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The unrivaled Soul Queen of New Orleans -- a title officially bestowed by local officials, no less -- Irma Thomas ranks among Crescent City R&B's greatest and most enduring musical ambassadors, never enjoying the coast-to-coast commercial success of contemporaries like Aretha Franklin and Etta James but nevertheless breathing the same rarified air in the minds of many soul music aficionados. Born Irma Lee in Ponchatoula, LA, on February 18, 1941, as a teen she sang with a Baptist church choir, even auditioning for Specialty Records as a 13-year-old. A year later, she gave birth to her first child, marrying the baby's father and subsequently giving birth to another child before the union dissolved. At 17 she wed again, this time to one Andrew Thomas, having two more babies before she again divorced, all before the age of 20. Keeping her second ex-husband's surname, Thomas went to work as a waitress at New Orleans' Pimlico Club, occasionally sitting in with bandleader Tommy Ridgley. When the club's owner dismissed her for spending more time singing than waiting tables, Ridgley agreed to help her land a record deal, setting up auditions with the local Minit and Ronn labels. The latter issued her saucy debut single, "You Can Have My Husband (But Don't Mess with My Man)," in the spring of 1960, and the record quickly reached the number 22 spot on the Billboard R&B chart. However, Thomas accused Ronn of withholding royalties and after one more effort for the label, "A Good Man," she briefly landed with the Bandy label, releasing 1961's "Look Up" before relocating to Minit.
Thomas' first Minit release, "Girl Needs Boy," inaugurated a collaboration with songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint that would continue throughout her tenure with the label; although none of her six Minit singles were significant hits, each was brilliant, in particular 1962's "It's Raining" (memorably revived by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch for his cult classic Down by Law) and the following year's "Ruler of My Heart," reworked by Otis Redding as "Pain in My Heart." Imperial Records acquired Minit in 1963, and Thomas' contract was included in the deal. Her first single for the label, the starkly intimate "Wish Someone Would Care," capitalized on Imperial's deep pockets to vault into the Billboard pop Top 20, while its Jackie DeShannon/Sharon Sheeley-penned B-side, "Break-a-Way," proved a massive hit on New Orleans radio, later accumulating cover versions by singers from Beryl Marsden to Tracey Ullman. The follow-up, "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)," was even better, a magnificent ballad featuring one of Thomas' most finely wrought vocals, but was not a hit. Likewise, its Jerry Ragovoy-penned B-side, "Time Is on My Side," had its fans, not the least of them the Rolling Stones, who scored a massive hit with a virtual note-for-note cover version. Thomas closed out 1964 with a pair of minor chart entries, "Times Have Changed" and "He's My Guy," both of them written by Van McCoy; for subsequent efforts including "I'm Gonna Cry Till My Tears Run Dry" and "The Hurt's All Gone," she even traveled to New York City to record with hitmaker Ragovoy, but despite the pedigrees of those involved, her commercial momentum dissipated, and following the chart failure of 1966's James Brown-produced "It's a Man's-Woman's World," Imperial terminated her contract.
Thomas next signed with Chess Records, traveling to Rick Hall's legendary Muscle Shoals studio Fame to cut 1967's "Cheater Man." Neither that record nor its follow-up, "A Woman Will Do Wrong Charted," had much success, but her third Chess single, a reading of Redding's "Good to Me," was a minor R&B chart entry in 1968. It was not enough to extend Thomas' relationship with Chess, however, and she spent the next several years outside the studio. In the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Camille, she relocated her family to Oakland, CA, in 1969, later settling in Los Angeles. During this time Thomas supported her children by working at retailer Montgomery Ward, resurfacing on record with 1971's Cotillion label release "Full Time Woman." Later that year, she also issued "Save a Little Bit" on the tiny Canyon label, followed in 1972 by "I'd Do It All for You." Thomas returned in 1973 with "These Four Walls" on Roker, followed by three singles on the horribly named Fungus label: "You're the Dog (I Do the Barking Myself)," "In Between Tears," and "Coming from Behind." She relocated back to New Orleans in 1976, a year later issuing "Hittin' on Nothin'" and a re-recorded "Breakaway" on Maison de Soul; in 1980, Thomas surfaced on the RCS label with Safe with Me, an ill-conceived LP that sought to update her sound to approximate disco-era R&B. It was the last record she would make for six years.
In the interim, Thomas accelerated her live schedule. With husband/manager Emile Jackson, she opened the Lion's Den, a New Orleans club where she regularly headlined, and she also toured Europe, where her records still merited regular airplay. In 1985, she was approached by Rounder Records producer Scott Billington to make a comeback record. The New Rules appeared the following year, earning solid reviews and selling respectably. The Way I Feel hit stores in 1988, and with 1991's Live! Simply the Best, Thomas earned her first-ever Grammy nomination. The following year she issued True Believer, and in 1993 released her first gospel effort, Walk Around Heaven. She waited until 1997 to release her next secular record, The Story of My Life, blaming the delay in interviews on her difficulty in finding material appropriate to her age and sensibility. Thomas shifted gears radically for 1998's Sing It!, which paired her with devout fans Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson; two years later saw the release of My Heart's in Memphis: The Songs of Dan Penn, with Thomas tackling both Penn classics ("I'm Your Puppet," "Woman Left Lonely") and original compositions. After the Rain, released in 2006, was nominated for a Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy. Simply Grand was issued on Rounder Records in 2008, and featured Thomas in an acoustic setting accompanied by a host of piano players, including Dr. John, Ellis Marsalis, Randy Newman, and others.
Irma Thomas (born February 18, 1941, Ponchatoula, Louisiana, United States) is an American singer from New Orleans. She is known as the "Soul Queen of New Orleans".
Thomas is a contemporary of Aretha Franklin and Etta James, but never experienced their level of commercial success. In 2007, she won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album for After the Rain, her first Grammy in a career spanning over 50 years."I Hear You Knockin' ", Jeff Hannusch, 1985 "I was born in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, February 18, 1941 Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 181. ISBN 1-904041-96-5. Ankeny, Jason. "Biography: Irma Thomas". AMG. Retrieved 16 May 2010.
Life and career
Born Irma Lee, as a teen she sang with a Baptist church choir, auditioning for Specialty Records as a 13-year old. By the age of 19 she had been married twice and had four children. Keeping her second ex-husband's surname, she worked as a waitress in New Orleans, occasionally singing with bandleader Tommy Ridgley, who helped her land a record deal with the local Ron label. Her first single, "(You Can Have My Husband but) Don't Mess with My Man," was released in spring 1960, and reached number 22 on the Billboard R&B chart.
She then began recording on the Minit label, working with songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint on songs including "It’s Raining" and "Ruler of my Heart", which was later reinterpreted by Otis Redding as "Pain In My Heart". Imperial Records acquired Minit in 1963, and a string of successful releases followed. These included "Wish Someone Would Care” (her biggest national hit), its B-side "Breakaway", written by Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheely (later covered by Tracey Ullman among others), "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is" (co-written by a young Randy Newman and future country star Jeannie Seely, among others), and "Time Is on My Side" (a song previously recorded by Kai Winding, and later by the Rolling Stones).
Although her first four Imperial singles all charted on Billboard's pop chart, later releases were less successful, and, unlike her contemporaries Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick, she never managed to cross over into mainstream commercial success. She recorded for Chess Records in 1967/68 with some success, the Otis Redding song "Good To Me" reaching the R&B chart. She then relocated to California, releasing records on various small labels, before returning to Louisiana, and in the early 1980s opened her own club, the Lion's Den.
Down By Law, the 1986 independent film by Jim Jarmusch features "It's Raining" in the soundtrack. The film's actors Roberto Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi, whose characters fall in love in the movie, dance to this song.
After several years’ break from recording, she was signed by Rounder Records, and in 1991 earned her first-ever Grammy Award nomination for Live! Simply the Best, recorded in San Francisco. She subsequently released a number of traditional gospel albums, together with more secular recordings. The album Sing It! was nominated for a Grammy in 1999.
Thomas is still active as a performer, appearing annually at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. She reigned as Queen of the Krewe du Vieux for the 1998 New Orleans Mardi Gras season. She often headlined at her own club, but it went out of business due to Hurricane Katrina, which caused her to relocate to Gonzales, Louisiana, 60 miles (97 km) from New Orleans. According to her website she is now back in her home in New Orleans.
Thomas and her husband owned the Lion's Den Club near the French Quarter of New Orleans.
In April 2007, Thomas was honored for her contributions to Louisiana music with induction into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. Also in 2007, Thomas accepted an invitation to participate in Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino where, singing with Marcia Ball, she contributed "I Just Can't Get New Orleans Off My Mind".
In August 2009, a compilation album with three new songs titled The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary Celebration was released from Rounder Records to commemorate Thomas' 50th year as a recording artist.
Thomas was the subject of the 2008 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival poster. She was chosen as the subject before the painting was chosen for the poster. Artist Douglas Bourgeois painted the singer in 2006. In 2010, Thomas rode in the New Orleans parade "Grela". In April that year, Thomas performed at the Corner Hotel, Richmond.
During Easter 2011, Thomas performed twice at the Bluesfest music festival in Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia. On April 24, she performed on the Crossroads stage, coming on after Mavis Staples; then on April 25, she headlined the Crossroads stage, coming on after Jethro Tull and Osibisa.
In December 2011, Thomas' track "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)" was featured in Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror in the second installment entitled "15 Million Merits". The song was also featured in a karaoke segment in the seventh episode, December 2014's "White Christmas."
In 2013, Thomas was nominated for a Blues Music Award in the "Soul Blues Female Artist" category, which she duly won. She won the same award in 2014.