I first saw the-then future “Soul Queen Of New Orleans” in 1966 when, much to the delight of the small group of British R&B fans who had become aware of her through her wonderful ‘60s recordings for labels like Minit, Ron and in my case, Imperial. Her 1964 classic hit, “Wish Someone Would Care” became an instant favorite of mine and of course, The Rolling Stones ‘discovered’ Irma’s brilliance after choosing to record her original version of “Time Is On My Side,” much to the rage of my friend, the late Dave Godin, founder of the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society and the man many considered the ‘British godfather of R&B’! Dave never liked cover versions by UK groups and he hated that one of his former classmates, one Mick Jagger had done Irma’s soulful song over – and had a massive hit with it.
But I digress: Irma’s 1966 trip left an indelible impression on me and I reminded her after her spectacular performance on Sunday night in London – returning to the UK for the first time in over twenty years – that we’d met at a party given in London by her then-fan club secretary Bob Nessling. Much has happened for both of us since but as Irma demonstrated at The Barbican, backed by her seven-piece band, she sounds better than ever and – much like another soul sister from the ‘60s, Bettye LaVette – she has survived in an industry known for its tendency to dismiss those who don’t fit the trends and fads of the day.
More than anything, I was struck by Irma’s dedication to pleasing her audience! She made it clear from the outset that she realized that those who come to her show expect to hear their own personal favorites and she indicated that she was happy to oblige, bringing along a songbook with a few hundred of her recordings which she referred to affectionately as her ‘cheat’ sheet (“You can’t expect me to remember the words to all those songs!” she jibed). As a result, longtime Thomas aficionados were treated to full length versions of some of her best ‘60s recordings including “Take A Look,” the title track of her 1966 sophomore album for Imperial, “While The City Sleeps,” a wonderful cut from her first full-length album and “Yours Until Tomorrow,” one of a handful of tracks she recorded during a brief stint with Chess Records, 1967-68, a song also cut by Dee Dee Warwick and Vivian Reed among others. Other wonderful suggestions from the enthusiastic crowd included “Break-A-Way” and it was remarkable that Irma included snatchs of two audience-requested truly obscure items from a recording history that spans over forty years, the Swamp Dog-produced “In Between Tears” and “These Four Walls”!
While Irma performed “Wish Someone Would” with the same heart-wrenching emotion she invested in it way back in ’64 and offered an equally powerful reading of the afore-mentioned “Time Is On My Side,” it was some of her more recent material that proved just as impactful. Her reading of a Stevie Wonder song, “Shelter In The Rain” (originally on his 2005 album, “A Time To Love”) with just piano accompaniment was stunning; and the ballad, “In The Middle Of It All” (written and first cut by the late Arthur Alexander) was equally potent, both tracks from Irma’s 2006 Grammy-winning “After The Rain,” released after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city she has called home for decades.
Irma offered a great reading of the Bill Withers’ standout, “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” and another Thomas chestnut, “You Can Have My Husband (But Please Don’t Mess With My Man”) was given a rollickin’ workout while the poignant “It’s Raining,” a reminder of Irma’s distinctive bluesy vocal at its best. ‘The Soul Queen Of New Orleans’ closed the night with her version of Tina Turner’s “Simply The Best” and when it comes to soul survivors of the first order, Irma Thomas really is one of the very best!
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.