Image by Rick Olivier, Courtesy of WYES

New Orleans's Very Own Irma Thomas to be Featured in New Documentary

13:00 July 08, 2021
By: Jordana Comiter

Music is the heart and soul of New Orleans. Among many talented artists in New Orleans, some become idols and form a legacy through their work. Irma Thomas, the "Soul Queen of New Orleans," is one of those legends. In just a few months, more people will have the chance to learn about Thomas's life and music through a new documentary titled New Orleans' Own Irma Thomas: Her Life in Music.

WYES has partnered with The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation and Michael Murphy Productions to produce this film that is set to air in October 2021. "Being a partner in this program is so in keeping with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Foundation's mission to honor and support New Orleans musicians," Don Marshall, executive director of the foundation, said. "We are in awe of her huge talent and delighted we can put a spotlight on her amazing career utilizing materials from across our Archive." The 90-minute documentary will feature a variety of exciting content including an interview from the Grammy Award winner herself, commentary from colleagues, archival performance and interview footage, and rare photos from her career and family.

Part of what makes this program so special is that Thomas will be telling her own story, putting an extra layer of personalization onto the visual storytelling. Thomas's musical story begins in Ponchatoula, Louisiana when she first sang in a Baptist church choir in her teenage years. While working as a waitress, she occasionally sang with bandleader Tommy Ridgley, who then helped her land a record deal with Ron Records. By 1959, her first single titled "Don't Mess With My Man," ranked number 22 on the U.S. Billboard R&B record chart.

Thomas then went on to play locally and on the Gulf Coast at clubs, proms and other high school dances throughout the 60s. Following that, she moved to California and recorded for Imperial Records and Chess Records. Ultimately, her heart lies at home in New Orleans and, in the early 80s, she returned home and opened a music club.

Thomas didn't stop there. In 1991, she was signed by Rounder Records and received her first Grammy nomination for Live! Simply The Best. But one Grammy nomination wasn't it for her. She continued to record gospel albums and received another nomination in 1999 for the album Sing It!. But third time's the charm; in 2007, she was awarded the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album after teaming up with Scott Billington and Rounder again to record the album After The Rain.

She'll always be one of New Orleans's very own, and she continues to leave her mark annually at The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Although performing with big names such as James Taylor, Paul Simon, and Marcia Ball around the world is big on her list of accomplishments, Jazz Fest remains a constant.

Her colleagues have kind remarks to share about the legend that is Irma Thomas. "Her voice today is just as beautiful and sultry and powerful as it was on her first records. And she's a legend. She's as good today as she was the day she came out of the church singing," Grammy-winning blues artist Bonnie Raitt stated. Her producer for her Rounder Records albums, Scott Billington, went on to say that "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."

New Orleans' Own Irma Thomas: Her Life in Music is produced by Cilista Eberle, Michael Murphy, Jim Moriarty, and Rachel Lyons. Serving as executive producers are Peggy Scott Laborde and Don Marshall. Be sure to catch the amazing work of these producers and witness the epic story of this New Orleans icon in October on WYES, just in time to watch her perform live at Jazz Fest.

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