She's known in the world of R&B and "The Soul Queen Of New Orleans": Irma Thomas has been making classic soul music since 1959 when as a mere teenager, she recorded "(You Can Have My Husband But Please) Don’t Mess With My Man" for Ron Records and scored a Top 30 R&B hit in the process. A series of memorable sides recorded for Minit Records (including "It’s Raining" and "Ruler Of My Heart") from 1961-63 made an impact on staunch R&B lovers on both sides of the Atlantic and in 1964, signed to Imperial Records, Irma had her first mainstream breakthrough with her classic "Wish Someone Would Care," a Top 20 pop and R&B smash.
I remember vividly during my own teen years in London making weekly visits to a tiny little import store off Leicester Square known as Transat to purchase her first album named after what was then her biggest hit. The "Wish Someone Would Care" set was a prize possession and finally armed with enough pocket money, I eventually got my copy - and I loved it. Songs like "While The City Sleeps" and "Please Send Me Someone To Love" blew me away. I got to meet Irma in person in 1965 when she came to the U.K. and was treated to a party by members of her fan club run by a good friend, Bob Nessling. It was a night to remember and seeing her perform at a little club in London was a big deal for us devoted soul fans!
Since that time, Irma's career has had some interesting twists and turns. After she left Imperial, she recorded briefly for Chess Records and in the early '70s, she made a few records here and there for small independent labels. A slowdown in bookings prompted a move to the West Coast and at one point, Irma worked in a local department store to support herself. In 1976, she returned to New Orleans and began re-building her musical career. With the support of husband and manager Emile Jackson, Irma re-established her career on an international basis in the early ‘80s and since signing with Rounder Records in 1985, she has recorded seven albums for the label. A 1998 collaboration with labelmates Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson on the album "Sing It!" resulted in a Grammy nomination and more road work for Irma.
Her latest release is a thirteen-track album entitled "My Heart's In Memphis: The Songs Of Dan Penn" and as the title implies, it's a collection of tunes written by the famed songwriter who's responsible for such classics as Aretha's "Do Right Woman-Do Right Man," James Carr's "The Dark End of The Street" and "I'm Your Puppet," originally recorded by James & Bobby Purify and revived by Irma on the new album.
"Originally, my producer at Rounder Scott Billington and I were thinking of doing a tribute to Ruth Brown," Irma explains. "We were having a little difficulty finding great songs for the project. We wanted to do a real good bluesy type of CD and since I had done some of Dan Penn's songs before [on the album "Story Of My Life"], it seemed like a great idea. We contacted Dan, who was on tour at the time, and he said as soon as he got back, he'd get to writing. We ended up co-writing a couple of songs - "Irma's Song" and "Keep It Simple" - and I gave him some ideas for some of the other tunes on the album…"
With all the trappings of a classic soul recording, "My Heart's In Memphis" features an all-star cast of musicians including guitarist Michael Toles, Marvell Thomas on organ, keyboardists Spooner Oldham and Bobby Emmons. "I've only recorded in Memphis once before," says Irma. "That was when I did a duet with B.B. King a few years ago. In fact, I've only performed in the city twice which is kinda strange, since I'm based in the South."
Irma had originally recorded two of the songs on the album - "Zero Will Power" and "Women Left Lonely" - in Muscle Shoals in the '70s and decided to reintroduce them for this project; while the decision to re-do "I'm Your Puppet" was "because it hadn't been covered in a long time. Of recording Penn's songs, she says, "When I was doing [his] songs in Muscle Shoals, I had no idea who Dan Penn was in connection with those songs. I have tended [in the past] to choose songs he has written prior to making a connection between him and the material…"
Irma's happy about the album and considers it a strong follow-up to "Sing It!" noting that the response to that CD resulted in a two month tour with labelmates Nelson and Ball. "The tour was very well received. How often can you get three women together? There was no competition - we all had a good time…" After completing the tour, Irma did participate in a "Soul Revue" gig on which she was the only female artist on a bill that also included Chuck Jackson, Ben E. King, Lloyd Price, Percy Sledge, Gene Chandler, Jerry Butler and Sam Moore. "It was wonderful," she recalls, "and believe it or not, it was my first bus tour with a whole group of other artists. I never did those kind of tours even in the '60s: I would just do gigs by myself back then…"
Looking back on an amazing forty-two years as a performer, Irma says, "If someone would have told me that singing would be my life's career, I would have said, 'you gotta be kidding!' I consider myself a blessed person. I have a fan base that's been very loyal. In the earlier stages of my career, my records got played locally in Louisiana, maybe in Mississippi and Alabama. After "Wish Someone Would Care," I started doing a lot more tours but the main thing back in the day was that I didn’t have any managerial direction. I had no one telling me about what moves to make and I think that’s why my career was not as ‘big’ back then as some of my peers. Who knows what might have happened if I had had the right guidance. All I knew was that I had the ability to sing and perform… But I count my blessings now. I've been married to Emile for twenty-five years and when we first got together, he had no idea about the industry but he learned. Now I get to work about two-thirds of the year, doing festivals, different shows and I still love it, maybe now more than ever!"
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.