Irma Thomas, a soul queen far beyond New Orleans

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Irma Thomas, a soul queen far beyond New Orleans
The singer Irma Thomas, long known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans, at the city’s PBS station, Feb. 9, 2022. As is made clear in “Irma: My Life in Music,” a documentary debuting on PBS stations across the country this month, the 81-year-old, whose songs are covered by bar bands and in blues jams across the country, has treated baring her soul as serious work for the past six decades. Camille Lenain/The New York Times.

by Giovanni Russonello

NEW YORK, NY.- Singer Irma Thomas has long been known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans, a title that feels both richly deserved and far too provincial. Her songs never topped the Billboard pop chart, but they did climb it. And even today, they’re covered by bar bands and in blues jams across the country.

Still, if the title suggests a mix of regality and relatability, it makes decent sense. Irma Thomas is, first and foremost, a straight shooter. You feel it in conversation, where she’s neither unduly humble nor conceited. And you can hear it in her singing, which achieves the grandeur often expected from R&B singers in the early 1960s, but has always retained a special kind of intimacy; she often sounds a bit like a more plain-spoken Etta James.

“Straight From the Heart,” from her breakthrough 1964 album, “Wish Someone Would Care,” is a demand for sincerity that might be a manifesto, and a standout in a catalog studded with gems. As is made clear in “Irma: My Life in Music,” a documentary debuting on PBS stations across the country this month, Thomas has treated baring her soul as serious work for the past six decades. And she has her rules, rooted in faith and practice: Gospel doesn’t belong in an R&B set. One ought to take requests, she said in a recent interview, to be sure an audience “won’t leave disappointed.”

It’s the same attitude that made Thomas an indispensable musical partner for famed producer and songwriter Allen Toussaint: “He knew he could depend on me,” she said.

Thomas, who turns 81 on Friday, began singing professionally in her teens, while already raising four children, and by the mid-1960s her career was taking off. A stint in Los Angeles in the late ’60s and ’70s resulted in frustration — as did watching the Rolling Stones score a smash hit off “Time Is on My Side” after they’d heard her version. But she returned home in the mid-70s to a hero’s welcome, and has been a fixture at nearly every New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival since it began more than half a century ago.

More recently, she’s found a new generation of fans through Netflix’s “Black Mirror,” where her haunting doo-wop hit, “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand),” frequently cameos. In a phone conversation this month from her home in New Orleans East, Thomas was amicable and down-to-earth as ever — “You ask the questions, and I’ll answer ’em,” she said as we began — as she talked about growing up and thriving in New Orleans, and revealed which of her many songs she treasures the most. These are edited excerpts from the interview.

Q: When did you begin to realize that you really had a passion and a talent?

A: Well, singing was something I did all the time. I mean, I can’t remember when I wasn’t singing. From a wee child, even living in Greensburg, Louisiana, I sang “The Tennessee Waltz” for my elementary schoolteacher’s play, “Cinderella.” I thought everybody did it. I didn’t think it was anything unusual.

We did a lot of singing, keeping each other company or entertaining each other on the front porch during the week, when we weren’t working in the field. That was in the country. Then when I came to the city, we used to play and sing in the complex where we were. There were several kids who were playing music in school, and on weekends they would be playing music and we were singing whatever the most recent record that was out at the time. To me, I didn’t have such a big deal of a voice. Everybody around me was, you know, musically inclined to sing or play whatever instrument they were playing.

Q: You didn’t feel like you got a special response when you sang?

A: Well, they applauded — they didn’t boo me! (Laughs)

Q: Your love for singing actually cost you work early in life, correct?

A: I enjoyed singing for pleasure, so I was singing to keep myself company when it got me fired the first time, working the 11-to-7 shift. The second time I got fired for singing on the job, I was supposed to be waiting tables. So rather than waiting tables — or, in between waiting tables — I would get up and sing with the band that was playing at the club.

Q: How did your relationship with Allen Toussaint take shape? Was it clear immediately that you two had a special connection?

A: It grew over time. There was just no hardships involved whenever I was working with him. He would have me sing a lot of his demos for people that he was writing songs for. I was a quick learner. When he wanted something done, he knew he could depend on me to sing it the way he wanted it sung. I never knew who he was presenting these songs to, I was just doing the demos for him.

Q: But you also made some special records together.

A: Oh yeah, of course. He was one who wrote songs specifically for the artists: He knew my vocal ability and he would write a song that he knew would fit. And there was never a song he wrote that I turned down.

Q: One thing we haven’t talked about yet is your relationship to gospel music.

A: I grew up in the church, so naturally I would be singing gospel music. Every Sunday when I’m not working, I still sing in church. I’m in the choir at church even now. Most of us grew up in the church, and a lot of us got our influences in the church. So it would be a natural progression to sing and to be a part of the gospel scene, whenever you could.

After Katrina, Quint Davis decided that he would like for me to do a tribute to Mahalia Jackson, which I started doing. And I’m still doing the gospel set at JazzFest every year. I do a gospel set, then I do an R&B set. That’s just the natural thing to do. (Laughs)

Q: How big was Mahalia Jackson’s influence on you?

A: I grew up listening to Mahalia Jackson’s music as a child. My parents had some of her records, back when it was 78s, and then in New Orleans we had radio stations that had gospel programming during the day. But we heard all kinds of music locally on the radio back then, because the radio stations were owned by local producers and owners. So they played a lot of local music as well as a lot of national music.

So people who are my age, who grew up here in New Orleans, we had the best of both worlds because we were hearing it all. And then we didn’t have to fight to have a local record played. Nowadays, you’re lucky to hear your record once a year, because it’s not owned by local people. It’s, you know, ClearChannel or something like that, and they couldn’t care less. When you hear one hour, that’s what you’re going to hear all day long. So you don’t get a chance to call in and request what you would like to hear.

Q: Hurricane Ida had a big impact on New Orleans. It was nothing like Katrina, but the city appears to still be struggling in the wake of it.

A: Yeah, because now supplies are hard to come by, because of the problems with shipping replenishing them. And so many people lost the roofs on their houses, so you have to wait in line, I guess. But New Orleans is a city that, you know, we’re resilient. We don’t run away. We stay here, and we snap back and move on.

Q: I’m sure almost everyone who interviews you must ask about “Time Is on My Side.” But could you talk about why you gave up playing it for a while in the middle of your career?

A: Well you know, after a while, when you sing something that you know you’ve recorded, and you did the first national version of it, and when you’re singing, somebody tells you: “Oh, you’re doing a Rolling Stones song,” I got tired of explaining that I did it before the Rolling Stones. After a while that gets to be old. And so I stopped doing it, because I got tired of explaining that. They didn’t do their homework, they made assumptions. And so at some point you get tired of repeating yourself. Even now, I don’t do it as much as I do others. I sing it, but a lot of times it’s requested before I think about doing it, because I have so many other songs I can do.

I have a large enough repertoire that by choice I can either do all of my own material or I can do a few cover songs that I like. And by taking requests, it makes it simpler, because then you are doing what your audience wants to hear. And I’ll put it this way: Most folks leave satisfied that they’ve heard their favorite song.

In fact, “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” — I recorded that back in 1964. I was at a show on the East Coast somewhere, and somebody in the audience asked me to play “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is.” I said, “Wow, I haven’t heard that request in a long time.” I sang it for them, and then when I got through, I asked them: “What album did you get that from?” They said, “We didn’t get it off an album. We heard it on ‘Black Mirror.’” You never know where you’re going to get a request from, or where they heard the song. And so I prepare — I put as much of my own material in my iPad, lyrically, so in case someone asks for it, I’ll do my best to do it for them.

Q: Is there one song that you consider nearest to your heart?

A: The only one that I could say I’m closest to would be the one that got me my first big hit, which was “Wish Someone Would Care.” It became No. 17 in the nation, and if it hadn’t been for the British Invasion, it might have gone a little higher in the charts. There were some personal things going on in my life and I wrote the song because of those things. So that would be the closest to me.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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