Not for nothing has Irma Thomas been called the “Queen Of New Orleans Soul” for the past 45 years. Without disparaging the work of the many other fine female vocalists that have been associated with the Crescent City down the decades, it’s Irma who has been her hometown’s flagship artist virtually from the day she walked into Cosimo Matassa’s legendary studio as a teenager, and told the world, in no uncertain terms, You Can Have My Husband, But Please Don’t Mess With My Man. In the early 60s, and under the supervision of her peer and fellow musical genius Allen Toussaint, she cut a number of sides that, in themselves, would have been enough to ensure her name would last forever in the annals of soul music, even if she’d never recorded another note of music – I’m talking about It’s Raining, Gone, Cry On, Two Winters Long, I Done Got Over and the immortal Ruler Of My Heart, and that’s just for starters. A move to the west coast, further into the decade, resulted in yet more of soul’s defining moments, including the “Wish Someone Would Care” album and the classic, albeit not the original, version of Time Is On My Side (and before indignant hordes swamp Ace Towers with “oh yes she did” letters, I should point out that jazz trombonist Kai Winding got to Time just ahead of Irma).
In the second half of the 60s Irma pacted with Chicago’s Chess label – who promptly sent her south to Muscle Shoals to cut a blistering series of sides under the supervision of Fame studios boss Rick Hall. These did not sell too well then, but they are now regarded as being as epochal at the Minit and Imperial records that preceded them.
Irma’s earliest sessions are comprehensively anthologised on our Kent CD “Time Is On My Side” (CDKEND 010), and the Chess sides are also available on a US CD that was issued a few years ago by Chess’ nowadays owner, Universal. What Irma did during the next 10 years is less well represented on CD, but we’re remedying that now with the release of IN BETWEEN TEARS – a superlative collection of almost all of Irma’s very best recordings from, essentially, the whole of the 1970s. Note that ‘almost’ – Irma spent 1971 recording for Atlantic’s Cotillion label, but her two issued masters were not available for this collection and the other 17 seem fated to be permanently unissued, as the tapes have apparently disappeared. But on either side of her Atlantic deal she worked with another of soul’s most creative people, and a man who knows more than most about how to write for women, maverick genius Swamp Dogg. Towards the end of the decade, she was reunited with the great Dan Penn, who had been at Irma’s Muscle Shoals sessions in the 60s and who took her back down there to record the original versions of some of her best known ‘later songs’. It’s the cream of these recordings that are combined here, in a package that no self-respecting soul fan can even consider being without!
Swamp’s sessions were mostly cut in Macon, Georgia, and they follow closely the template of his seminal albums with Doris Duke and Sandra Phillips from the same period. He brought out a sassy, self assured Irma on She’ll Never Be Your Wife and You’re The Dog, and sent her to the brink of despair on a 10 minute plus reworking of her Wish Someone Would Care. For this writer/compiler, the highlight of the Swamp Dogg years comes with We Won’t Be In Your Way Anymore, a big finger up to spousal abuse of both the actual and mental kind and as much a high watermark of Swamp Dogg’s songwriting as it is of Irma’s performing career.
Flash forward a few years and you’ll find that the Penn productions are just as potent. Irma was born to sing A Woman Left Lonely and Zero Willpower – both of which remain a part of her repertoire to this day – and these and the other selections we’ve included from this phase of her career don’t so much demand your attention as deserve it.
Just a couple of years after these later sides were cut, Irma was signed to Rounder Records, with whom she has remained ever since and for whom she has cut a series of albums that have entertained and enthralled all of us who’ve been with her virtually from the start. Still as great a singer in her 60s as she was 40-odd years earlier – and, it must be said, just as beautiful a woman – Irma continues to entertain and astound in a manner that few of her contemporaries are capable of doing these days.
There will be many who read this who only know the early or more recent work, as the recordings featured here have not been widely available for several years. If you’re greeting them as old friends, you’ll know what to expect and be delighted with the outcome. If you’re hearing them for the first time, you might want to be sitting down to listen.
By Tony Rounce