Gilbert SummersComment

The Soul Queen of New Orleans Irma Thomas on Gospel Music & the Gifts of Growing Up

Gilbert SummersComment
The Soul Queen of New Orleans Irma Thomas on Gospel Music & the Gifts of Growing Up

Irma Thomas is known as the "Soul Queen of New Orleans." In 2007, she won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album for "After the Rain," her first Grammy in a career spanning over 50 years.

Irma got her start in 1960, with first single, "(You Can Have My Husband but Don't Mess with My Man)," reaching number 22 on the Billboard R&B chart. She has recorded on the Minit label, working with songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint on songs including "It's Raining" and "Ruler of my Heart," as well as recording for Chess Records and Rounder Records. In 1991, Irma earned her first-ever Grammy Award nomination for "Live! Simply the Best." She subsequently released a number of traditional gospel albums, as well as with more secular recordings. The album "Sing It!" was nominated for a Grammy in 1999.

In 2007, Irma Thomas was honored for her contributions to Louisiana music with induction into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. In 2009, a compilation album with three new songs titled "The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary Celebration" was released from Rounder Records to commemorate Thomas' 50th year as a recording artist. In April, a life-size statue of Irma was erected in the French Quarter's "Legends Park," on 311 Bourbon Street. She is one of only two women memorialized in the park and in good company — other legends represented are Fats Domino, Ronnie Kole, Pete Fountain, and Al Hirt.

My conversation with Irma Thomas is one of my favorite interviews. Her candor, humor, humility, depth and warmth are refreshing, inspiring and very powerful. In our discussion we touched on themes that are universal and certainly resonated with deep meaning for me — dealing with the death of a parent, learning from mistakes, being authentic, overcoming challenges and enjoying successes, and trusting there is a plan for us. I know you'll enjoy this conversation with Irma and agree she is someone whose soul shines through.

Meg: How did you get your start in music?

Irma: I got into this business by being fired on the job for singing.

The first time I got fired for singing I was working the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift as a dishwasher at a local white restaurant during segregated times. My boss who was white told me to stop singing that nigger music. When I thought he wasn't there, I sang to keep myself company, you have to do certain things to keep yourself awake on the late shift like that because they're dull times.

The second time I got fired I was a waitress at a nightclub that was a predominantly black nightclub but it was owned by a white owner. I would get up and sing with the local house band, which was Tommy Ridgley and the Untouchables. It got to the point where the folk were coming in asking for the singing waitress. My white boss did not appreciate that because he had hired me to wait tables and not sing. So one night when I thought he wasn't there and the urge hit me to get up on stage and sing a couple of songs, he walked in, saw me singing and he fired me. That was my second time being fired for singing on the job.

Tommy Ridgley was the leader of the band that I was performing with and he told me 'Don't worry about it, Irma, you will make a living, trust me, I will get you a contract'. He told me to go to a certain place on a certain day and I didn't show up — I thought he was joking. So he came and got me and took me to audition on a Monday morning. I was given a song that day to learn, a lady taught me the song that day. Three days later I was in the studio and recorded a song called, "You Could Have My Husband but Please Don't Mess with My Man" and the rest is history.

Meg: I love that story! There are so many people out there that want to follow their dreams but don't have the courage or belief in themselves.

Irma: Ironically it wasn't something that I thought I could make a living at it so I didn't aspire to be a performer. This is not something that I endeavored to do because I never thought you could make a living at singing. Even though growing up I knew there were entertainers who were entertaining, as a child you don't understand the financial aspects of what a person is doing until you're much older. It wasn't until I got into the business that I understood that you could actually make a living doing this but prior to that I had no idea.

I knew one thing, I did enjoy singing. I think a lot of that came from being an only child and realizing that if you got up in front a bunch of folk and you sang you got attention. I enjoyed getting the attention and I still enjoy as much as I get while performing.

In a round-about way this leads into the gospel side of things — when your steps are ordered by God, whatever it is he has planned for you in your life it's going to happen whether you like it or not. So I guess God saw something, he gave me something that he wanted me to use in the way that he wanted it to be used. And this was the way it got me into where he wanted me to be — because after I got fired for singing on the job I did start making a living singing.

Meg: Can you tell me about your connection with Gospel music?

Irma: I'm an avid church person and I grew up in the church. As a young black child in the south especially, all children were given things to do on various Sundays — either you read a little piece or you sang a little song, you did something in the church as an upfront person. All the kids were given an opportunity to do something, so I was accustomed to being in front of an audience. It became a natural thing for me to be in front of people because I've been doing it practically all my life. I learned to read by going to Sunday school — they gave us these little cards that had little synopses of scriptures on them with a picture explaining what the scriptures were about.

The gospel music is a part of me and a part of my life since I was a small child. You never know how something that is just a part of you is going to affect you over the years. For me to escalate into being a gospel singer along with being an R&B singer is just natural.

People don't understand, gospel music is a way of prayer through music. A lot of folks think it's entertainment but it's not, it is a way for people to express themselves who really don't always get on their knees or get in a corner to pray. Singing gospel music, the words are ways to say what's on your mind to be able to pray through music. Gospel music is our way of saying thank you or getting something off your mind or relieving yourself of whatever situation you may be in and getting a bit down or even a bit happy for. That's what gospel music is for and that's what it does. That's why when people hear gospel music they don't quite understand these strange feelings that they get. Well, that's what gospel music is supposed to do to you, it's supposed to bring out some feeling that you probably never experienced before and make you aware that there's a side of you, there's a part of you that's letting you know you're making that spiritual connection with a being that you may not have been introduced to before and his name is Jesus.

So this is what gospel music is supposed to do and 95% of the time it does just that. But those of us who grew up singing gospel we already know what we need to do and how we need to do it to get those things done. So I rely on gospel music in many ways to present what I know and how I feel to others so they can get on that same ship and sail with me because it's a good feeling. It's a combination of happiness and sadness all rolled into one. It depends on where your mind is at the time you're hearing it and it's a wonderful thing. I love it, I revel in it and if I could've made a living at doing just that I would have but that was not the way my footsteps were ordered. So I do it whenever I can, I just don't mix the two.

I was taught that you give respect to God's music and to God's house. I don't sing blues music in a religious setting. I noticed in the last few years some of the churches are having musicians or bands come in and perform their music in that church. That's something I will not do and I tell them up front if you want me to come sing in your church I will sing gospel music, I will not sing secular music in your church because I was taught to give respect to that house. And to me doing blues and rock and roll in the house of God is not giving respect to the building.

Meg: While at Jazz Fest, I attended your tribute to Mahalia Jackson, an amazing performance. I know that tribute is an annual event — how did it come about?

Irma: In 2006, after Katrina, Quentin Davis, who is one of the producers for the Jazz and Heritage Festival, said, 'Irma how would you feel about doing a tribute to Mahalia Jackson?' I said, 'No problem — when do you want to start?' He said we're going to do it at Jazz Fest. It went over so well it's been an annual thing every year since.

Meg: I believe at the time of that first Mahalia tribute performance your mom had just died?

Irma: My mother had passed away that March. I played Jazz Fest the first weekend I think it was in April. I really hadn't had a lot of time to really let go.

One thing I can remember is my mom did get a chance to see her only child perform. So beyond that there was nothing else I could do because my mother died with colon cancer and we didn't even know she had colon cancer. When they discovered it, it was beyond any help, she was 96 years old so I'm thankful that my mom was in my life for 71 years of my life and a lot of people can't say that.

Meg: My mother has been seriously ill for some time now.

Irma: I understand what you're going through. You probably have this "I want to help but I don't know what to do feeling," that helplessness. It's your mom and you feel that empathy for what she's going through but in your own way you have no way of helping, all you can do is just be there. Well, that's all you need to do, be there, do what you can physically for her and beyond that it's not in your hands. That's your time with her, that's your all private time; give her those moments while you still can. Because when she's gone, she's gone and those moments you can have to cherish.

I understand the helplessness that you may be feeling because she's ill and you don't know what you can do to give her any help in terms of her pain. But you probably won't be able to because there's nothing you can do but you can give her some comforting moments with you and her. It might be take some lotion and rub her arms and massage her hands and fingers and maybe rub her feet and massage her feet because that's what my cousin did with his dad. He didn't know what else to do so he brought some lotion and he rubbed his dad's hands and arms and feet, he gave him a shave, he cut his hair and rubbed his forehead, comforting things that you feel to make that connection. Assure your mother that you're trying to give her some relief the best way you know how. That's all you can do.

Meg: Thank you for that Irma, it really means a lot to me.

Irma: Let me explain something to you that I pass on to people. When you were blessed and you were given thoughts to pass on to people, people come into your life for a reason. We never understand why some people will walk up to us and say certain things and we kind of give them a strange look. But later on down the line it'll come back to you that person said something to you that made you think about something you never thought about before.

So for every time someone gives you a bit of advice, they may be not knowingly working on your nerves but by the same token they're doing what they feel that they can do best to help you, they're only trying to help you. I don't mean someone coming up and insulting you because that's a whole other story. But when someone walks up to you and innocently just comes by and say 'Well, look I understand this is what's going on' and they may give you some words of wisdom. They're only doing the one thing that was put on their heart to try to do and that's give you some comfort. God put these people who are like little angels in our life to do these things for us and that's where gospel comes in. It's God's word being given to you through a source you never thought you would get it from and for those who don't believe, then that's what they miss out on.

Meg: I do feel one of the reasons that I enjoy writing and interviewing so much is people always say the most magical things and I certainly get filled up by hearing what people have to say. Did you ever meet Mahalia Jackson?

Irma: I met her once as a young person for a few minutes. She carried such an aura about her. She was a very southern woman in terms of the type of music she was going to sing and she stood her ground. And it brought her the popularity that she gained before she passed away. She was adamant about singing only gospel music and the only secular songs that she sang were ones that gave praise to God and that's what she did. I can remember her doing "I Believe" and "You Never Walk Alone." Those were the only two that I can remember. She may have done others but those are the only two that I can remember, that were sort of non-Gospel music but yet still they had a message.

Meg: I know that you had a lot of personal change go on at a young age. I understand you had your first child when you were fourteen. Tell me about thiod in your life.

Irma: Well, I was actually fifteen when my first one was born. I got pregnant at fourteen, and I turn fifteen in February, and she was born in May. I learned the rude lessons of life in life experiences. When you're never told anything, my parents weren't of the years when parents gave their children some sexual advice, teaching the girls and the boys what they should, and should not do, and why. These questions were never answered for me, because you weren't even allowed to ask, so I learned through trial and error, so I learned the hard way. So, naturally, when you learn the hard way, a hard lesson is well learned.

I'm an only child, so I had no one to go before me for me to get any hints of experiences from, someone to kind of talk to about it. So, I had to learn through trials, and I had nothing to compare it to. My inner survival instincts kicked in, even at that age and you do what you see, like I see other ladies with children, and the experience from my mother raising me; that's all I had to go on, so that's what I did.

Whatever we find ourselves confronted with, those situations were put in our path for a reason. We're either supposed to learn from the experience and take the lesson out of it and move on with our lives, or struggle, as we normally wind up doing, those of us who don't pay attention. We learn a lesson there, or repeat the situation. That's how I live. I take every episode in my life as a learning experience, be it bad, or good, or indifferent for me it's a teaching tool that God has given me to guide me through this life's path that he's got me on. So, I don't let stuff get me down. I just look at it, and see, okay, what lesson can I learn out of this?

Meg: That's a practice that I only really figured out a couple of years ago!

Irma: [Laughter] Well, I didn't learn it overnight, trust me.

Meg: [Laughter] It's a great way to look at life.

Irma: Or boost yourself up, because that's what maturing is all about. It's things you know now but you didn't know when you were a child, or even when you were a teen. By going through all of those experiences up to whatever age you are now, you can look back, and say, 'You know what? I remember that incident', and it all comes back to you, and it shows itself in ways that gives you something to grow on. So, that's what maturing is all about.

Meg: I'm 52, and this way of looking at life kind of came to me probably about eight years ago, and up until that point I did tend to --

Irma: Beat yourself up, huh? [Laughter]

Meg: Yes! I wasn't learning; I was making the same mistakes over, and over again. But I think you're right, that learning to have compassion for ourselves is part of the process. I'm also struck by the fact that your husband is your business partner.

Irma: This is my third marriage, and his second. We don't fit comfortably all the time, but at least it fits better than the past. That's part of the maturing part of it. You learn. Since I was so young with the first two, I was definitely on the learning curve, and I was only going by the experiences of what I had seen around me, how my parents operated, those were the terms that I used in my marriages of the past — that this is what a husband should do, and this is what a wife should do.

Both of my parents were working parents; they were not sit-at-home raising their kid parents. My mother and my father had babysitters for me, and when they weren't able to baby-sit me, I went to the country, and lived with my father's mom, who died the same year, but I stayed on with his sister, who had children. A lot of my early experiences were in the country, where you still don't learn anything but to farm, and go to school. [Laughter] So, I still didn't get any sexual advice, even in the country. So, I didn't learn anything in terms of what not to do as a young woman going through puberty, and all these experiences, and feelings that I'm having, not knowing how to control them, or being told how to control them, or what to do when you're having them. None of that was given to me, so I learned truly by trial and error.

Meg: In your marriage now, what is it that you feel is different, or that's working for you?

Irma: My situation was, first of all, finding someone who I felt was truly concerned, and in my corner, that wanted what was best for me. Someone who can understand that I'm a very independent person.

I had to learn how to be able to share my thoughts, and share what I'm thinking about, and to get another person's opinion. I had been operating on my own, making decisions on my own, moving forward on my own decisions, and not having some other person's input, because the other people who were giving the input were only there because they thought that they could live off of what I was doing. They weren't trying to contribute in any aspect, and they weren't about helping, and sharing with me; they were about selfishness, and that that didn't work for me. But then when I found someone who was concerned about my well being more than anything else, I had to experience learning how to share being able to be a partner, instead of being independent. And for an independent woman, that's kind of hard. [Laughter]

I learned how to do it, and be diplomatic with it, and he in turn had to learn that this is the livelihood and the lifestyle that I chose to live, in terms of being in show business. The people person that I am, it took him a minute to get used to that, because I talk to anybody, and everybody. [Laughter] It took him a minute to get used to that, and to realize that it wasn't about anything other than business. But see, once he grasped that she's going to talk to anybody, anyway, and he found out that it was a good thing, not a bad thing. And so, everything seemed to come together, and jell.

As far as the trusting part, I had no problem with him, because from the very beginning he laid the cards on the table, and I laid mine on the table, and the only part that he didn't quite get was the show business aspects of it, where you do have to kind of network a little bit. I'm not the biggest networker in the world, because I'm not good at BSing. [Laughter] So, I don't go to a lot of parties, because I can't stand around and grin at people when I really don't want to be there. When I do go to parties that I want to be a part of, then my mindset is, okay, "Irma, you're here. Be cordial, be amenable to what the surroundings are, and go with the flow." And I can do that. But I have to make up my mind, before I get there that that's where I want to be, but if that's someplace I have to be, and I don't want to be there, I'm not good at hiding that. [Laughter]

I feel when you have a talent, yours is writing, mine happens to be singing, and you're working, your main thing is you want to entertain the people who you're going to perform for. This other stuff, the BS parts of it I find it to be very unnecessary.

I guess that's why it took me longer to get the national recognition that I finally got around to getting, because I'm not good at BSing. Actually, the word is "kiss ass." [Laughter] It's skating the line, but that's what it is, and I'm hip.

Meg: Do you ever feel frustrated that that's what it takes?

Irma: I look at it from this point of view. I'm making a living; it afforded a living to raise my kids, who never went hungry, and they never went naked. They weren't always able to have whatever the latest styles were in abundance, but they were happy. I was able to keep a roof over our head. I didn't have to prostitute to do it, and so it served my purpose well.

So, in order to make more money if I had to go to that extreme, I wasn't willing to do that, so that's the choice I made. Rather than getting frustrated about it, these are the choices I chose, so why get frustrated? You know this is what you would have to do in order to move another step up, but if you choose not to do it, why get frustrated, because you know that's what's going to happen. You'd probably get more frustrated trying to do it than you would be if you just decided, okay, I'm not going to do it, so I'll take whatever crumbs is left over that they want to share with me. At least I didn't have to sell my soul to the devil to get it done.

Meg: Let's use that as a springboard for me to ask how it felt when you won your Grammy in 2007 for Best Contemporary Blues Album for After the Rain.

Irma: Oh, God! Overwhelming, to say the least. All I can say is when they called my name, I bust out, and I sat there in a state of shock at least every bit of minute. My husband was up on his feet, and he said, "Honey, you have to get up." [Laughter] When it really dawned on me that they had actually called my name and I got up to the stage, I looked at the young man who was presenting the awards and I said, 'Did you really say Irma Thomas?" He looked at me with this blank stare, as if to say, "This woman has got to be nuts." [Laughter]

But he just didn't understand this was my third nomination, and when my name was finally called, and finally when I did get it, I was sitting up there blubbering. I couldn't tell you what my acceptance speech was if I wanted to. I didn't have anything written down; I was not prepared to win.

The part that really tried to put a damper on my spirit was after you win the Grammy you go through a series of press interviews. Some young lady had the audacity to get up and ask me if I felt I had won the Grammy because of what had happened to New Orleans.

Meg: Oh, God!

Irma: I really had to really watch what I said — what was coming into my mind to say wasn't anything nice. But my faith carried me, I did come up with the statement that if this is why they gave it to me, then I hope it brings hope to my people in New Orleans; I won for everybody. I think she sat down with her mouth hanging open, because that wasn't what she expected.

One side of me wanted to ask her, "Don't you think I earned it after forty-nine years." I mean, she didn't feel I deserved it, that's the impression I got. But I didn't answer her the way my thoughts were, because it wouldn't have been anything nice, and they may not have been able to print any of it. [Laughter]

Meg: That was quite a spiritual opportunity. I would have been sorely tempted to —

Irma: Go off on her? I thought about it and remembered what they say, "Swallow, and count to ten before you answer." I did put my brain in gear before I put my mouth in motion. I took every bit of three minutes before I answered her, because you really don't know how angry she made me, and how devastating she made me feel to have the audacity to question whether or not I deserved winning it. That's basically what she was doing, questioning my ability, and whether or not I deserved it.

I came away feeling good that I didn't say something stupid I would have regretted later. There were some other interviews that came along that were uplifting. But I never forgot it, so that's how it affected me. On the other hand, that's now on her to rethink what she said, and how she said it, but I never forgot it, because it really did hurt. I can't tell somebody, "Oh, it didn't bother me." That's a lie; it bothered the hell out of me. [Laughter]

Meg: What a gift that you can be honest about that, but at the same time know that what she said is on her.

Irma: Right. She's had time to think about what she said, because I really honestly don't think she understood how the Grammies are done. People don't understand that the person who wins the Grammy doesn't necessarily have a number one record in the world, or number one record anywhere for that matter. It is given to you by your peers, people who are in the industry who think enough of you to vote you to having that Grammy. They think enough of you talent-wise just to feel you deserve getting it.

A lot of people, like my hometown here in New Orleans, they all say, "Well, you should have had it a long time ago." Well, maybe so in your sight, but if the general public had anything to do with it, a lot of people would have Grammies who don't have them today. It's not the general public that does the voting. It's the industry people who are members of the Academy, so for them to think that much of you to vote you into having a Grammy, that's saying a lot.

You can't grow unless you let go of that negativity, and there's always going to be one. Keep that in mind, no matter how good, or even great a person is, there's going to be one or two somebodies out there who's going to find something negative to say. And that's just life, and once you realize that in your growth, then you don't dwell on it. Not that it doesn't hurt. I'm not going to say you're going to become a super person as far as your feelings are concerned. Yes, it's going to jar you a little bit, and that's all it's going to do is jar a little bit, and shake you a little bit, but beyond that point you're going to move on, and you're going to move on in a better state of mind than you did before whatever. That's what I did. I just moved on. [Laughter]

Meg: This is such wisdom, Irma.

Irma: It comes from living. [Laughter] As you get older you'll gain some more of it.

Meg: [Laughter] I'm slow on the uptake! Can you just talk a little bit about New Orleans, and what it means to you?

Irma: The word "home" encompasses a whole lot of things, so the only way I can express what New Orleans means to me is the fact that it's home, not my birthplace, but it's home. It's that comfort feeling you get when you are home. [Laughter] When you think about your special place, which is home to you, all those good aromas, and touches and feelings that you get when you say "home," that's what New Orleans means to me.

When Katrina happened, people asked me, "Where are you going? Where are you going to live?" I said, "I'm going to live in New Orleans." "Yeah, but it's flooded." "Yeah, but it won't always be flooded." You make a temporary start somewhere that's your holding pattern until you're able to get back home. [Laughter]

Katrina was a devastating moment in my life. It just brought home the things that I've always felt; I was never materialistic, and it just reinforced the lesson that you should not be materialistic, because it's only there for you to enjoy; you can't take it with you. If you lose it before your time is up on this earth, just make some new memories.

It was very devastating to a multitude of people, including myself. Those of us who feel that we can move on, we're back in our homes. My neighborhood is 95 percent back up to where it was. It may not be the same neighbors, but nevertheless it's a neighborhood. And the city is moving forward, even though we have the same problems every other major city has with the crime situation, we're still moving forward, and so that's all you can do.

Meg: When we were leaving New Orleans and going to the airport after Jazz Fest, our cab driver told us that his extended family has a hurricane fund. He said, "Some people would say, 'Why would you stay there?'" And he said, "The water will recede, and we will rebuild." And it was —

Irma: He said, "Home." One word, "Home." And that's why I prefaced it the way I did, because until a person understands what home means to them they will never understand why people like us move back to a city that's literally a fishbowl. It's totally surrounded by water. In order to get out of the city of New Orleans you have to cross a body of water. We grew up knowing this. I lived away in the country as a small child, but I came back to New Orleans. I lived in the California state for six years, but I came back to New Orleans. It's home. [Laughter]

Mardi Gras Parade, New Orleans, Louisiana Credit Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Mardi Gras Parade, New Orleans, Louisiana
Credit Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Meg: I understand that in 1998 you were the Queen of the Krewe du Vieux. I'm told that particular crew is described as the most individualistic and at the same time the most traditional of all New Orleans parading crews.

Irma: New Orleans, and its Mardi Gras season, it's all about parades, and grand balls, and elaborate costumes. People who have never been kings and queens of anything become king and queen of the various carnival krewes — meaning groups or social clubs. For me to be given the honor of being queen was monumental as far as I'm concerned. As far as I know of, other than the Zulu Club, there has never been a black queen of anything carnival club-wise in this city that was a non-black organization. This was an all-white organization, predominantly, and they honored me with the status of queen, so I was very honored. Of course, my maids of honor were Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson. We just had a wonderful time. We felt like royalty, trust me. [Laughter]

Meg: Wow, what a cool feeling.

Irma: It was. It was. And like I said to be queen of a non-black organization was very, very honorable. I just felt "Whoo!"

Meg: It's been a privilege to speak to you and you have said some things that are very meaningful to me personally.

Irma: That's what's supposed to happen. If I've helped in any way possible then my job is being done.

More on Irma Thomas here.