For Irma Thomas, New Orleans is on her side

Irma Thomas is known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans.”

In her career spanning more than half a century, the singer has released more than 20 albums, covering the genres of R&B, soul, blues, gospel and pop. She has worked with artists like Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and Marcia Ball, and her work has been reinterpreted by Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones and others. She’s been a staple of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, having performed in the festival annually since 1974.

After her home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2006, Thomas returned to record her album After the Rain just months later, and that record went on to win a Grammy Award for best contemporary blues album — the first Grammy of her career.

Thomas joined us in the Gumbo Kitchen recently to talk about the destruction and recovery of her hometown, why she stopped singing one of her signature songs for many years, and why she’ll never sing gospel music in a nightclub.

Scroll to the bottom if you’d like to listen to the full audio of the interview.

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What was some of the music that would have been playing around your house when you were a child?

Lots of old blues: B.B. King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Guitar Slim, Percy Mayfield, early Etta James, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan. All kinds of music was played around my house, including lots of gospel music.

So you didn’t get any issues from your parents saying, “Why are you listening to that devil music?”

Oh, no! My dad used to play all that stuff on the weekends when he was off from work.

You lost your home and a nightclub after Hurricane Katrina. Was there ever a thought of not returning to New Orleans?

That was never a thought. Even when we saw the water devastating the city, it had to go away sooner or later.

Home is home I guess, right?

Home is home.

I heard Allen Toussaint elegantly describe Hurricane Katrina as not a drowning, but a baptism. New Orleans musicians were scattered all over the country … I’m curious about where you went and how it affected your career at the time.

We had flown out of New Orleans and of course our flights back were all cancelled. But we were able to reschedule to get back about a week after the storm, and we came back by way of Alexandria, La., and some relatives came and picked me and the band up and brought us to Baton Rouge and Gonzales, and that’s where we stayed put until we were able to figure out what we were going to do.

You were on the road, right? And you saw it on the news?

I was playing a gig in Austin, Texas. We were watching the news that morning, and they were showing the water coming into the city by the breach of the levies, and I shook my husband and said, “Look honey, we don’t have a home to go home to — look at the water.” I showed him a landmark that shows you where we live and how the water had gotten above the Interstate 10 highway sign. Just as we were speaking, the CNN coverage of New Orleans were flying over the area where we lived and I could actually see my home, and the water was up to the eaves.

Now, on Monday, Sept. 25, 2006, you performed the Star Spangled Banner at the post-Katrina reopening of the Super Dome on Monday Night Football with Allen Toussaint. What was that like? That must have been unbelievable.

It was fun. It was different in that the total atmosphere was like… “we’re home.” You know how you get when you’re home, and you get excited? And with all those people who turned out for the game, and to have us there to sing the national anthem, I had sung the national anthem for the Saints many, many times, but that particular time was different in that we were all like the family finally getting back together. I can’t think of one word that would describe it, but it was different in a good way.

How many years have you played the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival?

I played my first official jazz festival in 1974, and I have not missed one since.

You stopped performing Time Is on My Side for a time. Why was that?

Well, I recorded Time Is on My Side in 1964 on the album I Wish Someone Would Care. I did a tour of England in 1965, and of course, the Rolling Stones were a group that was getting together at that time, and they came to one of my shows in one of the cities I played in England at that time. They told me that they loved the song. I wasn’t aware that they were going to re-record it, but they did, and of course it was during the time of what we call the British Invasion, and they had a pretty substantial hit with it. And every time I would sing it thereafter, people would say, “Was she singing a Rolling Stones song?” And I got tired of trying to explain that situation to people so I just stopped singing it.

Do you sing it currently?

I do it now because of Bonnie Raitt. That’s why I started singing it again, because I had stopped playing it altogether. She came to New Orleans on a New Year’s Eve, and she asked me to come over and sing Time Is on My Side with her. I said, “Why do you want to sing that one?” And she said, “Well Irma, time has been on both of our sides, so you need to put that back into your repertoire.” So she announced it and told everybody what it was all about and then we sung it, and I put it back in my playlist pretty much ever since. She’s a cool lady.

You did a gospel album in 1996. You will not, however, perform any gospel music when you’re in a nightclub. You say gospel music is not entertainment. 

It really isn’t entertainment. It’s prayer set to music. But you know, people choose to get out of it whatever they get out of it. When I sing gospel music, I’m thanking God for all of the blessings I’ve received over the years, and there’s no way I could ever count them. And I enjoy the spiritual feeling that I get from singing gospel, and I’m hoping that the people I sing it for and to are getting the same message that I get out of it. But it’s not meant to be as entertainment. It’s meant to bring joy and help people get through whatever situations that might be troubling them at the time — hoping that that music will get them where they need to be to get through it all.