Gary James' Interview With
The Soul Queen Of New Orleans
Irma Thomas is affectionally known as The Soul Queen Of New Orleans. Irma had her first hit in 1960 with a song called "(You Can Have My Husband But Please) Don't Mess With My Man", which made it to the number 22 spot on Billboard's R&B chart. In 1964 she recorded "Time Is On My Side" which The Rolling Stones later covered and enjoyed success with. Irma Thomas is about to go on tour with the show Blues At The Crossroads: The Soul Of The Blues.
Q - So Irma, tell me about this Blues At The Crossroads tour of yours. Who put this together?
A - I have no idea. I had never heard of Blues At The Crossroads prior to my manager booking me the engagement.
Q - I see you're all over the United States.
A - Yeah. That's where I'm supposed to be. (laughs)
Q - Now, are you the headliner?
A - I have no idea sweetheart. (laughs)
Q - Did you tour in the 1960s?
A - Of course I did. That was the only way I could make a living. You didn't get record royalties back then.
Q - Who did you tour with and where did you perform?
A - When I went out on the road I went out mostly with the local band and we toured various armories across the South and when I did go on and connect with some of the major stars it was usually at a theatre like the Howard Theatre, the Regal Theatre and of course the Apollo Theatre.
Q - Your first single was "(You Can Have My Husband But Please) Don't Mess With My Man"
A - Correct.
Q - That almost sounds like the title of a Country song.
A - No. It was a Blues single. Country didn't have a monopoly on heartache. (laughs)
Q - What exactly does that title mean?
A - Exactly what it says. (laughs) Literally what it was saying was you can have my husband, but please don't mess with my man, meaning the person who wrote the song was thinking they cared more about their man than they did their husband.
Q - That's a pretty clever song title. If there had been a show on TV on the order of American Idol back when you were growing up, would that have made it easier for you to jump start your career?
A - I don't know if it would have or not because it may not have. Before I recorded "Don't Mess With My Man" I had gone to an audition for Minit Records when they were starting up their company and I was turned down. It became a subsidiary of Imperial Records later on.
Q - Why did they turn you down?
A - I have no idea and I didn't ask. When they said I wasn't what they were looking for, they didn't say I couldn't sing. That was the statement given to me, but of course after I recorded "Don't Mess With My Man" they thought I was something they could deal with. Maybe they didn't want any female singers at the time. I don't know. (laughs)
Q - Who else was on that label?
A - Benny Spellman. Ernie K-Doe. He had his major hit with that label. ("Mother-In-Law") And I can't think of the man's name, he made "Ride Your Pony". I know the same guy who produced and recorded me, recorded him. But the main person on that label was at the time was Ernie K-Doe and Benny Spellman and myself.
Q - Did you have a personal manager?
A - Not really.
Q - And that's probably what you needed. A guy on the order of Colonel Tom Parker or Brian Epstein.
A - True.
Q - That probably would have made all the difference in the world.
A - It may have, yeah. What you have to understand, back in those days, I mean, I among others who were part of that scene at the time were very naive when it came to the business aspect of recording and performing. Our major deal was that, yeah, we wanted to have a record out and of course we wanted to make a living doing what we loved, but the business aspect of it, there was no one to guide you in terms of how much you should charge and where you should play, how often you should play the venues that were good venues as opposed to bad venues which there were no such thing 'cause any venue that paid you was a good venue. (laughs) And I played a lot of what they called the chitlin circuit, which was a lot of the little clubs that were in the little back towns and off the main highway. Towns that had a small club that might hold 300 people at the most and they might have been charging $3 or $4 at the most to get in. If they were, that was top dollar back in those days to go and see entertainment. So, a lot of it had to do with naivete when it came to business.
Q - You could see the top acts of the day in the 1960s for $3 a ticket. I don't know how people afford ticket prices of today.
A - I don't know where they'll get that kind of money from. I don't know how they do it. That is why when I do a performance; the one coming up is with a band that I've never worked with before, so I don't know what their capabilities are, but when I do a performance in my time slot I'm looking at that particular set somewhere between 30 to 35 minutes I'm not sure, but I try to do what my audience wants to hear. I allow them to do requests. Well, on this tour I'm not sure I'll be able to do that because I don't know the capability of the back-up group. I'm not saying they're not good. I work with my own band when I travel most of the time. I took these gigs because my manager thought it would be a pretty decent deal. He thought it would work, so we're gonna see. I try to give the people what they want to hear because when you spend anywhere from 40 bucks on up to catch an act and you don't hear your favorite song, you leave disappointed. In order to do that I always bring, well, it used to be a three inch tablet with lyrics on it, but now I carry my iPad. I try to bring my iPad with most of my material I've done over the years and have it ready so if someone asks me to do something I've recorded that they liked and I may not have it; I don't do set lists first of all, but I gotta do a set list this time. (laughs) If I might not have had it to do, I'll switch gears and sing it for them. My back-up band knows me well enough that when I decide to do that if it's something we haven't played in a while I'll ask them for the key and I'll sing it and maybe just pick up what they remember and we play it for them. But that's how I do my shows on a normal basis, but on this particular tour I may not be privy to do that, although I will do it whether the band knows it or not, I'll sing it if it's not on the play list. I've rehearsed with this group. I will explain this to the group at rehearsal. I'm one for pleasing the audience. I'm out there for me. I'm out there to give the audience what they want.
Q - How will you be traveling on this tour?
A - I have no idea sweet heart. I know I'm going to fly from New Orleans to wherever this flight is taking us to, either San Francisco or Oakland, I'm not sure. Some of the cities I've played, but not necessarily the venues.
Q - So, it should be an exciting time for you!
A - It's gonna be a gig. (laughs) I have fun on all of my gigs. When you get to be my age there isn't a hell of a lot that excites you. It becomes more like fun. I get on stage; I'm blessed to be doing what I know how to do. I'm 74 come next month (February, 2015) and I'm still able to get out and tour with some reasonable amount of energy. So I feel blessed. I look forward to that part.
Q - When did your version of "Time Is On My Side" come out? 1964?
A - Yes.
Q - Did The Stones hear your version first before they released their version?
A - Yes. They came to my show. When I played London, England and some surrounding cities out from London in Europe, two of them came, Mick and his guitarist (Keith Richards) both came. They were there and told me they were going to record it. At the time when I did the tour which was in 1966 they had not said that they had already recorded it. They said they were going to do it and I had no problems with that. Then when I came back state-side and theirs came out and I would do my version there, they would always say I was covering The Rolling Stones when it was the other way around. So, I just quit doing it. I just totally stopped doing it altogether until 1996. I did a show with Bonnie Raitt and she wanted to do it as a duet with her and I sang it there, but normally I don't put that among my repertoire unless I'm getting requests.
Q - Wouldn't it be nice if you told your audiences the story you just told me.
A - Oh, they know it. I've told it many times since then. Some of 'em buy it and some of 'em don't. I tell 'em, "Do your homework." (laughs) If you Google it and you pay attention to what's being done, you'll know that my version was out first. The reason The Stones got such credit for "Time Is On My Side" and it became such a hit for them is it was during the time of The British Invasion. If you were British and you could half-way sing, you became a hit. They loved all of the American R&B artists. They covered everything that they could cover. If you were British and you were singing anything R&B that was done by an R&B act, The Beatles and The Stones covered a lot of the Southern acts. They loved the acts out of New Orleans, Mississippi and Alabama and Memphis. There was just no end to the stuff they covered.
Q - Not to mention the Motown artists.
A - Hello! (laughs)
Q - You had a nightclub for a while.
A - The Lion's Den.
Q - That is until Hurricane Katrina came along.
A - Right.
Q - Now, why didn't you re-build?
A - Because I couldn't find some people I could really trust and leave to work the club while I was on tour. After Katrina I got so busy that year, 2006 through 2009, that I was meeting myself going and coming. To try and run a club and be on the road, it's not very financially feasible. So the lady who used to run it didn't come back to the city, so we just decided to leave it alone.
Q - I guess your nightclub ownership days are over with then?