All Hail: Irma Thomas, The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary Celebration

by Daniel Garrett

Irma Thomas
The Soul Queen of New Orleans:
50th Anniversary Celebration
Compilation Produced by Scott Billington
Rounder, 2009

Irma Thomas’s voice carries the conviction, the tone, of experience. “If you want love, you got to bring it with you,” she sings, her thickly forceful voice dominating the fast horns, bluesy guitar, and drumming in the funky “Got to Bring It with You,” a song written by Rick Giles, Chuck Jones, and Kim Wilson. It is an old-fashion, warmly social sound—she is not being difficult, she is just telling the truth. And, she makes her own promise of love in the poignant Joe Brucato ballad “Let It Be Me,” which she embellishes with exultant pleas. Charmingly humble is Irma Thomas’s interpretation of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham’s “I’m Your Puppet,” but with Tom Jans’ song “Loving Arms” Thomas moves into deeper territory—it is a song of reflection and regret for one’s isolation: “I’ve been too long in the wind, too long in the rain” and, as if in a trance, she sings, “I can almost feel you.” Declaiming against a big, slow beat a message of determination and struggle, Thomas sings Doc Pomus and Mac Rebennack’s “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere,” giving a soulful performance that touches: what do you do when you lose your sense of direction—your guides, your purpose, and belief, but acknowledge that you are lost? In “The New Rules,” written by Paul Kelly, are a woman’s declaration of what she expects of a man’s investment in love, but the music is a little chintzy (I imagine it sung in nightclubs with people talking and drinking rather than on a concert stage before a rapt audience).

Circumstances can call forth a deeper response from a person, from an artist. Irma Thomas takes the traditional song “Another Man Done Gone” and adapts it to life in hurricane country, giving it a rustling beat, and with new words turning it into a news report and a lament. With a nice piano introduction and foundation by David Torkanowsky, the refined Burt Bacharach-Steve Krikorian ballad “What Can I Do” is a pretty love song; and the emotion in the song, a beseeching quest for love, is given a rare clarity in the lyrics but the interpretation still seems rather colorless (it may be that sometimes, though not always, it helps if a singer raises her voice). Playfully sentimental, also slyly accusatory, is “I Count the Tears,” written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, a version which has a mostly male chorus that recalls doo-wop. Allen Toussaint’s “Old Records” is a song of appreciation and also mature resignation and it is given a light, jaunty rhythm. (On “Old Records” Renard Poché is on guitar and Herman Ernest III is on drums.) The Bessie Smith flood song “Back Water Blues” is delivered plainly, with effective instrumentation, and has dignity, and a stark reality; and features Allen Toussaint on piano, Doyle Bramhall II on guitar, Paul Bryan on bass, and Jay Bellerose on drums.

Irma Thomas creates a warm, womanly perspective and tone, a melancholy reflection, for Arthur Alexander’s “In the Middle of It All,” and supported by good music, she achieves an elemental perfection. (On that song, Dirk Powell plays electric guitar, Sonny Landreth slide guitar, James Singleton acoustic bass, Stanton Moore drums, and David Torkanowsky electric piano. The smaller bands seem to yield something special.) “You brought out the best in me, made me leave the rest of me behind,” Irma Thomas sings in the exuberant Allen Toussaint rhythm-and-blues “Sweet Touch of Love.” A bluesy tension is sustained in the tough goodbye song “Your Ship Has Sailed,” which Thomas herself wrote with Warner Williams. With a rolling, rumbling piano, there is a call to join the congregation in the John Fogerty’s spiritual “River is Waiting.”

Irma Thomas sounds like a woman who has lived in the world, and her musical achievement is genuine.

Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African,, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen,,,, Option,, The Review of Contemporary Fiction,, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism; and he has said, “In music you can hear the attitudes, feelings, ideals, and rhythm of an era. In about three years—from 2006 to 2007, 2007 to 2008, and 2008 to 2009—I wrote about 150 music reviews: that is a significant body of work, and was both pleasure and privilege.”