Irma Thomas has been a mainstay of the New Orleans sound since the age of 18 when her first single, “Don’t Mess with My Man”, was released on the local Ron label in late 1959. It reached number 22 on the US Billboard R&B chart.

When she then joined the New Orleans-based Minit Records label, she met producer Allen Toussaint and they have worked together for many years. The 1962 release of “It’s Raining” set the standard high. Irma Thomas has emphasised the importance of Toussaint’s influence and methods, in terms of completing recordings quickly and effectively: “Back in the early 1960s, a lot of split sessions were done – two different artists taking up a three-hour time span to record. Rather than one artist bearing the brunt of the whole session, they would split the difference in order to make that work. He would rehearse stuff in his living room at home. So we knew exactly what we were going to be doing on record before we hit the studio. All we had to do when he got to the studio was rehearse the musicians, and go for it. We literally knew the song without even reading it prior to going into the studio, whereas now you’re lucky to have four or five days to prepare for a recording session. It made it a lot easier for us as artists to not have so many takes, because when you made a mistake back then, you had to do the whole song all over again. It required a lot of genius on his part to do that, by rehearsing us in advance of the recording session.” (Irma Thomas, quoted in Richie Unterberger’s “Music USA, The Rough Guide”)

Irma Thomas at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival  2006   Photo by Sumori  (Wikimedia Commons)

Toussaint also had the advantage of using some soloists, including Irma Thomas, as background singers on recordings by other artists in the Toussaint stable, which included such luminaries as Aaron Neville and Lee Dorsey. Irma Thomas has described how it worked: “It was good to have entertainers who were vocally able to do back-up work as well as be lead singer. Most lead singers cannot do background. Their voices stick out and of course, mine did on several people’s records. Cosimo’s studio at that time was like a large warehouse. I would literally be standing against the wall, and you still hear my part and hear my voice sticking out. But it worked; Allen was able to make it work.”

Miss Thomas still performs today and is presently signed to Rounder Records. The label released the Grammy Award winning album entitled “After the Rain” in 2006, which received the Grammy for “Best Contemporary Blues Album” at the 49th annual Grammy Awards Ceremony on the 9th February 2007. This was the first Grammy Award of her entire career. The opening track on Irma Thomas’ “After the Rain” is a song called “In the Middle of It All”, written by Arthur Alexander, who had the first big hit for Rick Hall in Muscle Shoals in 1962. It’s strange how these things come around!

In 2009 her label released an album celebrating Irma Thomas’ fifty years in the music industry. The compilation was entitled “The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary Celebration”. This clearly illustrated her enduring creative power as an artist, drawing on many musical styles. Irma Thomas still performs with grace, beauty and is a major attraction at live music festivals across America. Long live The Soul Queen of New Orleans!