Clip: Irma Thomas
New Orleans 'Soul Queen' builds on strong foundation
July 7, 2006
BY MARY HOULIHAN Staff Reporter
The lyrics of the opening song on her new album "After the Rain" say
much about the state of Irma Thomas' life over the past year. On
Arthur Alexander's "In the Middle of It All," she sings: "My house is
a lonely house, but it once was a happy house. But now the rain falls
around it, and loneliness surrounds it, and I, I'm in the middle of it
Known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans, Thomas lost her house and
popular club, The Lion's Den, to the wrath of Katrina. She and her
husband-manager, Emile Jackson, are living in Gonzales, La., while
work begins on the restoration of their home in New Orleans East.
"We're hoping to be back on home turf by January," a hopeful Thomas
said in a phone conversation just before heading to New Orleans to
meet with contractors.
Thomas, whose warm laugh is ever present, recounts her troubles
matter-of-factly, saying "there's nothing you can do about the
unleashing of Mother Nature." While several songs on the new disc
reflect on the troubles brought by the hurricane, others reflect a
surprising turn to a bluesy, folksy sound that may surprise diehard
Thomas' longtime producer, Rounder Records' Scott Billington, compiled
a songlist that included traditional songs like "Make Me a Pallet on
Your Floor" and "Another Man Done Gone," as well as Clyde Otis' "Till
I Can't Take It Anymore," Blind Willie Johnson's "Soul of a Man" and
Richard Lamb's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free."
"When Scott came to me with those songs, I thought he was losing his
mind," Thomas said, laughing. "But I trusted him to know what I could
do. After 20 years of working together, if he doesn't know me, nobody
The album is more stripped down and adventurous than Thomas' past
efforts, bringing her soulful vocals to the forefront. From the start
of this project, Billington had his eye on a new direction: "Irma has
one of the richest and most beautiful voices in contemporary music. It
seemed confining at this stage of her career to make a straight R&B
record, so we broke the mold."
The result is a recording that frames Thomas' vocals with spare
arrangements and acoustic instruments. It's a showcase for Thomas'
vocals, which have gotten richer and smoother over the years.
The Grammy-winning Thomas and her band, the Professionals, are the
headlining act on Saturday at the Chicago Folk and Roots Festival,
sponsored by the Old Town School of Folk Music. Known for her 1960s
hits such as "Time Is on My Mind," "It's Raining" and "Wish Someone
Would Care," Thomas has been singing for as long as she can remember.
"I've been singing ever since I was a young country girl," Thomas
said. "There was gospel music and country music and the blues coming
out of every doorway. Music was everywhere, and I was always singing
Born in Ponchatoula, La., Thomas was pregnant and married at 14. By
the time she was 17, she was married to her second husband, with whom
she had two more children. She was discovered in 1959 when, working as
a waitress at a New Orleans club, she stepped on stage to sing a song
with the band.
Thomas landed at New Orleans R&B label Minit and later worked with
Liberty/Imperial Records in Los Angeles. Her first hit was in 1964
with the memorable soul ballad "Wish Someone Would Care." By all
rights, she should have had a career on the level of Gladys Knight or
Aretha Franklin. It's a thought that often crosses her mind.
"I think about that but then I realize things happen for a reason,"
Thomas said. "There definitely were some business aspects of my early
career that should have been handled better. But on the other hand, my
career has been a great learning experience that I don't think I would
have had if my career had gone in a different direction."
In the aftermath of Katrina, news reports began circulating that
Thomas, along with other noted New Orleans musicians, including Fats
Domino, had gone missing. Thomas was simply on a rare trip out of town
performing at Antone's in Austin, Texas. Had she been in New Orleans,
she probably would not have evacuated.
"Being in Austin was a blessing. We probably would have gone to bed
and been awakened by water seeping into the house. That's what
happened to a lot of folks down here."
The always ebullient Thomas has high hopes for the rebirth of New
Orleans, a city that is irrevocably tied to her heart and soul. She
says the city's unique spirit hasn't been destroyed.
"As far as the makeup of the city, it's going to be a different New
Orleans," Thomas admitted. "And the spirit might be struggling, but
it's not lost. We're on two crutches right now but eventually we'll
graduate to one crutch and then to a walker. We'll be back all right."
Out of the Storm
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Irma Thomas sat on pins and needles in a hotel room in August 2005,
after a two-night gig in Austin, Texas, as she watched television in
hopes of learning the fate of her home in New Orleans. Some reporters,
the singer recalls, were unfamiliar with the city's geography and gave
inaccurate accounts of the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina.
But when she saw footage of water lapping underneath the Louisa
Street/Almonaster Boulevard exit sign off Interstate 10, her worst
fears were realized.
"When you know an 18-wheeler can pass under that sign with a 2- or
3-foot clearance, that water had to be really, really high," Thomas,
65, says by phone from her current home in Gonzales, La., near Baton
Rouge. "From looking at that, we knew that our house was inundated
She and her husband had mailed the final payment of their 20-year
mortgage just days before. Now their house was ruined, and their
nightclub, the Lion's Den, was destroyed. They lost all their
possessions, save for the clothes on their backs and some vinyl LPs
they'd placed on a high shelf of their home a few years earlier in
anticipation of a previous hurricane. They'd also put their
photographs there, but had taken them down not long before Katrina hit
to make a scrapbook.
Best known nationally for her self-penned 1964 pop hit "Wish Someone
Would Care," Thomas is an institution in New Orleans and a favorite
internationally of followers of Crescent City rhythm and blues. Long
billed as "the soul queen of New Orleans," the vocalist appears
Saturday afternoon as part of the 23rd annual San Francisco Blues
Festival's celebration of New Orleans music.
Unlike many Katrina survivors who were left homeless, Thomas was able
to purchase a three-bedroom house in Gonzales, a 45-minute drive from
"We're blessed that we're not in a trailer, but we're definitely
trying to work our way back into New Orleans," says Thomas, who was
born in Ponchatoula, La., but moved to New Orleans as an infant.
"We're going to keep this one as a place to come to if we have to
evacuate again, provided the storm isn't coming here."
Their New Orleans home is currently being renovated.
Neither did Katrina put a dent in the singer's career. In fact, it
helped focus long-overdue attention on Thomas and many other New
Orleans musicians, including Allen Toussaint. The pianist, who wrote
and produced many of Thomas' regional hits in the early '60s,
including "It's Raining" and "Ruler of My Heart," was reunited with
her on the nationally televised Grammy Awards in February and on the
all-star benefit album "Our New Orleans 2005."
Katrina wasn't the first hurricane to severely disrupt Thomas' life.
In 1969, when Hurricane Camille destroyed most of the nightclubs along
the coast of Mississippi at which she had future engagements, she and
her four children moved to Los Angeles.
"Because of the music industry there," she says, "I thought maybe I
could get my career re-established and get some work as a singer, but
that didn't pan out too well. I wasn't in the clique."
Although she did get a few bookings in Oakland, Thomas was unable to
find nightclub work in Southern California. Nor was she able to land a
recording contract with a major label. Instead, she got a job at
Montgomery Ward in Los Angeles, at first selling sewing machines, then
automobile accessories, both on commission.
"At least I could get one," she says of the job. "I didn't feel like I
was making a step down. I was continuing my life and taking care of my
In 1972, she got a transfer to the Montgomery Ward store in Richmond
and moved with the children to East Oakland. She performed
sporadically on weekends at Bay Area clubs, including the Showcase in
Oakland and the Off Plaza in San Francisco, until "She's Taken My
Part," a 45 she'd recorded in Jackson, Miss., for Atlantic Records'
Cotillion label, gave her career a big local boost the next year.
Although it generated no interest in any other parts of the country,
the single got heavy play from KDIA in Oakland and became a
substantial local R&B hit, selling a reported 10,000 copies. Two years
of steady club work followed, including a year at San Jose's Safari
Thomas didn't give up her day job, however, until she returned to live
in New Orleans in 1976. She'd been taking leaves of absence from
Montgomery Ward to fulfill engagements in New Orleans and its
surrounding areas. Only when she realized that there was enough
singing work in New Orleans to sustain her did Thomas tender her
"Sometimes it's good to leave home in order to be appreciated when you
come home," she says. I walked right into a gold mine."
Gigs were plentiful, but it took a decade for Thomas to land a
contract with a nationally distributed record company. She's been with
Rounder Records since 1986, and in April the Cambridge, Mass., label
released "After the Rain," her first album in six years.
Unlike most soul singers, Thomas consciously avoids using the
syllable-splitting curlicues known as melismas that are associated
with the musical genre. She's especially critical of some singers
she's seen on "American Idol."
"A lot of times overkill ruins the message in a song," she says.
"Vocal ability is one thing. I can do all those riffs and run up and
down, you know, but it's going to take away from the story being told.
For me, it's important to sing well, but tell the story. You're trying
to sell the song. You're relating a feeling and emotion. I can scream
with the best of 'em, but is that going to get the story told?