Friday, February 18, 2011

Happy Birthday, Irma: February 18th, 1941

It's the early stuff that really gets to me, the songs where she sounds on the edge of giving up or letting her despair wash over her. Songs like It's Raining, or Ruler of My Heart, or I Wish Someone Would Care. No one except Billie Holiday sings about emptiness better than Irma Thomas.

Those songs are a part of an extremely fortuitous relationship between songwriter/ producer/ pianist/ genius Allen Toussaint and Irma. Some of them were written in Toussaint's mother's living room, if legend is to be believed. The origin of It's Raining  is as casual as a glance out the window at a weather- darkened sky.

The young Soul Queen
But it's way more than the compositions themselves. Just look at the rest of Toussaint's overtures from that era: Mother-in- Law for Ernie K-Doe, Lipstick Traces for Bennie Spellman, all the semi- forgettable Allen Orange songs. It's the life that Irma is able to breath into them. If Toussaint has had two great interpreters of his material, from the scores of singers that he's worked with, it would have to be Irma and Lee Dorsey. Those are his two voices.

But today's not Lee's birthday, or Allen's.

It's Irma's.

Irma's version of Time on My Side outdoes the Stones by a factor of about 5:1. And her Ruler of My Heart was so deep that Otis Redding recorded it, retitled it Pain in My Heart and scored his first big hit. (Otis claimed the writing credits, but Toussaint successfully sued.) Otis' version is a killer, for sure, but Irma's has that plaintive quality, along with a perfectly placed piano triplet from Toussaint.

I used to drive to New Orleans before it became much cheaper to fly, and the drive took two days with an overnight usually outside of Knoxville TN. I started that drive one time with It's Raining on my tape deck and pulled up in front of my hotel on Royal Street with the same song on WWOZ. And-- it was raining!

 The story of Irma is the story of New Orleans, which is why she plays a free concert every mother's day, and why she still lives in AGC, and why, when our old friend Irving Banister describes a musician he admires, he simply says, "He played for Irma."

 A living New Orleans' treasure, still beautiful (at 70!), still full- voiced and going strong. Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans.

And, as long time L by L readers know, as goes New Orleans, so goes the world.


Angela S said...

Listening to her great voice was just what I needed right now Thanks Bret. ( I just shared this on Twitter)

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