- Chris Sweda/Sun-Times
- Irma Thomas at the 2007 Chicago Blues Festival
A Chicago Blues Festival favorite who first costarred at Petrillo in 1989 and headlined most recently in 2013, Irma Thomas radiates soulful onstage goodness. And our city's capricious climate has taught her to arrive carrying several changes of wardrobe.
"A couple of times before, I wound up having to go and buy an outfit because it was too chilly for what I had," she says. "I didn't bring anything warm enough!"
The Soul Queen of New Orleans, now 75, has remained relevant and contemporary throughout 57 years of recording. Thomas made a series of acclaimed albums for Rounder in the 90s and 00s, and her most recent release, 2008's Simply Grand, paired her with 13 high-profile Crescent City pianists.
"I pay attention. That's all I can do," says Thomas, whose longtime producer, Scott Billington, played a large role in her Rounder output. "He listens to the artists," she says. "He's been blessed with that ability to be perceptive of what the artist is capable of doing."
Thomas's vocal approach is an uplifting hybrid of the gospel she sang as a child in her Baptist choir and the blues she absorbed around the house. "My dad used to play a lot of Percy Mayfield stuff," she says. Thomas became pregnant at age 14 but kept singing. In 1959, when she sat in with Tommy Ridgley's band while waitressing at the Pimlico Club in New Orleans, her boss didn't appreciate it.
"They started asking for the singing waitress. He found that disturbing," Thomas says. "He said if he caught me singing again, he was going to fire me." She sang anyway and got canned, but Ridgley secured her an audition with local label Ron Records. "He saw something in me that I didn't even recognize I had," Thomas says. Her sassy debut, "Don't Mess With My Man," was a national hit in spring 1960: "The same day I auditioned, I was given the song."
From there, Thomas hooked up with Minit Records, where her labelmates included Ernie K-Doe and Aaron Neville. Prolific young pianist Allen Toussaint handled A&R. "He was the writer and he was also the producer, so we would all gather in his parents' living room on Earhart Boulevard and he would teach us the various songs that he wanted each one of us to record," she says. "It was like one big happy family."
Toussaint wrote the wistful "Cry On" and "It's Raining" for Thomas in 1961. She encored the next year with Toussaint's "Ruler of My Heart," transformed by Otis Redding into his hit "Pain in My Heart." "I opened for him in a little town called Slidell, Louisiana, at a club called the Branch Inn," says Thomas. "He heard me singing it. He said he was going to do it. I didn't think he was going to change the lyrics, but he did."
Thomas wrote her anguished 1964 smash "Wish Someone Would Care" from personal experience. "I was kind of mad at the man that I was with at the time," she says. By then, she was with Imperial Records and recording in Los Angeles. "Everybody worked with me, just like Allen had worked with me," she says. "I learned the songs and I listened to the arrangements, and we went into the studio and recorded them."
One of Thomas's Imperial follow-ups was the Jerry Ragovoy anthem "Time Is on My Side" in 1964. The Rolling Stones' smash cover quickly killed her version, and Thomas dropped the song from her repertoire for more than 30 years. Now she's philosophical about that misfortune.
"All you can do is record the songs," she says. "You don't know what's going to be a hit or not."
More than a half century later, Thomas continues to take an undiminished joy in performing—selling records is a different undertaking. "When it stops being fun," she promises, "I'll quit!"
Irma Thomas performs Saturday, June 11, at 6:30 PM at the Petrillo Music Shell.