The day I fell in love with Irma Thomas I drunkenly slow danced with the Abbey bar’s jukebox to one of her songs, waiting for the night to fall out of focus. She had a voice that culled drunkards from their cups, and brought them to their feet. Mostly, her songs made you want to get up and dance, drunk or sober.
I fell in love with her sixties songbook. I fell in love with her voice. Most of all, I fell in love with the simple elegance of each song.
The next day, hung over at work searching to blot out the Quarterflash record Wes, the store manager, was playing, I realized the stunning eloquence of Irma Thomas. In the midst of Quarterflash’s soulless bleating I managed to reconstruct one of Thomas’s soul gems note by note. Quite a feat. I was really hung over. Usually, when Quarter Flash made their appearance- a regular occurrence- I bounded upstairs to the store room where thousands of New Orleans R&B and Jazz records sat in boxes gathering dust, ostensibly to catalog them, but really just to free my ears from the garbage.
Wes made it clear we should listen not to what we wanted but to what would sell- theoretically a sound concept. Sadly this same concept was impacted by the less than populist sounds of Zydeco, and Jimmy Buffet, who owned a club across the street from the store. Had we been selling true New Orleans music, it would have been the street bounce of Cash Money rappers, and a healthy dose of Dixieland. Not Zydeco, not Jimmy Buffet, and not Quarterflash. Wes was a good guy. Record Ron, our boss and the store’s namesake, was battling Leukemia. It would take him down in nine months flat. So I tried a little harder with Wes because Ron was kind of his hero.
But that hung over day I could stand Quarterflash no more. I grabbed a copy of one of Thomas’s first recordings- Wish Someone Would Care– and got it on the turntable before Wes could stop me. My head was pounding but the moment the needle dropped and Thomas’s slow soulful stirrings poured out from the speakers, the throbbing stopped. When Wes turned up the volume I saw a slight smile fix on his mouth.
“Good choice,” he allowed, barely willing to praise me, non devotee of Quarterflash that I was. “Uh, thanks,” I said, stunned into a kind of contrition.
I was never much of an employee. I didn’t rob the register, and showed up for work on time, not much of a ringing endorsement, but more than some stores could say about their employees. Record store clerks are remarkably close-minded. They receive no joy from helping customers. They are largely dedicated to the willfully obscure and cruelly under-known, and spend the majority of their time at work, and otherwise, searching for a utopia of unheard music. I was no exception. Considering myself a bit of a jazz aficionado, rare the case was when someone sought out actual jazz music and not the smooth approximations of adult contemporary radio. Nine times out of ten when Wes handed me the phone, the person on the other end was asking about Kenny G.
Listening to the well crafted songs Irma Thomas sang offered palliative relief to that kind of atmosphere. That day in particular, it mollified my hangover. It physically improved my health. My electrolytes increased as the sound of her songs ran through my system. Scientific proof she delivered on the promise of her voice.
By the end of the last song I had dusted half the bins in the store and stocked the stack of vinyl Wes had priced days ago, more work than I had done in weeks.
“Hey,” he called after me. “Let’s hear it again.” Ok by me.
Sure enough, he flipped the record and ran it through to the end. He would do that two more times before we closed. Irma Thomas has that kind of voice. Her vocals ride the crest of the song, hovering between gentle devotion and raw passion, a true marvel of ingenuity. Each phrase balances on a musical underpinning that never swings out of focus, never retires from its theme. This is the sound of brilliant syncopation. Eschewing the jester like hi-jinks of other New Orleans performers, Thomas cloaked her music with a supple fabricated nuance, as elegantly precise as the gowns she wore on her album covers. Her songs stretch out and embrace you softly, warmly, truly. When her voice skims over top, it’s impossible not wonder how someone this pure sing songs with this much anguish. Whatever musical crimes she may have committed after 1978, and there are a few- for instance, she re-recorded some of her early hits with sub par players- Thomas’s live performances continue to produce that same scientific effect. Her voice never surrenders to mediocrity, even in the midst of a mediocre song. While the delicacy of those earlier sides is not completely missing, Thomas has matured. Today, she sings a combustible blues more than anything else. The cunning but heartfelt phrasing remains, and in 2007 her recording After the Rain won a Grammy because of it.
Still a prominent icon performing in New Orleans when I got there, the local stations most often played her current releases. And her voice arrived as seductive as ever. However, on many of the later recordings she’s paired with tinny instrumentation and poor arrangements. You yearn for Allen Toussaint’s contributions. Because of these faults many late era Irma Thomas songs do not hold your attention the way her first ones do. Those earlier songs force even the sourest of atheists to genuflect, such is the weight of their cadence, the alchemy of her voice. Each of those sixties songs leaves you softly humming their melody long after they have ended. Those songs, the songs of her youth, sometimes barreled, sometimes stomped, but always undulated, flapping in the wind coming off the Mississippi propelling the listener into a kind of aurally perfected ecstasy. Beyonce, Britney Spears, Christina, none of them could ever sing like that. Irma Thomas had a voice bathed in velvet orthodoxy and alloyed emotions. Her sound was borne of her hometown’s jazzy history, while firmly rooted in the alarmingly delicate but steady 4/4 beat made majestic by its restraint. Unlike the plastic Zydeco froth and the Jimmy Buffet crap tourists clamor for Thomas might best represent New Orleans R&B precisely because of her reserve, the molasses from which these pop etudes appear. Never afraid to burn a slow song down in the middle section, Thomas possessed the rare voice able to elaborate a hundred different kinds of pain in the space of eight bars, and then wash it all away before the next verse started. Not insignificantly, the city officially proclaimed Thomas the Soul Queen of New Orleans.
Thomas obviously owned the New Orleans market. But too few of her songs went supernova, entering the national charts, those that did never dominated because of payola and changing musical climes. Her voice wasn’t celestial like Aretha’s or dressed in natural sheen like Diana Ross’s. Instead, Thomas had a sense of control that liberated her grief, that lengthened the amount of time you could listen to her expound on that grief. While teens were the first to fall in line for her sound, the ballast of her voice spoke as deeply to any warmhearted adult.
Minit records issued her first volley of releases pairing the singer with songwriting magician Allen Toussaint. Minit provided a homebase for better known local acts like Ernie-K-Doe and Jessie Hill, though theirs was a caterwauling gleeful sound devoid of the measured authority found in Thomas’s work.
Like many of soul’s best singers, Thomas’s voice was fostered by her church choir when she was a teenager. Eager to shake off that image, Thomas had her first hit with the daring (You Can Have My Husband) Don’t Mess with My Man. She was nineteen years old. The song quickly climbed to #22 on the Billboard charts. Otis Redding took her hit Ruler of My Heart and refashioned it into Pain in My Heart which became the title song for his debut recording.
While later songs didn’t leave as indelible a mark on the national conscience, Thomas’s recorded output during the early sixties is dynamic southern soul that brings a propulsive but off meter beat, and steady restraint so few of her contemporaries understood, or cared about. From the first moment the background singers begin their prelude to It’s Raining– drip drop drip drop- to the very end of Thomas’s Gospel tinged take on Time is on My Side, the sound of Irma Thomas is immediately and identifiably assured. That she became a footnote rather than a bona fide soul diva is one of the great musical sins of all time. After a move to California found the singer working retail to make ends meet, she latched onto Jerry Williams, aka Swamp Dogg. The ensuing recordings announced a jaded, bolder Thomas. The sides were largely ignored, though featured some stellar guitar work by Duane Allman. In a bizarre turn of events, the Shanachie label re-released these tracks in 1993 scrapping the backing tracks in favor of newly recorded ones lacking Swamp Dogg’s concordance.
Thomas continued to record, and for many years operated her own music club in New Orleans, where she performed regularly. By the time she earned her Grammy, it was an afterthought to most fans long reliant on her music, medically and otherwise.
Her masterpiece is the song Straight from the Heart. She effortlessly slips into song from the spoken word introduction. As the song lathers the swinging drums build, accompanied by simple keyboards. When the background voices chime in Thomas coaxes an undeniable adolescent frustration from the refrain. It comes with such ease, and fits so seamlessly together, her youth transmits the timelessness all good songs seek out. Hers was the sound of compulsion restrained in four beats per measure, as persuasive a dominion of see-sawing soul as you will ever hear. “If time would stand still while I’m thinking of you,” Thomas sang, “it could be for a minute, for an hour, or from now on.” Every time I hear that line, it shakes me free of the here and now, and slips me out of time’s hold.