Irma Thomas: Queen of soul survivors

Having brought up three children during her teenage years and seen her bar destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Irma Thomas is one of life's fighters, reports Andy Gill
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Back in the early Eighties, Irma Thomas, the undisputed soul queen of New Orleans, was asked what she would like to be doing when she was 60. Her answer reflected the reduced prospects of a veteran performer who had seen her career wax, but mainly wane, according to the whims of musical fashion over the past quarter-century. "I'd like to think," she replied, "that I'll still be worthwhile enough for some fancy hotel to hire me to sing in their cocktail lounge."

In the event, it proved far too modest an ambition. Now a handsome, statuesque 65-year-old, Thomas's career is justly experiencing a second wind of creative fire and critical acclaim far removed from the petrification of the cocktail lounge. Last year, she was chosen to be part of producer Joe Henry's I Believe to My Soul project, aimed at offering "a contemporary vision of authentic soul"; she ended 2005 as the standout performer on Jools Holland's Hootenanny show; and her new After the Rain album finds Irma still stretching herself creatively.

"A lot of the songs are very different," she says. "I'm doing one with an acoustic guitar (played by young bluesman Corey Harris), called 'Soul of a Man', that was in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou. There's not going to be any horns to overshadow my voice on any of these tracks. My fans will be able to hear a new side of Irma they've never heard before." Or, to put it another way, to hear Thomas in the kind of unvarnished settings that would expose less accomplished singers' frailties, but in her case reveal an emotional richness forged through struggle and hardship.

Born in 1941, Irma grew up listening to the diverse R&B forms of the Forties and early Fifties and local gospel groups. She would attend vaudeville shows at New Orleans' Ritz Theatre, where for a dollar and a half she could catch a movie, a magician, a few comedians, maybe a fire eater, and a group such as the Drifters or the Coasters.

"You could live practically anywhere in the New Orleans area and be influenced by some kind of music," she says. "Every church had its own group, so you were just surrounded by gospel music. Same thing with the R&B and jazz bands that played in the community clubs - at that time, every neighbourhood club had live bands playing there, and at weekends, you would have some live bands parading. Music was just coming out of the woodwork."

After Thomas had won a talent contest with her version of Nat King Cole's "Pretend", she became pregnant at 14. Forced out of school, and then forced to marry a man she didn't love, it seemed like her life had ended, particularly when the marriage collapsed within a year. She remarried, and by the time local bandleader Tommy Ridgley spotted her singing while waiting in a restaurant, Irma already had three children. She was just 18.

"I got fired for singing when I was a waitress at The Pimlico Club, and he hired me on the spot," she recalls. "I would sing with his band when they played there, and had become known as the Singing Waitress. The boss didn't like that! Tommy took me for an audition at Ron Records, and the rest is history."

Within weeks, her first single, "Don't Mess with My Man", was a local hit, and had begun climbing the national R&B chart. "I guess I was an instant success, but I was so naive I didn't know!" she says. "I auditioned on a Monday, recorded a few days later, and within two weeks I had a record on the radio."

She began touring with a travelling band on the Chittlin' Circuit. "It was very hard to find a decent hotel, and dressing rooms were unknown in most clubs, so you either used the office or the bathroom to change in," she says. "Maybe somebody's house next door. It taught you to appreciate what you had, that's for sure.

"I loved my children, and wanted what was best for them. Oftentimes, in the early stages of my career, I had to leave them for a couple of weeks at a time, and I didn't like that. I had no guidance, I was operating by the seat of my pants, doing what I thought I was supposed to do, but I had no conception of show business as a business, and consequently I lost out. But I don't regret the decisions I made, even though they may have affected my career, in that my chance to become another Gladys Knight, Tina Turner or somebody of that calibre may have been affected by the decisions I made as a mother. I wasn't ready to sell my soul to be a star."

Later on, Thomas would go back to school to learn about business, and she and her husband Emile Jackson would operate a club/restaurant in New Orleans, now destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. "What I learnt by trial and error is, you watch your own back," she says. "If it looks like a snake and acts like a snake, stay away from it!"

One of the ways in which Thomas lost out was in having her own records effectively killed off by cover versions: Otis Redding's "Pain in My Heart" was little more than a rewrite of her "Ruler of My Heart", and the Rolling Stones' version of "Time Is on My Side" became so popular audiences thought she was covering them. "I did get bitter at first, because I was naive and didn't realise that covering someone's song was the best form of flattery they could give you," she says. "I stopped doing the songs that were covered, because I didn't want to have to explain, every time I sang a song, that I was the first one to do it."

In the Sixties, she recorded for Liberty, Minit and Chess Records, but her career stalled through poor business choices and changing music fashions. When Hurricane Camille ruined many of the clubs she used to play in the Gulf Coast area, Irma moved to Los Angeles, where she had relatives. But, she recalls, "it was no better there, in terms of the music industry. You had to know somebody who knew somebody, that kind of scene, 'have your person call my person' and so on, and I didn't know anybody out there, so I got a day job and took gigs on the weekend."

By 1974 she and Emile were back in New Orleans. Their bar, The Lion's Den, became the focus of her career revival. "It started out as a neighbourhood bar," she explains, "and I saw an opportunity, when part of the building became available, to have a place to rehearse on a regular basis. Then one of the weekends of the Jazz Festival, we were rehearsing and some people wandered in, and word got out that I was performing back there. That's how that started. It just kind of evolved."

With Emile taking care of business, Irma could concentrate on her singing. Not that her husband was about to give her an easy ride. "If I get up on stage and don't give an hour of Irma Thomas," she observes, "I get two or three hours of Emile Jackson."

Unfortunately, The Lion's Den didn't survive Katrina. "Water came up over the door," she says. "It took my husband three days to find the cash register. Everything was lost. We won't be reopening - I'm not sure the building would be safe. A lot of it was stucco, and having the water sitting there for that time, they're worried about the mould getting into the fabric of the place. They may have to tear the whole place down. So we're not going to be in the bar business any more, though that doesn't mean I won't be appearing somewhere when they next have a jazz festival."

So, yet again, Thomas has started to rebuild her career from scratch. But this time, there's a good man watching her back, and experience guiding her decisions. She may not have had the rewards lavished upon contemporaries such as Tina Turner or Diana Ross but, frankly, the odds on any of them again coming up with an album half as soulful, vital and well-crafted as After the Rain must be vanishingly slim. So who's the loser, exactly?

'After the Rain' is out now on Rounder Records. 'I Believe to My Soul' is available through Warner Strategic Marketing