Irma Thomas: A taste of New Orleans soul at Jazz Fest

Irma Thomas: A taste of New Orleans soul at Jazz Fest
September 3, 2009
Susan Whitall

rma Thomas was just 19 when she recorded "(You Can Have My Husband But Please) Don't Mess With My Man," but she sounded like she meant business. It's no wonder; the teenager was already married and the mother of three.

Forty-nine years later, after hits like "It's Raining" and the original "Time is On My Side," Thomas, 68, is cooking spaghetti in the kitchen of her home in eastern New Orleans when a reporter calls.

The singer exudes the friendly charm of her magnolia-shaded hometown, but the Soul Queen of New Orleans still means business.


Talking about Detroit and soul music, when the subject of Motown comes up, Thomas says no, she didn't see the need to cover Motown.

"They did enough covering of us," Thomas says. "They came down to New Orleans and swooped up our music, went back to Detroit and said they discovered it."

Step back, Mr. Gordy!

Softening somewhat, Thomas says she did cover a few Stevie Wonder songs...and OK, "I Can't Help Myself" by the Four Tops.

Coming from New Orleans, the cradle of American music, it's understandable that Thomas feels possessive about the music. She recorded "Time is on My Side" and had a modest hit with it, then the Rolling Stones recorded it and it was a smash.

Thomas' minor hit "Ruler of My Heart" was reworked by Otis Redding into "Pain in My Heart."

The New Orleans native has such an impressive catalog of hits, major and minor, that it would be hard to fit them all into one set.

She has a solution for that; she brings a "cheatbook" and takes requests from the audience.

"I try to mix the songs up because I don't have four hours to do a show," Thomas explains. "If someone calls something I haven't done in a while, with the cheatbook it's not a problem."

Etta James also brings out a songbook of lyrics.

"Etta and I are both about the same age, and you just don't remember the way you used to," Thomas says. "Instead of trying to pretend, or doing the same set of songs wherever I go -- I'd be bored out of my mind -- if your fanbase dictates your career, why not let them dictate the show? It works for me."

Thomas feels if you make the effort to come see her, "You want to hear your favorite song. If I have it in my cheat sheet, I'll do it. If the band doesn't know it, I'll sing it a cappella!"
Comments: 0