Irma Thomas, Soul Queen of New Orleans

  • 3:45pm / April, 10th 2015
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    Abita Beer Stage

Irma Thomas is known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans.” Thomas is a contemporary of Aretha Franklin and Etta James.

Born Irma Lee, as a teen she sang with a Baptist church choir, auditioning for Specialty Records as a 13-year-old. By the age of 19 she had been married twice and had four children. Keeping her second ex-husband’s surname, she worked as a waitress in New Orleans, occasionally singing with bandleader Tommy Ridgley, who helped her land a record deal with the local Ron label. Her first single, “(You Can Have My Husband but) Don’t Mess with My Man,” was released in spring 1960, and reached number 22 on the Billboard R&B chart.

She then began recording on the Minit label, working with songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint on songs including “It’s Raining” and “Ruler of my Heart”, which was later reinterpreted by Otis Redding as “Pain In My Heart”. Imperial Records acquired Minit in 1963, and a string of successful releases followed. These included “Wish Someone Would Care” (her biggest national hit), its B-side “Breakaway”, written by Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheely (later covered by Tracey Ullman among others), “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” (co-written by a young Randy Newman and future country star Jeannie Seely, among others), and “Time Is on My Side” (a song previously recorded by Kai Winding, and later by the Rolling Stones).

After several years’ break from recording, she was signed by Rounder Records, and in 1991 earned her first-ever Grammy Award nomination for Live! Simply the Best, recorded in San Francisco. She subsequently released a number of traditional gospel albums, together with more secular recordings. The album Sing It! was nominated for a Grammy in 1999. In August 2009, a compilation album with three new songs titled The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary Celebration was released from Rounder Records to commemorate Thomas’ 50th year as a recording artist.

Thomas was the subject of the 2008 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival poster. She was chosen as the subject before the painting was chosen for the poster. Artist Douglas Bourgeois painted the singer in 2006. In 2010, Thomas rode in the New Orleans parade “Grela”. In April that year, Thomas performed at the Corner Hotel, Richmond. During Easter 2011, Thomas performed twice at the Bluesfest music festival in Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia. On April 24, she performed on the Crossroads stage, coming on after Mavis Staples; then on April 25, she headlined the Crossroads stage, coming on after Jethro Tull and Osibisa. In December 2011, Thomas’ track “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)” was featured in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror in the second installment entitled “15 Million Merits.” The song was also featured in a karaoke segment in the seventh episode, December 2014’s “White Christmas.” In 2013, Thomas was nominated for a Blues Music Award in the “Soul Blues Female Artist” category, which she duly won. She won the same award in 2014.