As it has been stated many times and by many music researchers, despite of the rich heritage and musical creativeness of New Orleans there aren't that many really good singers. But when it comes to the ladies, there's one above others,
Irma Lee (no middle name) was born on February 18th, 1941 in Louisiana in a small place called Ponchatoula, about sixty miles north-west of New Orleans. As an infant, when she wasn't even a year old, she moved with her parents to New Orleans.
"I have a brother from my daddy's side, like a half-brother, he's older than I am. But I'm the only child with my parents."
Neither her half-brother, nor her parents are in anyway involved in music.
"My early influences were Mahalia Jackson, Pearl Bailey, Cecil Gant. I had many influences, primarily gospel singers like The Five Blind Boys. Percy Mayfield, because my dad was a fan of Percy. In fact, I've covered a couple of his songs."
At 11 Irma won The Ritz Theater's talent night, but it was just for fun and can't be considered as some kind of a start for a more serious musical career. Also in personal life Irma was an early beginner, because at 14 she got pregnant and that short-lived marriage produced two children. At 17 she met Andrew Thomas, whom she married a couple of years later, and gave birth to two more children. Although also this marriage didn't turn out to be a lasting one, Irma, however, decided to keep the name Thomas. Of the foursome, her son, who's living in California, plays drums, keyboards and soundtech.
"As a teenager we had a quartet in Home Mission Baptist Church, when I was about 15-16 years old. That's where I got baptized. We made no recordings, it was just something we did in church."
The actual start of Irma's professional career can be marked in '59, when a band-leader Tommy Ridgley took her under his arms and she started singing for the band. Before that Irma had worked as a waitress at the Pimlico Club, but was fired because of singing on the job. Now Irma was also looking for a recording deal.
"I auditioned to Minit, but they turned me down. Then Tommy took me to Ron. I think Eddie Bo was on that label. I'm not sure if Johnny Adams was or not. They had some other artists, I don't remember, that's been so long ago, and I was so young and naive that I wasn't paying attention as to who was on the label."
For Joe Ruffino's Ron label Irma recorded a jumpy r&b tune, (You Can Have My Husband, But Please) Don't Mess With My Man, backed by a r&b ballad, Set Me Free, and this debut single hit the charts in May '60 climbing up to the 22nd place in Billboard's R&B charts. But was it really Irma's debut?
"As a professional singer, yes, but it's not my first recording. The very first recording was the school song for McDonald 41, school that I attended my junior high school. We recorded it at Cosmo's studio for the school. It was The McDonald 41 School Song."
Irma's next single for Ron was A Good Man / I May Be Wrong, which, however, failed commercially.
"It wasn't that much of a song. It didn't have as much punch, and there wasn't a great catch line to it."
After a hit with Don't Mess With My Man, Irma was now creditable enough to be accepted by Minit Records, and what's even more, all her material was mainly written and produced by the man who had earlier turned her down, Mr. Allen Toussaint.
The first single, a plain teenage ballad, Cry On (backed with a midtempo pop tune, Girl Needs Boy) was probably recorded in December in '60 - and released in early '61 - but the other six Minit singles were all recorded in two sessions in '61, the last one (For Goodness Sake / Look Up, also known as Whenever) being released as late as in '63, on Bandy label.
The second Minit single was a cover of an old Orioles hit, It's Too Soon To Know (backed with a slowly swinging pop song, That's All I Ask). Whose idea was this?
"Mine. And ironically at the same time I did it Etta James did it too, and they are almost identical in terms of the arrangements."
A hooky swinger, I Done Got Over It (on the b-side the midtempo Gone), was the other of the two non-Toussaint songs during Irma's Minit period, written by every mother-in-law's dream boy, Ernie K-Doe.
The 'drip-drop' ballad, It's Raining, is today one of the most well-known Irma Thomas tunes, and it was also her best seller since Don't Mess With My Man, even though it didn't chart. (I Did My Part is a rolling uptempo one on the back).
At the time Two Winters Long was criticised as being a Mary Wells copy. (b/w Somebody Told Me, a rolling speeder)
"It wasn't. In fact it had nothing to do with Mary Wells. I didn't even know Mary Wells when that came out."
The sixth single, Ruler Of My Heart, is famous because it reached the ears of Otis Redding and reincarnated as Pain In My Heart. The b-side, some kind of a pre-funk dance cut, Hittin' On Nothing, Irma uses in her shows a lot nowadays.
But is this lot of fourteen all, or has something been shelved?
"That's a possibility, because we did a lot of recording and there's a lot of stuff in the can."
Irma praises the atmosphere at Minit in those days as being very good. Her label mates, among others, were Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman, The Showmen and also Lee Dorsey worked in their studios (for Fury Records).
In '63 Lew Chudd's Imperial bought Minit (and eventually Liberty bought Imperial), but Irma's contract was retained. In '64 -'66 there were altogether nine singles and two albums released from her with the first single being the biggest hit in her career, Wish Someone Would Care (pop-17). Here we have a real classic with a famous lamenting cry in the beginning. And it was also Irma's own tune. There were also rumours about the tune being borne because of Irma's second divorce.
"I hadn't gone through a divorce yet. I was thinking about it. Eventually I got it in '66."
The track was produced and arranged by H.B. Barnum, and on background vocals we can hear The Blossoms. Also the b-side, a catchy, quick jogger, Breakaway, co-written by Jackie DeShannon, has later on become a sort of a signature tune for Irma.
Also the next single, a dragging, gloomy ballad, Anyone Who Knows What Love Is, charted (pop-52), but for us Europeans the b-side, Time Is On My Side, is more familiar, and you know why. Time... with its energetic and rich arrangement is Irma's vocally most mature performance up to that point, and here the cover by a certain English group really doesn't stand a chance. Irma is again backed by The Blossoms. The song was written by N. Meade, and the original version was probably done by Kai Winding.
"Someone played it for me and I learned it from a record. It may have been a demo record."
Times Have Changed is an impressive soul ballad written by Van McCoy (b/w uptempo Moments To Remember), and He's My Guy (pop-63), also written by Van, is more poppy beat ballad, and on the b-side, True True Love, you can hear hints of Motown.
The beginning of '65 saw the release of the Van McCoy written Some Things You Never Get Used To, which reminds me a bit of what Van and Gladys Knight & The Pips used to do in the early 60's.
"No, Some... was influenced for me by Dionne Warwick. It had a Burt Bacharach feel about it."
At least Irma agrees with me that the flip side, an Irma & Jerry Ragovoy written ballad, You Don't Miss A Good Thing, is a reminder of Garnet Mimms' Cry Baby.
To speed it up, we'll just list the next ones:
- Nobody Wants To Hear Nobody's Troubles (a ballad) / I'm Gonna Cry Till My Tears Run Dry (by Pomus-Shuman-Fagin, builds up to 'a wall of sound')
- It's Starting To Get To Me Now (a beat ballad by Van McCoy; for me like Maxine Brown, for Irma like Dionne Warwick) / The Hurt's All Gone (big-voiced, dramatic)
- Take A Look (catchy, melodic) / What Are You Trying To Do (both by Allen Toussaint)
Irma's final Imperial single, a ballad called It's A Man's, Woman's World was released in '66.
"That was an awful record. I have no idea whose idea it was. The company told me that they wanted me to do this song for James Brown. I think it was recorded in Chicago. It was produced by James Brown, but I still say it's awful. Worst record I've ever recorded."
Irma's first ever album, Wish Someone Would Care, was released in May in '64, and it contained mostly restrained, bluesy, easy ballads. There were many covers - Without Love, I Need You So, I Need Your Love So Bad, Please Send Me Someone To Love - which were nice but not spectacular. The new tunes - Another Woman's Man, Straight From The Heart, I've Been There Before and Randy Newman's While The City Sleeps - were also slowies.
The second album, Take A Look (released in January in '66), was almost a singles collection with eight sides having already appeared on 45's. But as a whole it's a fine album with rich, deepish, big-voiced or uptown interpretations. Of the new tunes I especially appreciate a big-voiced deep ballad I Haven't Got Time To Cry (co-written by Mel Carter) and Allen Toussaint's ballad Wait Wait Wait. Yes, a fine album, but that didn't stop Irma parting company with Imperial.
"They just gave me my contract. I didn't leave them on my own, they released me. I have no idea what the reason was."
After that there was a break for about a year and a half we didn't hear anything from Irma.
"Nobody was interested so I wasn't recording."
"Somebody called me from Chess Records and said that they wanted to do a recording session, and I went to Muscle Shoals."
Irma went down to Muscle Shoals for two sessions in June and July '67, which were produced by Rick Hall. She was backed by the usual bunch of Muscle Shoals players in those days, Jimmy Johnson (guitar), Roger Hawkins (drums), Spooner Oldham (keyboards), David Hood (bass) and of course The Muscle Shoals horns.
In those days Irma also had many female rivals at Chess, Etta James, Mitty Collier, Laura Lee, Fontella Bass.
"I don't consider them as rivals. There were just a lot of females out at the time. I never consider another artist my rival, because that artist does what he or she does and I do what I do. We're all in the business, and as far as the competition goes we don't feel like we're competing with anyone, because the market is there and if it's produced and promoted properly, the general public will decide who they're gonna buy."
The first Chess single was a fine, Oliver Sain Jr. written, deep ballad Somewhere Crying (backed by an average uptempo track, Cheater Man, written by Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn).
It was, however, the next single that crowned Irma's Chess period, A Woman Will Do Wrong, a touching and memorable soul ballad, ranging from whispery to screamy and written by Paul Kelly and Clarence Reid. For some strange reason the single didn't chart, instead Helene Smith had a small hit with the tune. Irma, however, had never heard the tune before she did it, so the question about who made the original remains unsolved. On the other hand, Clarence Reid was Helene's producer.
Irma's only charted Chess single came next with a version of Otis Redding's Good To Me (in '68, soul-42). But that's it - only three singles. Why not more?
"I have no idea. An artist never knows why companies do things they do. I have no idea why they never released the others."
But now in the 90's they are released (Something Good / The Muscle Shoals Sessions) and now we have a chance to hear proper versions of Otis' I've Been Loving You Too Long and Security and also great ballads like Here I Am, Take Me and Yours Until Tomorrow. The latter, written by Goffin & King, is a desperately good performance, very deep, very effective. It turned out to be a hit for Vivian Reed in '68, but Irma had never heard it before she did it.
I also asked about a deep ballad, Can't Get Enough (Of You), which was released on a Kent compilation Soulful Stuff in '88, but Irma didn't remember having done a song by that title.
After a minor hit with Good To Me it was once more bye-bye to a company, this time Chess.
"They released me. I have no idea why they did it. After that I moved to Los Angeles in January '70."
This time Irma hooked up with Swamp Dogg alias Jerry Williams Jr., and there were a couple of singles released on Canyon Records, I'd Do It All Over (uptempo) / We Won't Be In Your Way Any More (ballad) and That's How I Feel About You (ballad) / Save A Little Bit For Me (dancer), produced by Wally Roker and arranged by Monk Higgins. Swamp Dogg also produced an album, In Between Tears, but it wasn't released until a couple of years later on Fungus Records.
"When I was with Jerry Williams on Canyon label, the session - In Between Tears - was done for Canyon Records. Then Swamp Dogg and the company had a disagreement of some kind, and he retained all the things he had done on me and later released it on his own label. I was with Jerry only one time. He never went in the studio the second time."
The music on the album is mainly typical Swamp Dogg sound, which I'm not always too excited about. There are some good ballads, though, like She'll Never Be Your Wife, Lynn Farr's These Four Walls and a monologue Coming From Behind ("women do it too and better") preceding a long version of Wish Someone Would Care, the end of which some call frantic but I call screaming.
"Jerry wanted to fill in the album, and I suggested that we do `Wish Someone Would Care' with the monologue, and he said `fine'. Jerry took credit for the monologue, but that's my monologue, and I was doing it long before I recorded it for him, since 1964."
The ending of the song? "That's what he wanted. It was his idea to do that."
Next Irma went over to Atlantic Records in '71, which normally would seem to be a golden opportunity. She recorded in Jackson, Mississippi a nice, melancholy, country-tingled ballad, Full Time Woman (backed with an ordinary dancer She's Taking My Part), which was produced and arranged by Wardell Quezergue. But she also recorded an album's worth of material with Arif Mardin and Joe Hinton in Detroit and New York, but it never came out.
"I hope it never comes out. They wanted me to sound like Diana Ross, and I wouldn't do it. I'm not Diana Ross and I don't want to sound like Diana Ross. They had me singing in keys that were not comfortable for me. I thought it was a very awful session. So they wrote the company back and said 'I didn't have it any more'. Whatever it was I didn't have, I guess, not having it must be pretty good because I'm doing alright now."
In spring '71 Irma moved to Oakland.
"I was working already in Los Angeles on a regular job. I just moved to Oakland, because I could work there and also do more singing. I was an automobile parts sale person. On weekends I did my singing."
In '75 Irma met her present husband and manager, Emile Jackson, and today they also own a club in New Orleans, The Lion's Den.
"We married in '77. He had a set of kids and I had a set of kids, but we don't have any together."
In mid-70's Irma moved back to New Orleans, and she was supposed to re-unite with Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn.
"They never got around to going into the studio, and I asked for my release. I didn't ask about the reason. I wasn't happy with the situation. They never started working on material to go into the studio, and without me knowing they recorded one of the sets that I did at The Jazz Festival and released that, and I didn't consider that as a recording session, so I asked for my release from them."
Irma's next stop was RCS Records in '77, where she was produced by the company's general manager John Fred. Of The Playboys?
"Yeah, Judy In Disguise. He's been in business for a long time. He's still doing it. In fact, I remember the last time I saw him about a year ago, he had got The Playboys back together again, and he's working again, doing live shows."
Irma did two sessions for John. The first one, recorded in Baton Rouge, produced an album called Soul Queen Of New Orleans, released on Maison de Soul label. Here we have old favourites revisited. Irma delivers an easily flowing disco version of Breakaway, jazzy renditions of Hittin' On Nothin' and Hip Shakin' Mama (more bluesy, this one), the `drip drop' song It's Raining and a 7-minute rendition of Wish Someone Would Care with a 'men / women' monologue. Of the new ones there are Kim Morrison's country-inclined ballad Don't Blame Him, a tender version of a beautiful Kris Kristofferson slowie, For The Good Times and a Dan Penn co-written uptempo pop cutie Friendly, which was also released as a single.
The results of the next session are known as an album called Safe With Me on RCS in '79. Besides John Fred it was produced also by Dan Penn, Cyril Vetter and Casey Kelly, and it was recorded at Muscle Shoals, but also Malaco, Sea-Saint (New Orleans) and Sound Stage (Nashville) studios are listed.
"We went to Muscle Shoals and did the bulk of the album. Then they went to other studios to do technical stuff, so they listed all the studios that they used for whatever technical reasons."
The first half of the album is exceptionally good with a simple but touching country ballad, Looking Back - remember Joe Simon? - a slightly countrified Penn & Oldham ballad, Woman Left Lonely, a disco influenced catchy dancer and a single release, Safe With Me, a version of Holland-Dozier-Holland's I Can't Help Myself (which would have called a bit more energy in singing) and finally a very intimate, churchy, Penn & Oldham ballad, Zero Willpower, the highlight of the album.
Alas, the music on the other side is like from a different world with heavy pop & rock & disco sounds.
"The record was done at the end of the disco era, so it has a lot of disco flavoured stuff in it."
Recently Safe With Me was reissued together with Irma Thomas Live ('77).
"They wanted to release our session (Safe With Me) on compact disc, but the original session was not enough to fill out the CD, so they used excerpts from a live show that I did at The Kingfish Club in Baton Rouge."
In her show Irma goes through her earliest material (Cry On, Two Winters Long, Ruler Of My Heart, I Did My Part, Gone, I Done Got Over It, It's Raining and Breakaway) together with some newies (Friendly, Don't Blame Him).
For RCS it was just a one record deal, but why is it that after Safe With Me we didn't hear anything from Irma for six-seven years?
"I wasn't doing anything. I was performing, I just wasn't recording."
"A writer, Almost Slim, told the company (Rounder) about me. Scott Billington came down and approached me about doing some recordings for the company."
Irma's first Rounder album, The New Rules ('86), is really an impressive set. It was produced by Irma and Scott Billington and contains some familiar material. She redoes her '65 Imperial track, Gonna Cry 'Til My Tears Run Dry, but here only deeper. I Gave You Everything and Yours Until Tomorrow were part of the rejected Chess material from '67. Other earlier recorded tunes included The Wind Beneath My Wings, The Love Of My Man (Theola Kilgore) and I Needed Somebody (Ann Peebles), the latter being a real show-stopper when Irma performed here in Finland at The Pori Jazz Festival in July this year. The title tune is a brisk and catchy track, written by Paul Kelly.
So, mainly ballads and mainly deepish, which is alright with me. "It's got a lot more blues in it than any of the other ones."
The second Rounder set, The Way I Feel ('88), also offered some familiar melodies like the funky and disappointing Baby I Love You (Aretha), Sit Down And Cry (Jean Wells and Ella Washington), Dancing In The Street (Martha & The Vandellas) and You Don't Know Nothing About Love (Lorraine Ellison) - mostly okay, but the originals are just unsurpassable. Of the new ones Allen Toussaint's pleasant mid-pacer Old Records and Jerry Ragovoy's fine deep soul ballad, Sorry Wrong Number, impressed me most. The album has it's moments, but it's not on a par with the first one.
For her next album, Live! Simply The Best ('91), Irma was nominated for Grammy. It was recorded at Slim's in San Francisco, and Irma is backed by her own band, The Professionals. At the time of the issue there was a gossip going around that she had to release a `live' album, because there wasn't enough material for the studio one.
"That's right. We had been searching for two years to find material to do a good album. That's why there are so many remakes on previous albums, because getting new material was hard. Writers don't give singers their material unless they have a track record of hits. They give all the best material to the people who've had a track record of hits. So we wound up doing a lot of remakes, cover stuff to fill out an album.
Since I hadn't had a true, TRULY `live' album done for the specific purpose of recording `live', I suggested to do one. Scott Billington thought it was a great idea, and we went for it. We didn't do anything special, I went on and did my normal show, and it got nominated."
Once more Irma mainly goes through her own hits all over again added with a couple of medleys of partly outside material plus Oh Me Oh My, That's What Love Is All About and Tina's Simply The Best.
Also in '91 Irma made a guest appearance on her label-mate's, Jimmy McCracklin's, album My Story (Bullseye Blues / Rounder) duetting on two tunes that they wrote together, a swaying r&b ballad Tomorrow and a r&b swinger It's Got To Be Love - both strongly reminding me of the material that Ray Charles used to do in the 50's.
When True Believer ('93) was released I had a small chat with Irma (in our issue 2/93) and found out that her own favourites were a poignant ballad, Can't You Hear It In My Tears, a ragtime stroll, I Never Fool Anybody But Me, written by Doc Pomus and Dr. John and a Dan Penn co-written, saddish beat ballad, Smoke Filled Room. I also liked the Tony Joe White co-penned tear-jerker, Heart Full Of Rain. The covers this time were Chains Of Love (Big Joe Turner), Sweet Touch Of Love (Allen Toussaint) and I'll Be Satisfied (Jackie Wilson).
WALK AROUND HEAVEN
Already then Irma told me that she was working on a gospel album, and this year saw the release of Walk Around Heaven: New Orleans Gospel Show, which is Irma's first ever gospel set. She chose the material herself with some of the songs being her special favourites. Of course, Irma's no newcomer to heavenly music - remember the quartet in Home Mission Baptist Church in the 50's - and today she's singing regularly in a church choir in First African Baptist Church of New Orleans. "It's my roots", as she puts it.
"I had been wanting to do it for years, but I never had the budget to do it with. So when I approached Scott about it, he said he would see if Rounder would give the budget to do it and they did. I don't think they regret it.
When I left the States it was getting a lot of airplay, local and also in other cities. Gospel music is a little bit different than r&b music, it tends to be a little slower sometimes in getting into the charts."
The music is mainly slow and passionate with many familiar melodies, Ask What You Will, I Know Prayer Changes Things, No Not One, I Will Say Yes Lord, Walk Around Heaven All Day and even a carol, Oh Holy Night. It's not like a modern-day gospel record with contemporary sounds. I'd say it's surprisingly traditional, and the singing is strong.
"I don't do gospel music when I'm singing r&b. I don't mix the two of them in the same show. So if it does real well, the next time I come over, I come over as a gospel artist."
Presumably Rounder is treating Irma alright.
So far I'm pleased. They have their shortcomings. They need to spend a little more money on promotion, but by the same token they do have a great distribution, because most of the countries I've gone to since I've been on this tour does have access to the records, so that's a good plus.
If they'd spend a little more on promotion, I think they'd have even greater sales, because they have good artists on the label. They just don't promote them enough."
Irma's future plans are simple. "To continue recording and hopefully to get a hit."