[THE SOUL QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS]
The Christmas tree
“The Soul Queen of New Orleans” is sitting on a squeaky black leather couch in the television room of her newly renovated home in New Orleans East. Everything is echoey and new: the pink marble floors, freshly painted peach walls, every stick of furniture, a boxy flat-screen TV wedged into a corner, and the sparkly gold and crystal chandelier that dangles over our heads. A freshly cleaned swimming pool twinkles through the glass sunroom off the rear of the house, and in the living room stacks of cardboard boxes filled with furniture await assembly.
Irma Thomas and her husband Emile Jackson have only recently settled back into their home after the post–Hurricane Katrina flooding submerged their neighborhood. They had been staying in Gonzales, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, while they worked on getting their home back in shape. Before the storm, the now-sixty-seven-year-old Thomas was set to record her seventeenth album at the legendary Ultrasonic Studios in New Orleans. But like so much of the city’s musical history, Ultrasonic was washed away in the floods, so Thomas and her producer pulled the best area musicians into Dockside Studio in rural Maurice, Louisiana, and laid down After the Rain, which just may be the best record of Thomas’ nearly fifty-year career.
The Recording Academy agreed, awarding the album a Grammy last year, Thomas’s first (after two prior nominations, in ’91 and ’98). On After the Rain, there are no horns, so her voice is more on display than ever, and unlike many singers whose instruments get thrashed as the years roll on, Thomas’s voice has only refined with age. She has been called the best female R&B vocalist of all time, albeit one who didn’t have the industry push that folks like Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, and Tina Turner had.
Thomas started singing as a teen in her church choir, and by age twenty she had four children and was twice divorced. While waitressing at New Orleans’s Pimlico Club in the late ’50s, she occasionally sat in with bandleader Tommy Ridgely, who helped set her on the path to recording her first hit single, “You Can Have My Husband (But Don’t Mess With My Man),” in 1960. The song reached No. 22 on the Billboard R&B chart, setting in motion a slew of recordings for Minit (later Imperial) Records, including charters like “It’s Raining,” “Ruler of my Heart,” “Wish Someone Would Care,” and “Time Is on My Side” (well before the Rolling Stones bit her take in their cover of the song).
Thomas has reached that rare point in a life where memoir is actually appropriate—if a little overdue. Two women affiliated with local colleges are encouraging Thomas to “get it all down” on tapes that will eventually be combined with recollections from fans into the singer’s memoir. The book project is a constant in the back of her mind, but I caught Thomas deep in the midst of recording her eighteenth album with her longtime Rounder Records producer and collaborator, Scott Billington. The new album is called Simply Grand and is set for an August 2008 release; it features Thomas alongside various pianists including Randy Newman, Norah Jones, Ellis Marsalis, John Medeski, Marcia Ball, and Dr. John, among several others.
This interview took place over the course of an early December 2007 day, during a period when hundreds of Katrina’s homeless were still huddled in boxes beneath overpasses and living in tents in downtown’s Duncan Plaza. The city was a week away from dispersing everybody from the plaza and erecting a fence around the area to keep them from coming back. The front page of the Times-Picayune was decrying rampant corruption surrounding property assessment and the subsequent appeal process in the wake of the storm. I don’t know how to describe it other than that there was a palpable pall over the city of New Orleans, a place I called home for a few years in my early twenties—and a place that truly never leaves your blood once it anoints you as one of its own.
T COOPER: Years ago, a friend gave me that pink Jazz Fest one of you, signed from, what, ’92? It’s up in my apartment. But before I came down to interview you I had this flicker of generosity, like, Maybe I should bring this to her, because I’ve been reading about all these people sending you memorabilia since you lost so much.
IRMA THOMAS: No, no! Well, make note that I would rather make some new memorabilia. Thank you for offering the old, but I’d rather just make some new. [Laughs]
TC: And your two Grammy nomination medals were replaced?
IT: Before I went out there to perform for the Grammy foundation, I had done an interview and mentioned [losing the medals in the flood]. They got word of it, so that night when I finished my performance, they gave them back to me. I was just floored, I wasn’t ready for that, I was just bawling away. I’ve never been extremely materialistic about things. Yes, you’re going to feel a little sad because you’re looking at forty years of your career and sixty-some years of your life gone down the drain. But by the same token, you got life, so you can make new memories, you know?
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