Soul Legend Irma Thomas Talks About Her Favorite Singers, The Song She Won’t Sing + More at Voodoo Fest [EXCLUSIVE]
Irma Thomas’ story is an engrained part of classic soul mythology: She grew up singing in a Baptist church choir; by the age of 19 she’d had four children and married twice; just before her breakthrough, she was fired from her 9 to 5 at a New Orleans diner for singing on the job.
She never became a household name like contemporaries Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross, but her recordings are among the best from an era dominated by similar records, and unlike a lot of those who came up in the early 60s, she’s still performing around New Orleans, releasing music, and supporting younger artists. She’s a regular on the local festival scene, and in recent years she’s racked up a couple Grammys and appeared on some important TV shows.
Her classics are wrenchingly emotional pleas and accusations – missives to bad men or the women who tolerate them.
Backstage at the Voodoo Music Experience in New Orleans last weekend, we sat down with the Soul Queen of New Orleans and reflected on the time that has passed since she released her first classic recordings, on the artists she thinks of as torchbearers, and the one song from her ouvre she refuses to sing.
Voodoo is a very big festival, and there are a lot of people here from out of town. As someone who is often thought of as an informal representative of New Orleans, what do you think this does for the city?
Economically, it’s wonderful. Any time you bring bodies and money into the city, for whatever reasons, fun, conventions, it’s wonderful.
A lot of people came here from out of town…
How many festivals can you go to where you can actually camp out on the festival site?
Thank you. [Laughs.] Only in New Orleans.
And you play a lot of festivals, right?
Quite a bit.
What do you hope people who come here from out of town bring back to their hometowns about New Orleans?
A postitive look. A positive look. I mean, the music has always been a part of our culture. And the fact that we do it so often, and have so many youngsters coming up in the business that are good, they can share the positive side instead of the downside.
I mean, all major cities have crime, so we won’t even go into that part. But as far as New Orleans is concerned, how it’s able to melt the various cultures and age groups and still have fun.
So, you talk about younger artists. Are there some artists, one, maybe a couple that you look at and think of them as the torchbearers?
All of those who come from New Orleans are torchbearers. Because of the fact that they grow up in New Orleans, they are infected by the music. So they would be the ones who carry on where I leave off.
Are there any specifically?
I can think of Zena Moses, who hasn’t had exposure just yet. Sharon’s been around, Sharon Martin, she’s been around awhile. What’s her name, with the fiddle? Amanda Shaw – she’s been around but she’s still a youngster. There are so many of them, so many of them. Zena’s still, she’s getting out, she hasn’t developed a big name for herself.
Are there any on the national scene you think of as good artists?
I don’t have any who stick out in my mind, but I haven’t heard any real bad ones yet! [Laughs.]
When you listen to some of your older recordings…
I hear a very young me. [Laughs.]
That’s what I was going to ask you, basically – are you the same person who sang those songs back in the 60s?
That was a very young me. I’m an older, more mature person than who sung those songs back in the 60s. You gotta realize in the 60s I was in my 20s , and now I’m in my 70s. OK? Big difference.
Is there a particular song from your career you never get tired of singing?
I never get tired of singing most of them. There’s one that I never get tired of at all because I never sing it, so I won’t get tired of it. [Laughs.]
That’s ‘It’s a Man’s Woman’s World.’ But the rest of ‘em I don’t mind doing, and they’re mostly, I call ‘em my bread and butter songs.
And how come you don’t sing that song?
I never liked it from the beginning. [Laughs.]
Because of the lyrics?
It just never made much sense. To me, it doesn’t have a compellingness about it. It’s not something that you want to play over and over and over and over again. At least I wouldn’t. I don’t know about anybody else.
[Ed. note: released in 1966 and produced by James Brown, ‘It’s a Man’s Woman’s World’ topped out at #119 on the pop charts. Depending on the version you listen to, the song can either be read as a feminist response to Brown’s hit ‘It’s a Man’s World’ or a lament at its perceived truth.]