Irma Thomas is the decades-reigning soul queen of New Orleans. Her two annual appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival—one devoted to gospel music, the other to rhythm and blues—are Jazz Fest traditions.
Thomas won a Grammy Award for her 2006 Rounder Records album, After the Rain. Her more than 20 years with the roots-music label Rounder Records ended with 2008’s Simply Grand. She also has Top 40-cred with her 1964 hit “Wish Someone Would Care.” Thomas wishes someone would care enough to give her a new record contract.
Although Thomas doesn’t have a recording contract at the moment, her latest release, an interpretation of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love,” is the second song in Instant Records’ Instant Love project. A collection of love songs originally sung by men to women, Instant Love recasts the songs through performances by female singers from throughout the world. The series features a new recording every two weeks. It launched this past March on International Women’s Day and is available through Spotify and Apple Music.
New Orleans native Allison Zatarain, general manager for the New York City-based Instant Records, originated the Instant Love concept.
“At first,” Thomas said, “I thought I should change the gender roles in ‘Crazy Love.’ But when they explained the project to me, I said, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’ The project honors women in general, for their strength and perseverance, as moms and grandmoms and just plan strong women. I feel honored to be a part of this project.”
Thomas, now a vibrant 76 years old, surely has not lost her womanly strength or zeal for singing. And time hasn’t diminished her power and expressivity. The singer’s annual performances at Jazz Fest since 1974 are a testimony to that. A soul survivor, she can’t wait to get on stage. “Yeah, chomping at the bit,” Thomas said. “And I don’t get nervous. I don’t know why I don’t, but I don’t question it, because I’m loving what I’m doing.”
Thomas experienced stage fright just once in her nearly 60-year career. It happened in 1964, before her debut at the Apollo Theater. “Wish Someone Would Care” was her big song that year. “They told me the people would throw rotten food at me if they didn’t like me,” she said. “I sure didn’t want them to throw any food at me! But once I got through the first song and they hadn’t thrown anything, I was fine.”
“Wish Someone Would Care,” released by Imperial Records in Los Angeles, is Thomas’s only Top 40 hit. Nevertheless, the accompanying Imperial album Wish Someone Would Care contains more Thomas classics, especially an exuberant take on Jackie DeShannon’s “Break-A-Way” and the definitive rendition of Jerry Ragovoy’s “Time is on My Side.”
“Break-A-Way,” “Time is on My Side,” as well as the early 1960s recordings Thomas made with writer/producer/pianist Allen Toussaint for Minit Records (including “It’s Raining” and “Ruler of My Heart”), became New Orleans and Gulf Coast favorites.
Working with Toussaint, a meticulous genius of New Orleans music, was a career highlight. “Allen tailor-made songs for us individually,” she said. “He taught the songs to us and gave us an idea of how he wanted them performed. Whatever little things we did with our voices that he liked, he told us to do that in the song.”
Thomas’s regional popularity kept her busy through the 60s. She played clubs, high school dances, proms, bar mitzvahs, you name it. And loyal local and regional fans stayed with her through the decades. “Oh, I have fans who’ve been with me since they were teenagers,” Thomas said. “Now they’re brainwashing their grandkids. I’m loving it.”
"No matter what kind of song she is singing. Irma’s big, warm voice has more honesty in it than just about any you will ever hear. There’s a profound simplicity in the way she delivers a song—she doesn’t need to add distracting curlicues or melisma. For Irma, they would be beside the point. She has a rare gift."
-Scott Billington, Producer
The singer feels blessed, but she also gives herself credit for the long career she’s enjoyed. “Yes, because I know what I’m doing!” she said with one of her frequent laughs.
Thomas was 19 when her first recording, the Dorothy LaBostrie-written “(You Can Have My Husband But Please) Don’t Mess with My Man,” became a rhythm-and-blues hit in 1960. Her later work with Toussaint, loved locally, eventually achieved belated national and international recognition.
In 1969, after Hurricane Camille annihilated the Gulf Coast circuit that was Thomas’s bread and butter, she moved to California and supported her family by working in retail. New recordings appeared sporadically, on various labels, including the Atlantic Records subsidiary, Cotillion Records.
Thomas’s more than two decades with Rounder Records and producer Scott Billington began in 1986 with The New Rules. Billington produced Grammy-winning After the Rain. “No matter what kind of song she is singing,” Billington said recently, “Irma’s big, warm voice has more honesty in it than just about any you will ever hear. There’s a profound simplicity in the way she delivers a song—she doesn’t need to add distracting curlicues or melismas. For Irma, they would be beside the point. She has a rare gift.”
Billington produced more than 100 Louisiana roots music albums for Rounder, including Bobby Rush’s Grammy-winning 2016 release, Porcupine Meat. Mutual respect, Thomas said, distinguished her studio collaborations with him. “I allowed Scott to give me constructive criticism,” she explained. “And he let me voice my opinion. That’s how artists and producers should work together.”
Irma Thomas performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’s Acura Stage Saturday, May 6, at 3:05 p.m. and at the Gospel Tent Sunday, May 7, at 3:55 p.m.