My Rouses Everyday, September & October 2018
“As I’ve gotten older, I cook less,” confides Irma Thomas.
The Soul Queen of New Orleans, resilient at 77, looks much younger and misses not a beat as we talk in late July.
“It’s just the two of us now,” says Irma, referring to Emile Jackson, her husband, manager and 28-year partner in the Lion’s Den, a sizzling nightclub where she packed ’em in, two blocks from the NOPD Orleans Parish Prison complex — until the 2005 Katrina flood. Their house in New Orleans East filled with water, too. They spent two years in Gonzalez, slowly rebuilding the home back home.
“When you have a bar, your time is not your own if you’re doing it right,” she continues. “You make sure your supplies are in, drinks iced down for the next day, the property cleaned. It is a lot of work — too much, we decided after Katrina. We had to gut the house and start from scratch. It took two years.”
Lost in the flood: videos of her early performances, recordings, wardrobe, furniture, family photos, keepsakes, art pieces, three automobiles.
To supplant the Lion’s Den income, Irma and Emile embarked on long road trips with the band. In 2006 she recorded After the Rain, which won a Grammy the following year, boosting her national profile. Her New Orleans fan base has expanded across the generational chasm thanks to the Jazz & Heritage Festival, where she has performed since 1974 and, for 35 years now, the Mother’s Day concert at Audubon Zoo.
“Her voice, that kind of molasses quality — it just envelops you. It’s like putting a warm blanket on when you hear Irma sing,” Scott Billington, her longtime producer at Rounder Records, told Eve Abrams in a National Public Radio profile of Thomas.
On September 12, Irma Thomas will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance from the Americana Music Association at its 17th annual ceremony at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
Life on the road — for all of the glamour — is a trade-off with stress, exhaustion, boredom and more. Trombone Shorty once said, when asked what he wanted most on the road, was more time to sleep. Irma said: “Last year we did a September-to-November bus tour. Where we didn’t go is more like it. We had the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — and we toured till the day before Thanksgiving. I won’t do another one like that in my lifetime. Your mind might be saying one thing, your body’s saying, ‘No thanks.’”
“We just got back from Albuquerque,” she adds, with no whiff of irony. “This coming week, we go to Telluride for a festival.”
The longevity of Thomas’s career spotlights an irony of the Gulf South music industry. Dozens of musicians who live in or within hours of the Crescent City, particularly Cajun and zydeco stars, are people you see in line at the drugstore and supermarket, close enough to touch. But without enough high-end venues, particularly in hotels, the club circuit does not pay enough to satisfy the economic laws of survival. Which means that most working musicians spend longer periods on the road than they would like.
Which is why Irma Thomas loves being at home.
“We do more eating out now,” she reflects in a riff on the empty nest. “One of my favorites is Ruth’s Chris Steak House downtown on Poydras. And we like Crescent City Steaks on North Broad…” — a classic eatery with curtained booths, a favorite of Fats Domino.
“My husband likes steak but I’m not picky. If we can’t go to one of those we go to Soul Food Sisters out in the East on Chef Menteur, just before you get to Read Boulevard. They used to be off Canal Street. It was Two Sisters then. His other favorite spot is Red Lobster. Every now and then we’ll go to Applebee’s. Emile likes shrimp and seafood, too. I enjoy cooking when I’m feeling up to it. If I don’t feel right, it won’t come. On Sunday his favorite is smothered chicken, mac and cheese, rice and gravy. We’re pretty normal when it comes to eating.”
When it comes to career, her life has been anything but normal. Born Irma Lee in 1941 in Ponchatoula, she moved to New Orleans as a three-year-old and got her singing start in the Mission Baptist Church, branching out to school talent shows and eventually catching the eye of fabled rhythm-and-blues bandleader Tommy Ridgley, who gave her a venue with his band, the Untouchables, when she was 17.
Adolescence was a rocky time as she struggled for a career break. She had her first child at 14. By age 17 she had three kids and had divorced her second husband, whose surname she kept for the stage. After a stint in California where she worked for a while in a department store, Irma Thomas came home to reignite her career in the 1970s, drawing on the lyrics that came out of sessions several years earlier with Allen Toussaint, compositions that have had staying power in her repertoire, songs like “Two Winters Long,” “It’s Raining” and the 1963 chart-buster “Wish Someone Would Care.”
Her torch-song version of another song, “Time Is on My Side,” inspired a cover version by Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. As she found her career trajectory, and domestic equilibrium with Emile Jackson, Thomas’ radiant persona belied the years; she got older, singing songs that made the fans feel — and her seem — younger.
When she sang the ’60s proms and CYO dances at St. Henry’s and other parish gyms, Irma Thomas was not too much older than the starry-eyed teenagers waltzing to the chemistry-stirring tones of her mellow, bluesy voice. She came of age part of an illustrious generation — Ridgley, Ernie K-Doe, Oliver “Who Shot the La La” Morgan, Benny Spellman, Lee Dorsey, Johnny Adams, Frankie Ford, Allen Toussaint, Charles Neville, all now gone; Huey “Piano” Smith, no longer performing; Dr. John, Frogman Henry, Art Neville and Robert “Barefootin’” Parker, rarely so.
This litany leaves Irma Thomas on an exalted plateau of torch-bearers with Aaron Neville and Deacon John.
She recently recorded a grand version of “Even Now” with Walter “Wolfman” Washington (a spring chicken at 74) on his April release, My Future Is My Past.
Thomas was 19 when she recorded the Dorothy LaBostrie composition, “You Can Have My Husband (But Please Don’t Mess With My Man”), a crowd-pleaser in the years to come. But it was the sessions with Toussaint, who composed at the piano as she sat poised to sing, that gave Thomas a rare education as a vocalist.
Of her many honors — among them, the Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy, a W.C. Handy Award, an OffBeat Magazine Award, a Big Easy Award, induction into the Blues Hall of Fame — the one by Delgado College, where she earned an associate’s degree in 2001, may be the most fitting. In 2008, Delgado named its W.I.S.E. Center (Women in Search of Excellence) for Irma Thomas.
She showed the same resilience in the pursuit of education as she did in her musical career, earning an associate’s degree at 61. She volunteers at the W.I.S.E. Center as a motivational speaker for students seeking the road to a better life, as she found in music.