Irma Thomas has been singing professionally for almost 60 years, but she’s always labored in the shadow of peers such as Aretha Franklin and the late Etta James.
Still, Thomas has accomplished a lot in her music career. She worked closely with the late songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint. Under his direction, she recorded great songs such as “It’s Raining,” “Time Is On My Side” and “Ruler of My Heart.”
Over the years, Thomas became a favorite of other musicians. Her 2008 album, “Simply Grand,” featured collaborations with Norah Jones and Randy Newman. And Thomas won her first Grammy award in 2006 for her album, “After The Rain.”
Ahead of her upcoming show at the Hollywood Bowl, Thomas joined us to discuss the key moments of her career. She started by telling us how she got the title of “Soul Queen of New Orleans.”
How does one become the soul queen of New Orleans? Does that happen in one day or is it a process?
Well, it was a process. When I returned to my home city back in the mid '70s there was a young man who, when I formed my own backup band after I moved back to New Orleans, his name was Wilbert Widow. He's deceased now. He worked with me for 27 years. At the time when I returned to New Orleans, I had become a grandmother and he didn't want to call me the singing grandma so he started calling me the "Soul Queen of New Orleans." Then in 1988, the city of New Orleans — a gentlemen by the name of Kalamu ya Salaam — he instituted me getting that title officially. So they officially gave me that title on February 17, 1989.
So is that on your license plate now?
(Laughs) No, it's just a moniker that I wear. And I wear it with pride.
You have been singing professionally, by my math, for almost sixty years now, which is remarkable. The first song you released was in around 1959 and it's a single called "Don't Mess With My Man." What is it like when you hear yourself in an old recording? Does it take you back to the person you were at that time?
I smile because I sound so young, which I was (laughs). But it just brings up the memories of at that time how naive I was about the business itself. But I was very happy that I was recording. I never had any idea that record would be as popular as it became.
You said you were naive. What about?
I was naive about the business aspects of show business. When you're first starting out, you're so tickled to be making the records that you forget there's another side of it. You need to be thinking about how much you're going to earn and are you charging the right price for your abilities. I had no guidance so consequentially, when those records were very popular, I wasn't making very much money. It was more than what I was making as a waitress and as a dishwasher, but not enough that I could have been demanding if I had some guidance in terms of the business aspect of it.
Way back in 1964, you were on a show that a lot of our listeners may remember called "American Bandstand." You were performing your song "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is" and afterward you talked with the host, a guy named Dick Clark. You said, with a song, you put yourself in the position of person in the story. Has it changed the way you relate to a song and how it comes out?
I'm still relating that same way to music. I can't choose a song that doesn't make any sense to me. It's kind of difficult to relate to that because once you record it, it's yours. So you have to pay attention to what it is you're choosing to live with for the rest of your career.
A lot of people wouldn't recognize today how big a deal it was for a black singer to get on "American Bandstand." Do you remember how important that was to your career?
That was huge! First of all, to even be invited to be on the show was a major coup. I would put it to the equivalency of being nominated for a Grammy. I mean, those things just didn't happen. At that time, the record company I was with must have had good rapport with Dick Clark because that's how I got on there.
You have worked with some amazing artists: B.B. King, Randy Newman, Nora Jones. But one of your first and probably one of the more meaningful collaborations was with the late Allen Toussaint. How did you come to meet Allen?
Ironically, the first time I met Allen was a couple years prior to my becoming a recording artist. Allen and my former husband, who is now deceased, were schoolmates in elementary school. He knew where Allen lived and we went to visit Allen one day, but Allen didn't realize that I could sing.
Later, when I reminded him of that visit he said, Oh I remember that visit. But at the time I wasn't pursuing a singing career. The next time I met Allen was at an audition when Minute Records was auditioning artists to become label members. I was turned down. I reminded him of that many times (laughs).
Why did they turn you down?
Well, I found out later that at that time, they were not looking for female artists and Allen did not have control over whether or not I was accepted or rejected because he was just there as the auditioning musician. He explained that to me some years later because I used to blame him for that. He said, "I have to explain to you, I was not in charge of that. I was just a musician." And of course we became friends later, but it wasn't until later that I had recorded on the Ron label that Minute Records decided that I was worthy of my presence being on their label.
One song he wrote for you was "Cry On." Do you remember working on this song?
Once again, I said I was very naive, Allen had written the song when I came over to the Minute label. He wrote the song specifically for me. I don't know where he got the idea or how he came about making that decision but after that particular recording was released, every song that Allen wrote for the next four recording sessions became local hits and they were all on the radio at the same time. We all rehearsed in his parents' living room prior to the recording sessions. It was just a lovely song.
Do you think that the spirit of the collaboration that you had comes across in your performance?
I put my feelings in my performances all the time. In fact, the band members that I work with on a regular basis can tell when I'm peeved about something because of my song selection. I wear my feelings on my sleeve (laughs).
Allen wrote some music that you recorded. There've also been a couple of artists who have covered songs that you recorded first, most famously "Time Is On My Side" by The Rolling Stones. The enthusiasm and spirit on your recording is amazing. Can you think back to where that was coming from?
Yeah, that's the same session when I recorded "I Wish Someone Would Care On." I was in one of my peeved moments (laughs).
Do you remember what you were mad about?
Yeah. I was angry at the gentleman I was married to who was the Thomas fellow. I was trying to get my career on board and he was being very difficult about it. When I went to that recording session I just let out all of that steam in the recording session.
When you were growing up and having some sort of heartbreak, what sort of music did you listen to?
I was fortunate enough to be growing up in the beginning of what they call the rhythm and blues, rock and roll era. I'm a child of the '40s and '50s so I had a large variety of blues music to listen to. My dad was a fan of Lightnin' Hopkins, early B.B. King, Percy Mayfield. In fact, I even covered a Percy Mayfield song on one of my albums later on in my career.
I had the gospel side which was Mahalia Jackson, the Clarence Ward Singers and I had my groups that I grew up going to the movie theaters with — The Coasters, The Drifters. I had a large variety of music to listen to whether or not I was listening to it for whatever reason. I may have been feeling sad or happy.
It was just the kind of music I was surrounded by when growing up. I was privy to that early stuff that a lot of kids think is new that these guys have sampled and put into their rap stuff. It's been around a long time.
Is that part of the appeal too of living in New Orleans that you're surrounded, not just by musicians but by tradition in that the music is in the streets, in the people, in the buildings. It's just everywhere you are.
Yeah, New Orleans kind of oozes music. I think that had a lot to do with my being thrust into it. I can't remember a given week where there was never a parade that was celebrating something one way. Either going out or coming in, some organization was celebrating something. The neighborhood where I lived, for every church there was a bar on the opposite corner so I was always surrounded by music in some form or another.
Sometimes the church and the bar were one and the same depending on your religion.
Oh yeah (laughs).
You've been working in music for a number of decades and you have a great body of work. What makes you keep going and want to continue to perform and release music?
It's the love of what I'm doing. I enjoy singing and making people happy and getting them through whatever moments they're trying to get through. That's the joy of being able to be a performer and seeing the smiles on the faces of your fans. I allow my fans to make requests so usually by the end of the night, I'm assured that I've at least pleased 95 percent of the crowd that has come to visit me.
I love what I do and that's the joy I get out of it. And seeing the faces of those who've paid the price to come catch my performance and requested a song that they wanted to hear and got it. Even if the band didn't know it, I'd sing it a cappella.
Irma Thomas will be performing at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday, July 20 as part of the program, "Yes We Can Can: An Allen Toussaint Salute."