Irma Thomas: The Soul Queen Of New Orleans

Aug 23, 2010

For a voice that makes you sit up straight, look to Irma Thomas to deliver. The New Orleans native is 69, and she's been singing pretty much her whole life.

"I can't remember when I didn't sing," she says. "It was just a part of life."

When Thomas heard that she had been selected as one of NPR's 50 Great Voices, she said, "I kinda lit up, like, 'Wow, I'm among 50 great voices!' Like, 'Hey!' "

Thomas' voice is a true New Orleans treasure. The soul queen isn't just from the city -- she's of the city, and her voice reflects that.

"It's just something about the way we, as performers from this city, the way we do things," Thomas says. "We hear extra sounds in our heads -- extra beats, extra backbeats, extra rhythms that people from other parts of the United States just don't understand or get."

"The phrasing -- it just sounds so much like New Orleans in particular," says Allen Toussaint, who has been recording with Thomas since the beginning of her career. "And as a female vocalist, Irma is the epitome of that."

"She is the soul queen of New Orleans," pianist David Torkanowsky says. "She is sort of ingrained in the genetics of this place."

Forcing Her Way On Stage

Thomas' story is filled with sharp twists and turns. She got pregnant after eighth grade, was married at 14, and became a mother of three by the time she was 17. The single mother was working as a waitress at a nightclub, but she couldn't resist getting onstage to sing with the band.

"Of course, I had a white boss again who had a segregated mentality," she says. "He said he didn't hire me to sing; he hired me to wait tables -- even though the audience was asking for the singing waitress, that didn't mean a thing to him, so he fired me."

But the bandleader at the club took notice of Thomas' abilities and told her, "Irma, you sing well enough to make records." He got her an audition at a recording studio, where she learned a new song, "(You Can Have My Husband But Please) Don't Mess With My Man," on a Monday.

"And I recorded it that Wednesday, and two weeks later I had a record out, and the rest is history," Thomas says. "It happened just like that."

That happened in 1959, when Thomas was 18. Even at that young age, Thomas says, she knew what she was singing about.

"I laugh, because it sounds strange [to hear the recording now]," she says. "Funny, in a sense, because I sound so young. And I can relate to how far I've come since that time and how much I've learned musically in how to put a song across, more now than then -- even though I knew what I was talking about then. Because I've matured, and there's a lot more gone. As they say, there's a lot of water gone under the bridge since that time. And so you can sing it with a whole different perspective."

Telling A Story

Thomas says she brings her own stories into the songs she sings.

"I choose songs with the intention of having something that I can understand and be able to interpret from life experiences to sell the song," she says. "And in order to make it believable, you have to know what the song is about. I mean, I've sung songs where I've heard the lyrics, and if the lyrics were kind of vague, I would actually ask the writer, 'What were you thinking about when you wrote the song?' so I can understand what I'm singing about.

"I've sung songs in the studio and literally cried while doing them," she says. "Something would come up -- a memory or something that I can relate to where that song fit that situation -- and, rather than stop and go in the corner and cry, I just go down and sing the song with the tears meeting under my chin. I've done that many times."

In the early '60s, she'd come by Allen Toussaint's parents' shotgun house in New Orleans. He'd sit at the piano and compose for her right there on the spot.

"Her love for singing translates when she's singing," he says. "She brings everything to the moment."

"I remember when I was writing 'It's Raining,' she was sitting right there, and it began raining outside," he says. "I just wrote that song then and handed it over to her and sung a little bit of it, just to show her the melody, and it fit like a gown. Like an evening gown made and tailored for her."

"It's heart-wrenching when she sings," Torkanowsky says. "It's dripping with soul. It really is."

Torkanowsky says that when he plays with Thomas, it feels like an intimate conversation.

"That's why people love her -- because there's no pretense to her delivery or the sound of her voice or how she renders a lyric," he says. "And she won't sing anything that she doesn't believe in."

You can hear Thomas' conviction and honesty in every song she sings. But her intensity also comes from what she doesn't do. She doesn't get fancy, because she doesn't need to.

"I don't think my fan base [cares] about how many notes I can hit. They want me to sing the doggone song," she says. "If the song doesn't dictate adding all this other stuff to it, then why do it? Sure, I may be able to hit 15 notes in one bar, but is it gonna help the song? No." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, a voice that makes you sit up straight.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: When Irma Thomas heard she was chosen as one of NPR's 50 Great Voices...

Ms. IRMA THOMAS (Singer): I kind of lit up, like, wow, I'm among 50 great voices. Hey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Wish Someone Would Care")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) Sitting home alone, thinking about my past, wondering how I made it and how long it's going to last.

BLOCK: Irma Thomas is from New Orleans. She is of New Orleans.

How much of what's in your voice, do you think, is from New Orleans?

Ms. THOMAS: All of it. And it's just something about the way we, as performers from this city, the way we do things. We hear extra sounds in our heads, extra beats, extra backbeats, extra rhythms that people from other parts of the United States just don't understand or get.

(Soundbite of song, "Another Man Done Gone")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) Another man done gone. Another man done gone. Another man done gone. He had to leave his home. Another man done gone.

Mr. ALLEN TOUSSAINT (Songwriter): The phrasing, it just sounds so much like New Orleans in particular. And as a female vocalist, Irma is the epitome of that.

(Soundbite of song, "Another Man Done Gone")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) Another storm has come...

Mr. TOUSSAINT: She is the Soul Queen of New Orleans. And we never say New Orleans here, but that's the only way it rhymes. She is sort of ingrained into the genetics of this place.

(Soundbite of song, "I Never Fool Nobody But Me")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) I never tell my left hand what my right hand is doing.

BLOCK: I went to visit Irma Thomas at her house in New Orleans East. She had warned me before I came - do your homework and don't ask the same stupid questions everyone else asks. Noted.

(Soundbite of song, "I Never Fool Nobody But Me")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) Fool nobody but me.

BLOCK: Irma Thomas is 69 and she's been singing, well, just about that long.

Ms. THOMAS: I can't remember when I didn't sing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: It was just a part of life.

BLOCK: And Irma Thomas' life has taken a bunch of sharp turns. She got pregnant after eighth grade, was married at 14, a mother of three by the time she was 17. She was a single mom, working as a waitress at a nightclub. But she couldn't resist getting onstage to sing with the band.

Ms. THOMAS: Of course, I had a white boss again who had a segregated mentality. He said he didn't hire me to sing; he hired me to wait tables. Even though the audience was asking for the singing waitress, that didn't mean a thing to him, so he fired me.

BLOCK: But the bandleader told her, Irma, you sing well enough to make records. He got her an audition at a recording studio. She learned a new song, "You Can Have My Husband But Please Don't Mess With My Man," on a Monday.

Ms. THOMAS: And I recorded it that Wednesday, and two weeks later, I had a record out. And the rest is history.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: It happened just like that.

BLOCK: It was 1959, she was 18. I brought that song with me and we popped it into the CD player.

(Soundbite of song, "You Can Have My Husband But Please Don't Mess With My Man")

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, you have the original version.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "You Can Have My Husband But Please Don't Mess With My Man")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) You can have my husband, but please don't mess with my man. You can have my husband, but please don't mess with my man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: Very young voice.

BLOCK: Irma Thomas' face lit up as she listened to her own voice from more than 50 years ago. She'd listen, slowly shake her head and smile.

(Soundbite of song, "You Can Have My Husband But Please Don't Mess With My Man")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) Now, when I was with my husband, he was really mean. But now I'm with my man, he treats me like a queen. You can have my husband, but please...

Ms. THOMAS: To think that I actually knew what I was talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "You Can Have My Husband But Please Don't Mess With My Man")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) I'm telling all you women, I want you all to understand.

Ms. THOMAS: I laugh because it sounds strange, funny, in a sense, because I sound so young. And I can relate to how far I've come since that time and how much I've learned musically in how to put a song across more now than then, even though I knew what I was talking about then. Because I've matured, and there's a lot more gone. As they say, a lot of water had gone under the bridge since that time. And so you can sing it with a whole different perspective.

BLOCK: But the life experience you think comes through in the songs, comes through in the way you sing.

Ms. THOMAS: Yeah. I choose songs with the intention of having something that I can understand and be able to interpret from life experiences to sell the song. And in order to make it believable, you have to know what the song is about. I mean, I've sung songs where I've heard the lyrics, and if the lyrics were kind of vague, I would actually ask the writer what were you thinking about when you wrote the song so I can understand what I'm singing about.

BLOCK: What do you think happens then with your voice when you are in a song, when you're inhabiting a song that way?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, it depends on the situation and the time when you're singing it. I've sung songs in the studio and literally cried while doing them, because something would come up, a memory or something that I can relate to where that song fit that situation. And rather than stop and go in the corner and cry, I just go down and sing the song with the tears meeting under my chin. I've done that many times.

(Soundbite of song, "Can't You Hear It In My Tears")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) If you still don't understand that my heart is still in your hand, oh, the message should be so loud and clear. Oh, I'm crying. I'm crying, crying. Can't you hear it in my tears?

Mr. TOUSSAINT: Her love for singing translates when she's singing. You can tell this is someone - they're all about this. She brings everything to the moment.

BLOCK: Allen Toussaint was recording with Irma Thomas from the very start and they've been collaborating ever since. In the early '60s, she'd come by his parents' shotgun house in New Orleans. He'd sit at the piano and compose for her right there on the spot.

Mr. TOUSSAINT: I remember when I was writing "It's Raining," she was sitting right there, and it began raining outside. I just wrote that song then, handed it over to her and sung a little bit of it, just to show her the melody. And it fit like a gown, like an evening gown made and tailored for her.

(Soundbite of song, "It's Raining")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) It's raining so hard. It looks like it's going to rain all night. And it's the time I'd love to hold you tight. But I guess I'll have to accept...

Mr. DAVID TORKANOWSKY (Pianist): It's heart-wrenching when she sings. It's dripping with soul. It really is.

BLOCK: Pianist David Torkanowsky says when he plays with Irma Thomas, it feels like an intimate conversation.

Mr. TORKANOWSKY: That's why people love her because there is no pretense to her delivery or the sound of her voice or how she renders a lyric. There's no pretense. And she won't sing anything that she doesn't believe in.

(Soundbite of song, "Early in the Morning"

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) Early in the morning when and I can't get right. Had a little date with my baby last night, now it's early in the morning, early in the morning.

BLOCK: For me, what's so special about Irma Thomas is her conviction, her intent. You feel it behind every word she sings. She lives in these songs. But her intensity also comes from what she doesn't do. She doesn't get fancy or toss in a filigree of notes. She doesn't need to.

Ms. THOMAS: I don't think my fan base care about how many notes I can hit. They want me to sing the doggone song. And if the song doesn't dictate adding all this other stuff to it, then why do it? You know, I mean, sure, I might be able to hit 15 notes in one bar, but is it going to help the song? No.

BLOCK: That's Irma Thomas, one of NPR's 50 Great Voices at home in New Orleans.

(Soundbite of song, "Early in the Morning")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) So early in the morning. Early in the morning and I ain't got nothing but the blues. Yeah.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.