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Irma Thomas (born 1941) stands tall among the major artists to emerge during the Golden Age of New Orleans rhythm & blues. Since debuting with the saucy “You Can Have My Husband, But Please Don’t Mess With My Man” in 1959, the vocalist known as “The Soul Queen of New Orleans” recorded a number of the city’s timeless cultural anthems, including “It’s Raining,” which Allen Toussaint wrote and produced for Thomas in 1962. Many New Orleanians know this number by heart and audiences often sing along to every word when Thomas performs it. New Orleans bands representing a variety of genres are expected to play “It’s Raining” upon request.
Thomas is a remarkably expressive and affecting singer with a great sense of drama and dynamics. Her appeal is not based on vocal pyrotechnics or adventurous phrasing but rather on her compelling power to inhabit a song’s lyrics and communicate them in a completely convincing manner. After 55 years in the music business, Thomas’ voice has aged like a fine wine. It is slightly deeper and richer in than in decades past, yet she has not suffered any loss of range, pitch or nuance. As she told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2013, “A lot of folks who are in this business at [my] age, their voices are on the way out the door. They’re straining to get a halfway decent note out. I’m blessed. I don’t have that problem. In fact, I’m finding that my voice seems to be getting a little stronger. I’m able to hit notes that I didn’t think I could hit. Maturity helps. I’m thankful that I’m still capable.”
Thomas, like many R&B musicians (and blues and country singers, too) first sang publicly in her church choir as a little girl. She made her professional debut in 1958 when while working as a nightclub waitress, she sat in with the R&B band led by singer and pianist Tommy Ridgley. Thomas was instantly fired from her waitressing job, but Ridgley introduced her to Joe Ruffino, the owner of the New Orleans-based labels Ric and Ron. “You Can Have My Husband, But Please Don’t Mess With My Man” was released by Ron in 1959. In 1961, Thomas went to work with producer Allen Toussaint at the New Orleans-based Minit Records. Thomas was a label mate of other estimable young R&B artists such as Ernie K-Doe, Aaron Neville, Jesse Hill, and Benny Spellman. They often spent their days together at Toussaint’s parents’ house, rehearsing material before recording it at Cosimo Matassa’s studio. Thomas recorded the K-Doe composition “I Done Got Over” and other Toussaint songs including “Cry On,”“Hittin’ On Nothing,” “I Did My Part” (a.k.a. “If You Were Here”) and “Ruler of My Heart.” The latter number was re-recorded by the great Georgia R&B singer Otis Redding under the title “Pain In My Heart.” Toussaint remained credited as the writer, earning the attendant royalties on both recordings, but Redding’s cover version pushed Thomas’ rendition out of the marketplace.
When the Los Angeles-based Imperial Records purchased Minit in 1963, they also signed Thomas. In 1964, Imperial released Thomas’ original “I Wish Someone Would Care,” a powerful tale of heartbreak, backed by the spirited, up-tempo “Breakaway.” Thomas’ next Imperial release proved to be a re-run of her experience with “Ruler In My Heart.” In 1964, she recorded a strong cover version of an obscure song entitled “Time Is On My Side,” but early in 1965, another cover version by the British blues-rock band, the Rolling Stones, soared to Billboard’s Top Ten and pushed Thomas’ record aside.
Despite such setbacks,…