut single, (You Can Have My Husband But Please) Dont Mess With My Man, 1959; first mainstream hit, Wish Someone Would Care 1964; took a job at Montgomery Ward c. 1969-; signed with Rounder Records, 1985; albums: The New Rules, 1986; The Way I Feel, 1988; Simply the Best, 1991; True Believer, 1992; Walk Around Heaven: New Orleans Gospel Soul, 1994; The Story of My Life, 1997; Sing It!, with Tracy Nelson and Marcia Ball, 1998; My Hearts In Memphis: The Songs of Dan Penn, 2000,.

Awards: W.C. Handy Soul/Blues Female Vocalist of the Year award (blues industry equivalent of the Grammy), 1995, 1997; Pioneer Award, Rhythm and Blues Foundation.

Addresses: Record label The Rounder Records Group, One Camp Street, Cambridge, MA, 02140.

best-known song. The song was then quickly covered by the Rolling Stones, and gave the British band its first Top Ten hit. Some critics have noted that the guitar and vocals on the Stoness version were clearly influenced by Thomass. Time Out critic Bob Bannister went so far as to say that lead singer Mick Jagger recited Thomass exhortationsto the letter and that Keith Richards guitar work just as faithfully reiterated the bluesy twang of the original guitarist. But Rolling Stone critic Puterbaugh declared Thomass the definitive rendition. As the story goes, Thomas was so annoyed that the Stoness version overshadowed hers that, for years, she rarely performed the song. Singer Otis Redding also scored a hit in 1964 with Thomass Ruler of My Heart, which he re-wrote and called Pain in My Heart.

In 1969, after Hurricane Camille tore through the Gulf Coast region, Thomas moved to the West Coast, first to Oakland, California, then to Los Angeles. She recorded sporadically for labels like Canyon, Cotillion, Roker, and RCS, but none produced a successful release and the single mother took a job at a Montgomery Ward store to support her four children.

Things began to turn around for Thomas in 1976, and she returned home to New Orleans. She was welcomed back to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and with the help of new husband and manager Emile Jackson, began to rebuild her career. According to New Orleans magazine, Thomass appearances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival were legendary for the amount of showmanship she brought to the stage. She, in turn, credited the festival for exposing her to a wider audience, citing the increase in sales of her records that typically followed her festival performances.

Back On Track

In addition to her appearances in and around New Orleans, Thomas began to build an audience overseas by touring Europe and Japan. In 1985, she signed a contract with Rounder Records, and proceeded to release a series of successful records, including The Way I Feel, Live! Simply the Best, and The Story of My Life. In 1993, Thomas fulfilled a life-long dream, and recorded a gospel record, Walk Around Heaven: New Orleans Gospel Soul

She had never before worked with Rounder labelmates Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson, but Thomas had no trouble collaborating on a successful 1998 release with her fellow soul singers, called Sing It! Ball and Nelson were fans of Thomass work, Nelson even admitted to singing along with her records. Actually being in the same room and getting to sing with her in person was one of the highlights of my career, if not my whole life, Nelson confessed in Down Beat. Sing It! was released to strong reviews and was nominated for a Grammy award. The fact that the three singers voices didnt blend perfectly worked in their favor. The trio is by no means a classic harmony girls group, as the individual personalities are still very much evident in the final product, Down Beat writer Michael Point wrote, giving the music an exciting and unpredictable edge.

In 2000, Thomas released another collaboration, this time with songwriter Dan Penn. My Hearts In Memphis: The Songs of Dan Penn featured three songs the two wrote together for Thomass 1997 release Story of My Life, as well as new Penn songs, and songs from his catalog. Penns Im Your Puppet, which appears on the album, originally was a 1966 hit for the duo James & Bobby Purify. On the album, wrote critic Time Out Bob Bannister, Thomas characteristically balances a strong vocal personality with the wisdom to let the songs speak for themselves.

Although she never graduated from high school, Thomas earned a degree in business in 2000, at age 59. She continued to record for Rounder, doubting that shed be happy in retirement. I love what I do and will till I close my eyes, she said in Billboard.

Selected discography

Albums

Wish Someone Would Care, Imperial, 1964.

Take a Look, Imperial, 1968.

In Between Tears, Fugus, 1973.

Irma Thomas Live, Island, 1977.

Soul Queen of New Orleans, Maison de Soul, 1978.

Safe With Me, Paula/Flyright, 1979.

Hip Shakin Mama, Charly, 1981.

The New Rules, Rounder, 1986.

The Way I Feel, Rounder, 1988.

Live! Simply the Best, Rounder, 1991.

True Believer, Rounder, 1992.

Walk Around Heaven: New Orleans Gospel Soul, Rounder, 1993.

The Story of My Life, Rounder, 1997.

Sing It!, with Tracy Nelson and Marcia Ball, Rounder, 1998.

My Hearts In Memphis: The Songs of Dan Penn, Rounder, 2000.

Sources

Books

Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK Ltd., 1998.

Periodicals

Billboard, September 16, 2000.

Blues Access, Spring 2000.

Down Beat, May 1998, p. 52.

New Orleans Magazine, April 1994, p. 54.

New York Times, February 17, 1988, p. C19; October 9, 1992, P. C19.

Rolling Stone, October 26, 2000, p. 116.

Time Out, September 7-14, 2000.

USA Today, August 29, 2000.

Online

http://www.amg.com

Other

Additional information for this profile was provided by Rounder Records publicity.

Brenna Sanchez

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