Irma Thomas

TrackSingle / Album
I Done Got Over ItMinit 642
It´s RainingMinit 653
Two Winters LongMinit 660
Ruler Of My HeartMinit 666
Wish Someone Would CareImperial 66013
Anyone Who Knows What Love Is
(Will Understand)
Imperial 66041
Time Is On My SideImperial 66041
I Haven't Got Time To CryTake A Look
In Between TearsIn Between Tears
Don't Blame HimSoul Queen Of New Orleans

Irma Thomas photo 1

 

 

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Irma Thomas playlist

 

Socking it to/for Otis in 1989

 

DAVE STEPHENS’ NEW ORLEANS SCENES #7 – IRMA THOMAS

Soul Queen of New Orleans and one hit wonder. That doesn’t sound right but regrettably it’s true. Irma Thomas made almost an overabundance of great records but for whatever reason, only one made the US Top Forty. Yet she deserves to be up there with the Aretha Franklins and the Etta James of this world.

This is her story.

She was born Irma Lee on 18th February 1941 in Ponchatoula, midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, but the family moved to the Big Easy in Irma’s early childhood. She sang in a gospel choir every Sunday at the Home Mission Baptist Church but that didn’t stop her getting pregnant at the age of 14. A marriage took place but it didn’t last and left her with two children. Another marriage followed at the age of 17 which resulted in two more children. Again it didn’t last but Irma kept the surname, Thomas.

1959 found her waiting tables in the Pimlico Club in New Orleans where she started singing with the band led by Tommy Ridgley. He was the man who managed to get her a deal with the fledgling Ron label which had just been set up by Joe Ruffino. Both tracks on her first single fell into the broad category of blues; Irma had inherited her father’s love for the genre often quoting names like Percy Mayfield and Cecil Gant. The A-side (You Can Have My Husband But) Don’t Mess With My Man was the boisterous one of the pairing and it not only achieved a #22 position in the nation’s R&B Chart but Irma liked it so much that it went on to be a regular presence in her stage act. The flipside, a blues ballad called Set Me Free was less artistically successful but was possibly a better pointer to Irma’s later work. Both songs were written by a lady called Dorothy LaBostrie – for more on Dorothy, see the footnotes.

The follow-up, Good Man/I May Be Wrong coupled a jumper with a slowie only this time the blues ballad was better realised. While the single did nothing significant chart-wise, the buzz surrounding the two records together with her club work helped to get Irma an entrée to Minit Records, another recently formed label.

Where she came into the hands of Allen Toussaint.

Allen, who was only three years older than Irma was house producer/arranger at Minit and composed many of the songs which appeared on its records. In the short period of Minit’s existence – like Ron it was founded in 1959 – he had been the brains (and piano) behind the creation of two major hits for the label, Jesse Hill’s Ooh Poo Pah Doo and Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-In-Law. To say he had contributed to the label’s success would be a major understatement. He was also the driver behind other significant New Orleans artists like Chris Kenner and Lee Dorsey.

Irma’s first Minit single featured Girl Needs Boy backed with Cry On with both songs composed by Allen – he would go on to write all her Minit singles bar two – and both featuring an organ well up in the mix which was something relatively unusual on Minit records. The instrument’s churchy tone suited the flip, a blues ballad, and was probably part of a planned attempt to capture the sound of Ray Charles. Remember this was spring ’61 so soul music was still in its relative infancy. The A-side, however, was much more like a forties/fifties lounge standard to which the organ added not-altogether-welcome fairground overtones (to UK ears) making the track only a qualified success.

There’s little doubt that Allen saw potential success for Irma in ballad mode but his career so far hadn’t really taken in that kind of song, or arrangement. Hence there were varying degrees of experimentation going on. His next attempt came with Irma’s very next record, It’s Too Soon To Know, a number that had been a hit for pioneering doo wop group, the Orioles in 1948. Allen took the play-it-safe approach on this and went for the full orchestral thing à la fifties pop pre rock and roll with Irma told not to emote too heavily. Which was OK but not terribly distinctive.

There was even more restraint from Irma on Allen’s third attempt at putting her in a ballad setting. The upbeat femme chorale singing “drip drop” to ram home the title of It’s Rainin’ didn’t totally disguise the fact that the song was a semi-suicidal swampy affair with piano triplets all over the place, reminiscent of one of Fats Domino’s slower efforts. While Irma sings “I guess I’ll just go crazy tonight”, her attitude was more of resignation than rage. An artistic success certainly – I think we can say Allen cracked it this time – even if sales were only local.

It’s raining so hard
Looks like it’s going to rain all night
And this is the time
I’d love to be holding you tight
I guess I’ll have to accept
The fact that you are not here
I wish tonight would hurry up and end

The approach is more subtle on Ruler Of My Heart. He’s off somewhere but she’ll wait for as long as it takes even though the pain inside is threatening to burst out. The relative calm of the verses is pushed to one side in the middle eight when she pleads “come back, come back, come back, I’ve had enough” with Toussaint’s piano adopting a suitably strident tone. A beautiful record, even more minimalist than It’s Rainin’ with the choir doing little more than coo and that piano performing the role of a whole team of support musicians.

A little over a year later (Irma’s single came out in summer ’62) Stax/Volt released a record by another great soul singer, Otis Redding, which accelerated his breakthrough to a white audience (and excited a few people in the UK where it was his first release). That record was Pain In My Heart and, while stylistically it’s approach leaned heavily on an earlier Redding single, These Arms Of Mine, with piano triplets very much to the fore, melodically it bore a not inconsiderable resemblance to Irma’s Ruler Of My Heart. Allen Toussaint successfully sued and won the copyright battle and the composer listed against Pain In My Heart is now Naomi Neville, the maiden name of his mother and one he used on many of his compositions. Regardless of all the legalities and indeed, of the hurt it caused to Irma, it should be said that both Ruler Of My Heart and its (illegitimate) son, Pain In My Heart, are great records with the former scoring on restraint and subtlety and the latter on agony and intensity.

If I’ve given the impression that Toussaint was obsessed with getting a great ballad performance out of Irma that would be putting things too strongly; he continued to work with her on a wide range of material with differing settings. The pop/soul dancer, Two Winters Long, which preceded “Ruler”, was Motown in embryo but coming a year or two before that label really got into its pomp, so Allen was preceding rather than plagiarising from Detroit. In the Soul Express interview with Irma the writer Heikki Suosalo states that Two Winters Long was criticised as being a Mary Wells copy but Irma’s retort was “It wasn’t. In fact it had nothing to do with Mary Wells. I didn’t even know Mary Wells when that came out”. I see some evidence from YouTube that Northern Soul fans have shown interest in this record. It’s a shame that it didn’t see release in the UK originally when Mod buyers might have helped to push it into our charts.

Allen wasn’t averse to putting Irma into the kind of backdrop that the lads at Minit enjoyed. I Done Got Over It was written by Ernie K-Doe (and is the other song not composed by Toussaint) so it’s probably no surprise that echoes of Ernie’s Mother-In-Law and Benny Spellman’s Lipstick Traces float through the brain while this track is aired. At long last we get a New Orleans brass section, second line style – your first impression is that they’re sloppy but it gradually dawns that they are absolute perfection. This was another number that Irma loved and it got rerecorded more than once.

Space didn’t permit the selection of other Minit records from Irma but several warranted mention including another proto New Orleans soul number in Gone which had a curiously old-fashioned but satisfying air about it. Elsewhere both I Did My Part and Hitting On Nothing edged towards funk with the former propelled by the Toussaint piano plus vocal team, and the latter unusual in that it featured an acid sounding guitar, not an instrument frequently heard at the label.

 

In 1963, Minit got taken over by Imperial and then, that same year, Imperial got swallowed by Liberty, though they kept the Imperial name. Irma survived the process and stayed with the label until 1966 releasing a total of nine singles and two albums. It’s easy to say with hindsight that Imperial started as they meant to go on with the bulk of those sides and album tracks being ballads some of which were relatively straight i.e. with limited black or soul content and a few which echoed the softer sound of what was sometimes termed uptown soul. In fact Irma’s first single for Imperial followed the time-honoured industry practice of coupling a slowie with a fast one and they could even have tossed a coin for which occupied the A-side and got sent to DJs for plugging.

Let’s deal with the fast one first although in this instance it was the one on the flip of the single. Break-A-Way was written by Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley who both separately and jointly had written a goodly number of songs, several of which had been hits. Both were L.A. and Hollywood through and through. The producer was Eddie Ray who had been based in L.A. since 1945 and worked his way up in the music industry, and the arranger was H.B. Barnum, another gent who’d been born elsewhere but moved to L.A. where he worked as vocalist and pianist before switching to arranging. Further ‘back room people’ with whom Irma would work at Imperial in the process of creating records included Jerry Ragavoy and Van McCoy (and for more on some of these names, see the footnotes). This was record creation Los Angeles style.

Break-A-Way was sunshine coast pop, taken at a helter skelter pace, and while the lyrical thrust of a broken relationship would have been entirely familiar to Irma, the new musical experience must have been something of a culture shock. She coped admirably though and the record is good. The reasons for it not getting in the ten include (1) a desire on my part to have as much music that you could call ‘soul’ as possible and this is marginal in that respect, (2) the fact that the producer and arranger have gone for a novelty style opening which irritates me each time I hear it though I then settle down to enjoy the rest, and (3) the usual space issue.

The A-side of the single was Wish Someone Would Care which gave Irma her one and only Top Forty hit – it reached #17 in the US Hot 100 – but very unfortunately doesn’t seem to be remembered at all well. To quote Wikipedia on Breakaway (they don’t cover the A-side at all and drop the hyphens in the title), “Breakaway is today generally a better-remembered song than the A-side of Thomas’ record, which might be partly due to Tracey Ullman’s hit 1980s cover” (see also footnotes).

Which is a crying shame. Wish Someone Would Care is a superb track. From today’s stance we’d see it as a conventional sixties soul ballad and certainly fits that description in comparison to what Toussaint was doing with her at Minit. It’s quite possible that producer Ray had in mind the sort of ballads that Etta James was laying down at Chess in the early sixties and as a start point that wouldn’t have been a bad idea. What he, Irma and arranger Barnum create though is something of their own. Greil Marcus called it “the saddest song that ever hit the Top 40” before he went on to talk more about a later version of the song (source: Real Life Rock Top 10).

Irma wrote Wish Someone Would Care.

Single #2 from Irma at Imperial was another double sider. The top side Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand), another ballad, was a sleeper. It didn’t excite much interest at the time – #52 in the Hot 100 was probably a disappointment – but very belatedly got included as a kind of recurrent theme song in the British Black Mirror SF anthology when it was aired in the US via Netflix from 2014 onwards. The song appeared four times, the first three via covers and the last from Irma on the radio. In 2018, the record – and by that I mean the record that Irma recorded in 1964 apparently in the same week long session as Wish Someone Would Care – hit #2 in the monthly Billboard Top TV Songs Chart, and I can add that the clip below has had 6.2 million views:

The two main songwriters out of the four listed were a very young country-star-to-be Jeannie Seely and the even younger – he was 19 at the time – and just as promising, Randy Newman. The combination of sophistication from Newman who was already working as a songwriter, and raw country emotion from Seely who was no more than a secretary then, brought an unusual skills mix to the table. Teams that feature diversity are IN these days; maybe Imperial got there early (and the nascent Nashville feel that Seely brought to the table probably accounted for the brackets).

Flip that disc and what do you get but arguably Irma’s most famous track, Time Is On My Side, a song (plus arrangement and monologue) which the vast majority of white people in those days, including self, would have first heard from the Stones via Rolling Stones No.2 in the UK in January 1965, or via single release in the US in Sep ’64 (where it made #6 in their Top Ten). This is the Stones UK version. The US one was a different, looser take. The story of the song prior to it getting into Mick’s hands is somewhat curious. It was one of the earlier songs written by Jerry Ragavoy (under the pseudonym Norman Meade) and it first appeared as a semi-instrumental on a single by Danish-born but American jazz trombonist Kai Winding (featuring background singers Cissy Houston, Dionne Warwick and Dee Dee Warwick). I don’t know a lot about Mr Winding but would assume that this was a bid for pop glory. The song then appeared as a candidate for a single track for Irma at Imperial with the lyrics having been fleshed out by Jimmy Norman, an R&B and jazz songwriter and musician. Irma’s version, backing Anyone Who Knows What Love Is, appeared in June ’64. Quite how it got into the hands of the Stones so promptly I don’t know. What we do know is that the Stones weren’t overnight song writing successes and were heavily reliant on covers of US records in the early years.

But you know the Stones version. This is Irma:

Isn’t that just downright great (with imaginary exclamation marks for good measure) – go ahead Irma, you just tell him, he’s gonna crawl back, oh yes he is, yeah, yeaah, yeaaaaah !!!!!!!!!!! (real this time).

Such a contrast to the A-side. The first time Irma had really taken the lid off all that churchy music bottled up inside her. Congratulations to Eddie Ray and H.B. Barnum for working their magic and making the gospel vision appear. Should have sold a zillion copies but didn’t and Irma has never forgiven the Stones.

But we should move on.

Almost everything else she recorded at Imperial after those opening salvos was anticlimactic though the tracks, most of which were ballads, rarely dropped below a high standard. What we got very little of was the raw and hurting Irma of Time Is On My Side. Note that I did say “almost”. Tucked away on her second Imperial album, Take A Look, was a track called I Haven’t Got Time To Cry and my, didn’t the feeling come through on this. In there somewhere was a trick she sometimes deployed of sweeping up to a note and not quite reaching it leaving a slight dissonance, all helping to convey the agony.

I referred in my introduction to Irma’s period at Imperial to “the softer sound of what was sometimes termed uptown soul.” Such tracks usually had the name Van McCoy associated with them either in a composing or arranging capacity. Two fine examples which started to move into Warwick/Bacharach territory, are Some Things You Never Get Used To and It’s Starting To Get To Me Now . McCoy was composer for both.

After the chart heights reached by Wish Someone Would Care, immediate follow-ups only achieved low or mid Hot 100 positions and later discs didn’t chart at all. In what I interpret as increasingly desperate attempts to improve this situation, Imperial/Liberty brought Allen Toussaint back into the fold which resulted in several tracks on the Take A Look LP plus one single: Take A Look / What Are You Trying To Do. This is the A-side; bubbly soul pop would be a fair description but its over familiar chord progression failed to ignite any interest in record buyers. Her final Imperial record was entitled It’s A Man’s Woman’s World (Part 1) (with the second side being Part 2) and it was produced by “James Brown Productions” – it was a kind of sequel to the famous Brown single. Irma is on record as saying (in the Soul Express interview): “It was produced by James Brown, but I still say it’s awful. Worst record I’ve ever recorded” and she has steadfastly refused to sing it on stage.

And that was about it for Irma Thomas and Imperial. But before leaving I would just draw the reader’s attention to one track on her first LP for the label, Wish Someone Would Care. The number is Please Send Me Someone To Love written by Percy Mayfield, her father’s favourite blues singer. And Irma’s version is up there with several other fine renditions of the Mayfield song; it’s one that seems to attract great covers.

 

After a year or so without a contract, Irma’s next port of call was Chess Records in ’67 who sent her south (from Chicago) to the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. Three singles emerged in the short term with the full set of tracks only finding their way to the public via the album Something Good: The Muscle Shoals Sessions in 1990. Producer Rick Hall laid on the A team for the sessions, Jimmy Johnson, Spooner Oldham etc. and the sonic mix produced was well up to the studio standard. My two favourites are the sides which comprised the second single, A Woman Will Do Wrong with its combination of the intimate and the declamatory, and the more bouncy but far from frivolous I Gave You Everything. The second got very close to being in the ten.

Between 1969 and 1973/74, Irma had involvement record-wise with Jerry Williams Jr., that is both before and after his morphing into Swamp Dogg. I have very little knowledge/experience of the Williams/Swamp Dogg musical oeuvre but the appearance from his work with Irma is that there was considerable understanding of southern soul stashed away in his head. The earlier work was released on the Canyon label and the later stuff on Williams’ own Fungus Records (where the rule was singles are coloured green!), but there’s a blurring between the two periods because, according to Irma in the Soul Express interview, Williams had a disagreement with the owners of Canyon and a result of that was that he retained the rights to the relevant Canyon material. That was the boring bit. The interesting bit is that much of that material ended up on an LP entitled In Between Tears in 1973 which is now available on CD (and can be found on Spotify). Jason Ankeny of AllMusic gave the album a positive review. This is some of it:

“In the wake of 1969’s devastating Hurricane Camille, New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas abandoned the Gulf Coast in favor of the West Coast, settling in Los Angeles and largely forsaking her singing career in favor of the relative stability of retail work. Thomas finally resurfaced in 1973 with a series of little-noticed singles on the Fungus label that teamed her with producer Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams and guitarist Duane Allman — the resulting LP In Between Tears remains a lost classic that captures deep soul at its most poignant and resonant, couching Thomas’ deeply affecting vocals in earthy arrangements that emphasize the singer’s gospel roots.”

My favourite from the set is the title track, In Between Tears (which didn’t appear on one of the singles’ sides). Irma sounds very genuine here without resorting to screaming.

Other tracks that deserve investigating are the relatively conventional She’ll Never Be Your Wife and the relatively unconventional Coming From Behind (Monologue)/Wish Someone Would Care. That lengthy title attempts to describe a long recitation from Irma (which had featured in two parts on a single with dispute between Williams and Thomas as to who owned it), and a version of Wish Someone Would Care with long shouty coda performed very much in the manner of the early James Brown (think the track Lost Someone from the 1963 Live At The Apollo LP).

In between the sessions with Williams, Irma spent a very short spell at Atlantic, which produced one single on their subsidiary Cotillion and a batch of tracks which eventually saw the light of day in 2014 under the title Full Time Woman (The Lost Cotillion Album). Both sides of the single were produced by New Orleans man Wardell Quezergue and neither was without merit. The initial A-side – and I say “initial” since Cotillion reissued the single immediately with the sides flipped – was a ballad entitled Full Time Woman written by white folk blues singer/songwriter Alice Stuart who had spent six months in Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention. Alice’s version is at the start of this clip which contains the entire (1970) album of that name. Irma’s version increases the slow and stately quotient with Ms Thomas certainly putting some beef into it. The title of the flip, She’s Taken My Part suggests a country number but Wardell gives it a semi-funk arrangement.

The other material which found its way onto the album was recorded separately and in fairness to Irma, I’ll skip it. In the Soul Express interview she said:

“I hope it never comes out. They wanted me to sound like Diana Ross, and I wouldn’t do it. I’m not Diana Ross and I don’t want to sound like Diana Ross. They had me singing in keys that were not comfortable for me. I thought it was a very awful session. So they wrote the company back and said ‘I didn’t have it any more’. Whatever it was I didn’t have, I guess, not having it must be pretty good because I’m doing alright now.”

In the late seventies Irma recorded for several small labels including RCS where she was produced by John Fred, he of the Playboy Band (and if that statement doesn’t ring a bell, see the footnotes). Some singles and a couple of LPs got recorded. The first, Soul Queen Of New Orleans, actually got issued under the more established Maison De Soul imprint, but the second, Safe With Me came out with the RCS name. I’ve had a listen to both, and, while there’s a significant element of retro about it – the giveaway is the re-cutting of several early numbers – my preference is for the first. The presence of the track below (composed by singer/songwriter Kim Morrison) may have gone some way to sway that decision.

Country Soul. Check out that melismatic quivering “Tears” at 1:55.

I just couldn’t resist this one and it’s #10 in the selections. For completeness I should add that it also appeared as the flipside to a somewhat discofied version of Breakaway (and the hyphens had got shed as the years passed).

In 1986, Irma was lucky (or talented) enough to get picked up by one of the labels which specialised in ‘the older artists’, Rounder Records and they’ve done her proud with eight albums to date including one, My Heart’s In Memphis covering the songs of Dan Penn. Another of these albums, After The Rain, “was recorded at the Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana, only months after Hurricane Katrina destroyed Thomas’ home in New Orleans“ (source: Wiki). It opened with her version of Arthur Alexander’s In The Middle Of It All – “Now the rain falls around it and loneliness surrounds it, and I’m in the middle of it all”.

But I’m closing with a track from another Rounder album, Simply Grand, released in 2008, where she’s accompanied by a number of pianists – not all at once obviously! The number is If I Had Any Sense I’d Go Back Home which originally appeared on record by Louis Jordan in 1954. Irma is accompanied by Dr. John:

 

 

FOOTNOTES

1. At the age of 13 Irma auditioned for Specialty Records, the L.A. based label with a long arm in New Orleans and which made its name with Little Richard in the fifties. She didn’t succeed but it showed that she had a whole load of guts even at that tender age.

2. Tommy Ridgley was an R&B singer and band leader who was born and based in New Orleans. He started recording in 1949 but only ever achieved local sales – this is his Ooh Lawdy My Baby from 1953.

3. Joe Ruffino’s Ron and Ric record labels only operated between 1958 and 1962 but in that short time they produced several records which sold very well in New Orleans, and some beyond, like Irma’s Don’t Mess With My Man. Such numbers included Professor Longhair’s classic Go To The Mardi Gras and Joe Jones’ You Talk Too Much.

4. Dorothy LaBostrie was a songwriter who was born in Kentucky but moved to New Orleans in 1951. Her biggest claim to fame was the production of the ‘sanitised’ version of the lyrics of Tutti Frutti, the song that put Little Richard on the road to fame. Bumps Blackwell, Richard’s producer, put an announcement on the radio looking for a song writer. According to Dorothy herself she practically beat down Blackwell’s door in order to get the job. She also claims to have written the song in fifteen minutes. Very few of Dorothy’s songs achieved fame outside New Orleans but Johnny Adams’ I Won’t Cry (on Ric) became a hit when it rereleased in 1970.

5. In Cal Taylor’s excellent Toppermost on Otis Redding (which you should have read), he also documents the ‘borrowing’ that took place from Ruler Of My Heart to Pain In My Heart. In addition he has also separately made the observation to me, “if she (Irma) hadn’t done Ruler Of My Heart, Otis Redding’s short but illustrious career might have taken a different course”. (I’d comment that I also bought a 45 of Pain In My Heart on London and still own it).

6. Like Specialty, Imperial was an independent record label which was based in L.A. but often recorded in New Orleans. Fats Domino was the label’s best known artist.

7. Liberty Records, another indie with an L.A. basing was founded in 1955 and initially majored on film and orchestral music. It’s first big hit was Cry Me A River from Julie London (in ’55). As the fifties progressed the label moved more towards pop music and in ’57, Eddie Cochran became its first rock signing. In 1963, Liberty took over Imperial which had just consumed Minit (the New Orleans based indie).

8. Singer/songwriter Jackie DeShannon should need no introduction and there’s a fine Toppermost in existence from Peter Viney.

9. Sharon Sheeley is a name that will be known by all Eddie Cochran fans. She was in the taxi with Gene Vincent and Eddie on the night of 16th April 1960 travelling from Bristol to London when the crash occurred (on the western side of Chippenham) which was to prove fatal to Eddie. She suffered a broken pelvis. Quite apart from all that, she wrote a considerable number of songs either solely or with Jackie DeShannon or other co-writers. Such songs included Cherished Memories and Somethin’ Else for Cochran, Poor Little Fool (Ricky Nelson) and Dum Dum (Brenda Lee).

10. Edward “Eddie” Wiley Ray was born in North Carolina but moved to Los Angeles in 1945 and started out on the bottom rung of the ladder as an assistant shipping clerk with another L.A. based indie, Aladdin Records. While there he got himself a business administration degree. He moved on to Central Record Sales, a distributor, where he commenced work in sales & promotion of R&B artists like Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Joe Turner etc. In 1954, he started song writing with a man called Rudy Jackson – they wrote Hearts Of Stone for the Jewels. In ’55 he joined the major indie, Imperial, in a sales & promotion role but before too long he started producing records. He moved on to major management roles at Capitol, MGM etc.

11. Hidle Brown “H.B.” Barnum is a pianist, arranger, record producer, singer, songwriter and child actor who was born in Houston but moved to L.A. The last job category gave him a starting career in television but he then moved to singing – he made a solo album at the age of 14 under the name of Pee Wee Barnum – and founded a doo wop group, the Dootones, subsequently moving to the Robins. He then moved sideways into an A&R position at Whippet Records (for which company the Robins recorded). Via this position he commenced work in production and arranging. Over time he got to produce and arrange for a host of artists ranging from Count Basie and Frank Sinatra to Little Richard and the Supremes. In 1961, he recorded the first version of Nut Rocker which was credited to Jack B. Nimble and the Quicks.

12. Jerry Ragavoy was a songwriter and record producer whose most famous song was probably Time Is On My Side. He also wrote (or co-wrote) Piece Of My Heart (Erma Franklin/Janis Joplin), Cry Baby and I’ll Take Good Care Of You (Garnet Mimms), Try, Just A Little Bit Harder (Lorraine Ellison/Janis Joplin) and One Way Love (The Drifters/Cliff Bennett). His specialty tended towards the big soul searching songs.

13. Van McCoy was also a songwriter and record producer who wrote successfully for artists like Barbara Lewis, Betty Everett, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Ruby & the Romantics and Donny Hathaway throughout the sixties. He also made records (and made TV appearances) in his own right, and, in 1975 almost became a household name when The Hustle, a disco number, became a massive success.

14. Irma’s record Break-A-Way was used in the soundtrack of the 2008 film, The Secret Life Of Bees set in South Carolina in 1964 and dealing with racism and civil rights.

15. In the main text I comment on my irritation at the instrumental opening of Irma’s record Break-A-Way. That opening flourish is absent from the demo version of the record made by Jackie DeShannon and not released at the time. I should also add that Tracey Ullman’s version was a top ten UK hit in 1983 (though you probably know that anyway). As a minor note, the hyphens disappeared on later versions of the song.

16. The story of Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand) and Black Mirror is narrated well in this online Billboard article which includes the following lines:

“Jeannie Seely, 23 years old at the time, was working at Liberty Records on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles. “I was secretary to Kenny Rivercomb, who was in charge of national sales,” Seely tells Billboard. “I got the idea for the song from a pantyhose ad in a magazine. It read: ‘Anyone who knows what comfort is …’.””

17. In “The Sound Of The City”, Charlie Gillett described the stance of Irma on Time Is On My Side as being one of “confident derision”. Charlie always had a way with words.

18. I didn’t mention in the main text that Irma’s third single was a cover of Otis Redding’s Good To Me, a number which was co-written by Otis and appeared on 1966’s The Soul Album. Irma’s version was very very good and it’s only the fact that the original was a rarely-talked-about classic that stopped Irma’s take getting in my Ten (it did manage a low end placing in the US R&B Chart though). The thought also occurred: was she attempting to get her own back?

19. Wardell Quezergue was a major ‘backroom boy’ in the New Orleans music scene, a little like Allen Toussaint, though he didn’t play piano (and was consequently less likely to feature pianos in his records). He paid his dues with the Dave Bartholomew band and went on to work with several of the key New Orleans artists – in 1965 he produced and arranged Robert Parker’s hit Barefootin’. He was significantly involved with the funk scene in the early seventies producing records like King Floyd’s Groove Me and Jean Knight’s Mr Big Stuff.

20. “Why don’t more people know about Alice Stuart? It’s a legitimate question, considering the fact that she’s one of the very first women of rock. She was one of the first women to do it all: guitar player, leader of her own band, and performer on international rock tours.” (AllMusic)

Alice Stuart is a folk/blues singer and songwriter who was born in the state of Washington. She has toured with Van Morrison, performed with Frank Zappa, and is cited as an influence by Bonnie Raitt. She has released seven albums and a couple of singles, one of which got released in the UK. It coupled her version of Hank Snow’s The Golden Rocket with her own Believe In Someone. This is the flip.

She played the stage of the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1964, where she formed a friendship with Mississippi John Hurt. She made another appearance at the festival in 1966, and again four years later. In the following years, she performed with such artists as Rosalie Sorrells, Jack Elliott, Doc Watson, Phil Ochs, and Joan Baez.” (AllMusic)

21. RCS (short for Record Company Of The South) Records was run out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. See below for the connection with John Fred (Gourrier).

22. John Fred was born John Fred Gourrier in Baton Rouge in 1941. With his band, The Playboys, he scored one of the more unusual hits of 1967 with Judy In Disguise (With Glasses), a title which owed a little to the Beatles’ Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds though melodically and lyrically there was no resemblance. It was to be John Fred’s only hit but he got a gold disc for it, and his record career as measured in singles ran from 1958 to 1988 (acc. to 45cat). In addition to making his own records, John Fred moved into production and became vice president of Baton Rouge based RCS Records. He also coached high school basketball and baseball – he was a star in his youth – and hosted a popular radio show, The Roots Of Rock & Roll.

23. Maison De Soul Records was based in Ville Platte, Louisiana and was founded by Floyd Soileau in 1975. Floyd owned and ran several labels in Southern Louisiana and covered the wide range of music emanating from the area.

24. Kim Morrison is a singer/songwriter based in Nashville. Her songs have been recorded by Mel Tillis, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, Dickie Betts, Jonny Neel, Dobie Gray, Keith Whitley, Ty Herndon, Johnny Rodriguez and many more. She has also released a handful of singles including this one, Hollywood And Vine (1979).

25. For anyone new to Irma Thomas and wondering where to start, the Ace/Kent album Time Is On My Side has to be a strong recommendation. It focuses on her time at Minit and Imperial and covers all the tracks I’ve raved about from those labels plus plenty more.

26. New Orleans has its famous Second Line so I’m going to have a Second Close. Here’s Irma in the not too distant past, as filmed for season 1 (2010) of the Treme TV series, performing Time Is On My Side, with Allen Toussaint on piano and Dave Bartholomew on trumpet. Dave Bartholomew died on 23rd June 2019 at the age of 100.

On the principle that good things come in threes we need one more clip. I did say that this number stayed in her act …

 

 

Irma Thomas poster 1

A Ricky Tick promotion in Canterbury in March 1966

 

Irma Thomas photo 2

Allen Toussaint & Irma Thomas

 

 

Louisiana Music Hall of Fame: Irma Thomas

Irma Thomas at Discogs

Irma Thomas biography (Apple Music)

Irma Thomas with Anyone Who Knows What Love Is on American Bandstand, August 1964, followed by interview with Dick Clark

 

Dave Stephens’ New Orleans scenes
#1 Fats Domino, #2 Chris Kenner, #3 Jessie Hill, #4 Barbara Lynn, #5 Benny Spellman, #6 Ernie K-Doe, #7 Irma Thomas, #8 Barbara George, #9 Earl King, #10 Smiley Lewis

ONE HIT WONDERS ON TOPPERMOST
#1 Jody Reynolds, #2 James Ray, #3 Richie Barrett, #4 Mickey & Sylvia, #5 Scott McKenzie, #6 Blue, #7 Chris Kenner, #8 Dawn Penn, #9 Shep and the Limelites, #10 The Poni-Tails, #11 The La’s, #12 Thomas Wayne, #13 Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford, #14 Carl Mann, #15 Duncan Browne, #16 Harold Dorman, #17 Ned Miller, #18 Gary Shearston, #19 The Fendermen, #20 Jimmy Radcliffe, #21 Joe Dolce, #22 Sanford Clark, #23 Bob Luman, #24 Jessie Hill, #25 Ernie K-Doe, #26 Irma Thomas, #27 Barbara George

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Arthur Alexander, Cliff Bennett, James Brown, Ray Charles, Eddie Cochran, Sam Cooke, Jackie DeShannon, Fats Domino, Lee Dorsey, Drifters, Jessie Hill, Ernie K-Doe, Chris Kenner, Brenda Lee, Little Richard, Percy Mayfield, Rick Nelson, Randy Newman, Robert Parker, Otis Redding, Frank Sinatra, Benny Spellman, Supremes, Big Joe Turner, Gene Vincent

TopperPost #841

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Feb 26, 2020

    What a brilliant voice she has – up there with the best. Thanks for yet another great piece.

  2. Cal Taylor
    Feb 27, 2020

    A really great Toppermost about a really great soul singer. Thank you, Dave. A marvellous piece of work. I knew little of Irma’s work after the 1960’s.
    Irma’s records weren’t released in the UK until 1964 and I bought a few in the 1960’s including an EP containing ‘Time Is On My Side’, one of four or five absolute classic tracks by her, which deserved more commercial success than they achieved.
    I do take issue, though, with what Irma is supposed to have said in an interview with ‘Soul Express’, about her record ‘Two Winters Long’ being criticised as a Mary Wells copy. Irma is supposed to have said, “It was in fact nothing to do with Mary Wells. I didn’t even know Mary Wells when that came out”. Irma’s record came out in December 1962. By that time Mary Wells had had four R&B top ten hits compared with Irma’s single R&B chart entry (#22) in 1960. I cannot believe Irma had not heard of Mary by the end of 1962. It might make more sense if ‘Soul Express’ meant to say, “Mary Wells’ record” but even that, I believe, is stretching it a bit. ‘Two Winters Long’ was being compared to Mary’s ‘You Beat Me To The Punch’ which had topped the R&B chart in September 1962 (as well as making the top 10 in the US pop charts) and there was a similarity between the two records. Perhaps Irma, who was a better soul singer than Mary and had also recorded before her was a bit envious of Mary’s success, hence not liking the comparison being made.
    But to finish on a positive note – I’m eternally grateful to Irma for ‘Ruler Of My Heart’ which Otis Redding managed to turn into ‘Pain In My Heart’.

  3. Dave Stephens
    Mar 1, 2020

    Thank you gentlemen for those kind comments. And Cal, I’ve mailed you with a more detailed story but suffice to say that I doubt that anyone in music, Allen Toussaint certainly included, has ever been entirely oblivious of sounds coming from elsewhere.

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