Irma Thomas – Rain or shine
The Irma Thomas voice for the 21st century has indeed managed to get richer, and also deeper — though it began, on record, with an extraordinary amount of flexibility from day one. One side of that voice of her teens and 20s was perfect for the high, clean, poppy early-’60s radio sound. Thus it’s understandable that the Chantels’ 1958 single “Maybe”, the doo-wop number often cited as the first girl-group record, was one of the few she covered in her ’60s hitmaking heyday. There was some of that Shirelles sort of tone in the way she phrased or even pronounced words.
On some records, that is. The other half showed off the deep-blue-sax soulful and sassy side of what she could do. The totality is one reason why in critical assessments today she’s regularly ranked right up there with Mavis and Gladys and even Aretha among the very top tier of classic soul divas for whom one name will do.
Irma cites several factors for her vocal health. “I had one of the oldest throat specialists in the city, and then his son took over, and they took care of my vocal cords if I had a real bad cold or bronchitis,” she says. “They schooled me on how to take care of myself. I’ve never called off a gig because I was sick. I just don’t look for excuses not to do my job; if I sign a contract and am physically able to walk on that stage, I’m going to let ’em know, ‘Look, I’m not at my best,’ but I’m not gonna walk off. I wasn’t raised that way. If you commit to do something, you go through with it, come hell or high water.
“Another side of this is, I never smoked, though my parents both did. And as far as alcohol goes, I’ve only been drunk twice in my life, and I made up my mind that that wasn’t something I wanted to do on a regular basis! I’ve never needed liquor to perform, because I love what I do and I work off of my own adrenaline, and the adrenaline the people pass on to me.
“And I don’t burn the candle at both ends; I don’t go clubbin’. When I’m finished working I go to the hotel and go to sleep; I don’t go to a party afterwards unless I have to. It’s not that I’m a snob or anything, but I don’t want to know what anybody’s doing bad enough to lose free time hanging to find out!”
Thomas is, you will not be surprised to hear by this point, an engaging, utterly frank, warm performer to spend time with, a woman with a very knowing take on her own life, show business, and her role in it, back when and now.
“I keep in mind that as I mature, that I should choose music accordingly,” she says. “It would be asinine for me, a 65-year-old broad, to try to go out and sing something that’s for some teenybopper. I’m not trying to be a teenager anymore, and I sing accordingly. I’m not saying I couldn’t do it, but I’d have to get onstage and do it — and that would look stupid to me.”
Of course, the relevance of age to music cuts in both directions, as she points out. “How can you give a blues to a teenager who has no concept of what a blues is?” Thomas asks. “If you have to explain what they’re singing to them, they don’t have to be singing it. Blues is a feeling, something that you relate to from your lifestyle and lifetime, that you can go into in song and get it off your chest. When they get older, and get some life under their belt, they can sing that song with conviction. Meanwhile, someone can set them up to go through the motions, singing it note for note — but where is the conviction, and the believability?”
That comment comes, without irony, from a singer whose first chart hit, at age 19, was the comic and timeless “You Can Have My Husband But Please Don’t Mess With My Man”.
“Yeah; when I sang that, I already had three kids then!” she counters. “I knew what the hell I was talking about!”
Born Irma Lee in Ponchatoula, Louisiana in 1941, she had indeed been pregnant at 14. She was forced to marry the father, then had another child with him. She married again at 17, to one Andrew Thomas (hence the lasting stage name), and had two more kids with him. She was discovered in 1959, when, while working as a waitress in a New Orleans club, she sang a number with the band one night.
The career that followed took her in short order to the renowned New Orleans R&B label Minit (home also of Ernie-K-Doe and Aaron Neville) and on to the bigger budgets of Liberty/Imperial Records in Los Angeles when the larger label bought up the regional indie. Her string of hit singles in the early/mid-’60s often had B-sides with drastically different tones, reflecting those two key aspects of her vocal talents.