Born c. 1941 in New Orleans, LA; married Emile Jackson (a music business manager), late 1970s; four children. Addresses: Record company--Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140.
The story of R&B singer Irma Thomas seems the ideal candidate for a film biography, one that would pick its leading lady from the younger generation of soul divas that carry on Thomas's legacy. "Honey, my story sounds like a black version of the Loretta Lynn story," Thomas joked with a writer from the New Yorker once. A native of New Orleans, Thomas cut her first record while a teen single mother in the late 1950s, and went on to have a nominally successful recording career--although she never made as much money from it as those behind the scenes. The British Invasion and cataclysmic weather put her career under water in New Orleans, so she packed up her four children and moved to California, alternating performing gigs with her sales clerk job. Returning to New Orleans in the mid-1970s was the beginning of a change of fortune for Thomas, and since then she has enjoyed a successful recording career on Rounder Records as well as the support of a loyal local fan base. A celebrity in her hometown, Thomas puts her good Grammy-nominated name to use in charity work and as the proprietor of her own club.
Thomas's launch into the music business seems a veritable rags-to-riches tale. A mother at 15, to support her family--one that grew to four children by the time she was 20--Thomas found employment in restaurants around New Orleans, usually as a cook or dishwasher. However, one job had her waiting tables in an R&B club, and when famed bandleader Tommy Ridgely played there one night, the seventeen-year-old Thomas boldly asked if she could sing a number. "I do know I was a ham," Thomas recalled about herself to Advocate writer John Wirt, in part because of her years of experience singing gospel in her church. "I didn't have any problems with standing up and singing in front of an audience."
Thomas's performance with Ridgely went over well with the audience and she soon began splitting up her singing and waitressing shifts, much to the annoyance of the manager; he made her choose one or the other, and she chose the microphone. Soon Thomas began playing in other New Orleans clubs and along the Gulf Coast. She cut her first record, "You Can Have My Husband (But Don't Mess With My Man)," in 1959; it was an immediate hit. Soon she signed to Minit Records and began collaborating with local producer and writer Allen Toussaint. The songs released during this era--"It's Raining," "I Done Got Over It," and "I Wish Someone Would Care," achieved "a modern soul sound, but with a powerful blues interest," noted Down Beat writer Terri Hemmert. Almost all of them made the R&B charts--with "I Wish Someone Would Care," reaching Number 17--although Thomas was certainly not getting rich off the proceeds. "That was the scheme of things when I got into this business," she recalled for the Advocate, referring to the raw deals young African American artists were sometimes signed to in exchange for their talent. "It had nothing to do with my being young and naive.... That was a situation where what you didn't know did hurt."
Another song Thomas recorded during the early 1960s was not as successful for her as her other releases, but it went on to bigger fame when covered by another act. Back then, a young, undiscovered English rock band called the Rolling Stones were devotees of American soul and R&B music; their early repertoire consisted of covers of songs by the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B. King--and Irma Thomas. When the Stones recorded her "Time Is On My Side," it became their first big hit. Thomas continued to perform it for a number of years, but eventually ceased because fans thought she was paying homage to them.
Thomas's recording career suffered further at the hand of fate. She performed the New Orleans/Gulf Coast circuit for the rest of the 1960s, but unfortunately the popularity of her particular brand of R&B had waned in favor of British acts and the Motown sound (and later the Philly sound and disco); when a hurricane wiped out all the clubs at which she had been booked along the Gulf Coast in 1969, Thomas packed up her children and moved to Los Angeles.
From the start, things were difficult for Thomas in California. "It was a very cliquish situation," she said in the Advocate interview with Wirt. "It wasn't what you knew and how good you were, it was who you know. I didn't know anybody." She took a job as a lingerie sales associate at a Montgomery Ward department store, and she performed in local clubs as well as farther north around San Francisco and Oakland. Eventually Atlantic Records offered her a deal, and she went into the studio to record, with disastrous results. "The producers wanted me to sound like Diana Ross," Thomas recalled for St. Petersburg Times reporter Tony Green. "I have no idea why because I have my own voice, which I feel is just as strong as hers. To me the whole session was a joke." The studio work in L.A. went nowhere, but Thomas did eventually land steady work performing around the Oakland and San Francisco environs. After a time she relocated her family farther north and even got herself transferred to a Montgomery Ward store there.
During the 1970s, Thomas recorded some material for the Cotillion label, and when visiting home found that New Orleans audiences were again eager for her particular brand of soul. She began traveling back and forth between California and Louisiana, and when she found herself spending more time on the road than at home, she moved back to New Orleans in 1976. Performing in the plethora of blues and R&B clubs that her hometown has to offer, Thomas also found love there when she met Emile Jackson one night. A year after they were married, Thomas made him her business manager. She had been dissatisfied with her previous one, and as she told the New Yorker in 1988, "I figured [my husband] would be the best judge if whether I wanted to do something or didn't want to do it. And I figured he'd have my financial interests at heart, because they'd be his financial interests, too."
When a New Orleans writer saw Thomas perform one night, he recommended her to the famed jazz, R&B, gospel and soul label Rounder Records for their forthcoming compilation New Orleans Ladies. The record company liked her work so much they offered her a contract, and her comeback began in earnest with the 1986 LP The New Rules. Throughout the 1990s other recording efforts followed, such as The Way I Feel and True Believer. "Thomas now joins ranks with Tina Turner and Ruth Brown, women who have made significant contributions to the r&b scene of the '50s and '60s and have returned decades later with fresh energy and maturity," Down Beat's Hemmert wrote.
Rounder sent Thomas on tour, and one particular gig at a club in San Francisco owned by 1970s musician Boz Scaggs was put down on tape. The result was Irma Thomas Live: Simply The Best, released in 1992 and earning her a Grammy Award nomination. The new label also offered the singer a chance to explore another facet of her musical abilities on vinyl: gospel. Back in New Orleans Thomas had become the featured soloist in her church's gospel choir, despite a busy secular recording and performing career. This house of worship, the First African Baptist Church of New Orleans, is the city's oldest African American congregation. In 1994 she used this experience and love of the form when recording Walk Around Heaven: New Orleans Gospel Soul. Two big names in the city's gospel scene, Sammy Berfect and Dwight Franklin, collaborated with Thomas on the record. It was her first pure gospel effort, and as the singer explained to Green in the St. Petersburg Times, she refuses to "mix the two; when I'm on stage I basically sing R&B and blues. I was raised in the church, so I know mixing the two is wrong." Ron Wynn reviewed Walk Around Heaven for CD Review and asserted that "Thomas simply sings God's music with the same passion, power, and integrity she's always brought to her own."
Thomas also tours extensively, and does not shy away from performing "Time Is On My Side" any longer in her well-attended club appearances. Contemporary singer Bonnie Raitt convinced her to start singing it again one night at the Hard Rock Cafe in New Orleans. "Go ahead on and sing it regardless of what people think," Thomas recalled Raitt saying when she spoke with the Advocate. "Just sing it! You do it better than they do anyway." Thomas also began a venture that hearkened back to her early years when she opened her own club, the Lion's Den--she cooks food at home and carts it in for the audience. The singer also uses her local celebrityhood in New Orleans for various good causes, in particular as an advocate for at-risk youth. Happy to have such a rich life after so many years of hard work, Thomas claims to feel more comfortable with her voice at a later age. "It has matured, yes," she told Wirt in the Advocate. "I can hear a major difference in the voice of the 17-year-old and the voice of the 54-year-old. My voice has deepened somewhat. I have a better grasp and understanding of music and how to perform it than when I was younger."
by Carol Brennan
Irma Thomas's Career
Worked as a restaurant cook; began performing in New Orleans clubs in 1958; released first single, "You Can Have My Husband (But Don't Mess With My Man)," 1959; signed to Minit Records, late 1950s; during the early 1960s recorded "Time Is On My Side," a song subsequently recorded by the Rolling Stones to great success; recording career sidelined by other trends in music; worked as a sales clerk in a Montgomery Ward department store in Los Angeles, CA; signed with Atlantic Records, early 1970s; also recorded for the Cotillion label, mid-1970s; began performing again in New Orleans in the late 1970s; signed to Rounder Records, mid-1980s; released comeback album, The New Rules, 1986.
Irma Thomas's Awards
Simply the Best: Live was nominated for a Grammy Award, 1991; recipient of numerous humanitarian awards for public-service work in New Orleans.
- Selective Works
- Singles; on Minit "You Can Have My Husband (But Don't Mess With My Man)," 1959.
- "I Wish Someone Would Care," 1964.
- Also recorded "It's Raining," "I Done Got Over It," and "Time Is On My Side."
- LPs; on Rounder except where otherwise noted Wish Someone Would Care, Imperial, 1964.
- The New Rules, 1986.
- The Way I Feel, 1988.
- Ruler of Hearts, Charly, 1989.
- Something Good: The Muscle Shoals Sessions, Chess, 1990.
- True Believer, 1992.
- Irma Thomas Live: Simply The Best, 1991.
- Time Is On My Side: The Best of Irma Thomas, Vol. 1, EMI/America, 1992.
- Walk Around Heaven: New Orleans Gospel Soul, 1994.
- Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA), May 5, 1995.
- Chicago Tribune, June 16, 1994.
- CD Review, July 1994.
- Daily World (Helena, AR), October 4, 1995.
- Down Beat, May 1990.
- New Yorker, July 11, 1988.
- Rolling Stone, June 16, 1994.
- St. Petersburg Times, October 21, 1994.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Rounder Records publicity materials, 1995.