TAKING a look through the r&b charts of yesteryear, it's amazing to see the number of names of folk who have simply faded from the scene — more often than not, truly talented artists who, for one reason or another, seem to have vanished.
A list of "whatever happened to"'s would easily cover a page. Jimmy Hughes, Jean Wells, Betty Harris, Deon Jackson, Barbara Lynn, The Mirettes, Ollie & The Nightingales — if you've been into collecting records for more than five years, a look through your own collection will reveal just how many people would appear to have vanished.
You might be forgiven for thinking that Irma Thomas was another member of that clan. But, we're happy to report that she's alive and well, living in her hometown of New Orleans and about to start recording any day now.
Deep soul fans will be familiar with this New Orleans rose via her legendary recordings back in the mid-Sixties. Epics like "Wish Someone Would Care" (her first big national hit in the States), the original of "Time Is On My Side" (which became part of the Rolling Stones' repertoire in no time at all), "He's My Guy", "Some Things You Never Get Used To", "Take A Look" and prior to her recording with Imperial/Liberty, her original "Ruler Of My Heart" — which became "Pain In My Heart" for Otis Redding — and "It's Raining".
Starting out in her teens in New Orleans, Irma quickly catapulted to fame in her home town and it wasn't long before her name was familiar to soul lovers throughout the South. Her national breakthrough came when she signed with Liberty and although her records became treasured gems on both sides of the Atlantic — she had already picked up an enviable reputation and fan following amongst the handful of folk who were digging deep soul back in the sixties — the company failed to sustain Irma's initial success.
The lady was quick to take up the story from there: "The 'Take A Look' album was the last thing I did for the company — partly in New Orleans with Allen Toussaint and partly in Los Angeles with Nick de Caro. We just simply couldn't agree on our re-negotiations, so I didn't re-sign with the company. Then I had to deal with some personal matters, so I laid low for about a year and a half. Then, we signed with Chess and had a couple of records out with them.
"I recorded them down in Muscle Shoals — there was "A Woman Will Do Wrong" and "Cheater Man" but neither of them did too well. I carried on doing regular gigs and working out on the road and then, in January of 1970, I moved to Los Angeles. Why? Because at the time, I was breaking up a love affair!" Irma replied candidly.
On arrival on the West Coast, Irma signed with the fledgling Canyon label and cut some material with Jerry Williams producing. "But again, nothing really came out of that and in 1971, I signed with Atlantic. They sent me down to Jackson, Mississippi and I cut "Full Time Woman" which was, in fact, the only single they released on me — and it did nothing! I should mention, though, that the flip — "She's Taking My Part" did well for me on the West Coast although the company refused to reissue it as a topside.
"But it was really strange with Atlantic, because after they signed me, we cut material in Detroit and New York — with Arif Mardin and Joe Hinton producing some of the sides — and they didn't release any of it. They had about an album's worth of product but they said that I didn't have it anymore — whatever it was that was needed — so they let me go.
"The problem with so many of those sessions was that they simply didn't give me time to learn the material."
Continuing in her search for the right record deal, Irma signed with Jerry Williams Jr., only to find that he released old product on her that he'd recorded during her Canyon days and didn't even take into the studios to cut anything new!
"It was a really strange situation — he released an album on me called "In Between Tears" which I understand did fairly well in a few places, but just never recorded anything new with me so that when the contract was up, I naturally didn't renew it."
By this time, understandably, the lady had become more than a little disenchanted with record companies. "I'd moved to Oakland in May of 1971 and things were just tough because I just didn't have time to go through all the hassles with record companies because I was concerned with raising a family — I have four children. And, frankly, surviving when you have a family is more important. So I did what anyone would do in the situation I was in — I went out and got a job.
"I sang whenever I could on a part-time basis. What else could I do — since people were offering me ridiculous money to sing — $25 a night and so on! That was hardly enough to maintain a family with and I refused to sing for something like that — it was less than I'd earned as an amateur!"
Irma feels strongly that one of the reasons she had to deal with so many problems with record companies was because "I refused to really get into the scene — I didn't go to parties and hang out or get into the dope thing. I was always more concerned with Irma the person and I still am. Being real and being honest with yourself are more important to me than anything else and I just refused to prostitute myself or my talent.
"I've always been a firm believer that if you've really got what it takes, you'll get over in the end so you just have to hang on in there. I may have been poor but at least I've been happy and when the lean times came, I didn't fool myself into thinking I was somebody I wasn't.
"I realized that things had changed and, rather than go through any more changes, I felt I did the right thing by dropping off the scene for a time and concentrating on my family and keeping a roof over my head. Too many people that I've run across live in a state of illusion, believing that success they may have had will carry them over regardless. But that's just not how it works!"
Fortunately, whilst still living on the West Coast, Irma began to make regular trips to New Orleans and found that she was constantly picking up work. "I did the Jazz Festival last year and I'll be doing it again this year. Then, I've been playing at hotels in the city — The Marriott and The Fountainbleau, so you can understand that I felt it would be a good idea to come back and live here.
"I'd always told myself I would and when work started to come in, it made a lot of sense for me to stay here."
The best news about Irma's move back to Louisiana is that it means she's about to be re-united with Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn, the gentlemen behind Irma's earliest success and naturally she's more than happy about the whole thing.
"I don't know which direction we're going to go in because we haven't gotten down to selecting material yet but I'm looking forward to working in the studios again. It's just a question of getting some studio time and we should go right ahead. As of right now, I don't know who I'll be signed to — that's up to Allen and Marshall as to where they will place the product."
That should prove exciting news to all the lady's admirers everywhere and the only thing that would top it off for Irma's European followers would be another visit — she was last there way back in 1966.
"I have to be honest and tell you that I swore I'd never go back unless the money was right! That tour was truly gruesome — it was promoted by Roy Tempest and it was like three weeks non-stop work with two days off! On top of that, I had to deal with snow and terrible weather conditions that I wasn't used to — the result of which was that when I got home, I couldn't talk or sing for four months!"
There is little chance that anyone would put the soulful Ms. Thomas through such trials and tribulations again and she's looking ahead to a bright future. "What I really need to do now is make some money! But I'm confident about the future — I feel like I've hung on in here and I'm just waiting for my time.
"It's like you have to wait sometimes a long time to get where you want to be — look at someone like Esther Phillips — she's just getting the recognition she's been looking for. So now, I'm ready and I'm much more at peace with myself. Plus I feel that now, I have the maturity and development — my voice is so much stronger.
"So, although to be honest, I was in a pretty disgusted state of mind with the way things had gone down before with record companies and so on before, I'm looking ahead to brighter days".
All that can be added is a warm welcome back to the scene to a lady whose magnetic and soulful approach won her many hearts but a few years ago. It's time for Irma to win some new hearts and, with the warmth and style that she projects into all she does, it should prove to be no problem for her.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.