Time is on her side. As her 79th birthday approaches, Irma Thomas, the soul queen of New Orleans, is always looking forward to her next show.
“Because when you’re given a voice, it’s a blessing, and it was not given to you to not use it,” the Grammy-winning singer said. “And I enjoy singing. It has brought lots of joy to me.”
And what a voice. Thomas’ big, warm, engulfing, emotion-tinged alto is a mighty instrument.
On Saturday, Dec. 7, at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, Thomas’ generations of local fans will have another chance to catch her in concert.
“I see a lot of them who have matured and they bring their grandkids,” she said. “Then, I see the kids at other venues where I perform. They’ll tell me their grandmother or their mom brought them to see me and now they’re a fan.”
A native of Ponchatoula, Thomas moved to New Orleans with her parents when she was a small child. She grew up hearing her father’s blues records at home and singing gospel music in church. Thomas realized she had talent after her sixth grade teacher entered her in talent shows. She won third, second and then first place. In 1959, when she was working as a waitress at the Pimlico Club, Thomas invited herself to sing with Tommy Ridgley and his band. After sitting in with Ridgley multiple times, her Pimlico Club boss fired her.
“He said he didn’t hire me to sing,” she remembered.
Thomas quickly rebounded after Ridgley introduced her to Joe Ruffino, owner of the local Ric and Ron record labels. “Tommy Ridgley took me to see Joe Ruffino on a Monday, and that following Wednesday, I was in the recording studio,” she said.
In 1960, the 19-year-old New Orleans singer’s debut, “Please Don’t Mess with My Man,” reached No. 22 on Billboard’s rhythm-and-blues chart. In the early ’60s, she recorded the future classics “It’s Raining” and “Ruler of My Heart” with Allen Toussaint, the brilliant songwriter, pianist and producer.
“Allen told people that I was the voice he heard in his head when he was writing songs for various people,” she said. “I thought that was so funny. I said, ‘Of all the voices, he gets my voice in his head? That must be a pain in the neck!’ But he always said that he enjoyed my voice. I felt very honored.”
In 1964, a wrenching ballad Thomas wrote herself, “Wish Someone Would Care,” rose to No. 17 on Billboard’s pop chart. “Time Is on My Side,” another of her recordings for Los Angeles’ Imperial Records, subsequently became a hit for the Rolling Stones.
“During that time, we were having the British invasion,” she said. “If you were British and you came from England, you were a big sensation.”
Chart success eluded Thomas after 1964, but she stayed busy on the Gulf Coast until 1969, when Hurricane Camille wiped out many of the region’s music venues. Thomas moved to the West Coast and continued singing while she supported her family working in sales at Montgomery Ward stores. She made her debut at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1974, moved home to the Crescent City and has appeared at every Jazz Fest since.
Thomas’ persistence and dedication paid off. In 1989, Mayor Sidney Barthelemy named her the Soul Queen of New Orleans. In 1991, she received her first Grammy nomination. In 2007, the then 66-year-old singer won her first Grammy Award.
In 2009, the Blues Foundation in Memphis inducted Thomas into its Hall of Fame. In 2018, she received a lifetime achievement award from the Americana Music Association and an honorary doctorate from Tulane University.
“I saw these things happening to my friends and I was happy for them,” she said. “But I never thought it would ever happen to me because, you know, little old me, come on now.”
Thomas stopped singing “Time is My Side” for many years because people mistakenly thought she was singing a Rolling Stones song. Bonnie Raitt, a friend and fan, talked her into reclaiming the song.
“I look at it from a different perspective now, so it’s not a difficult song to do without getting peeved at myself,” Thomas said. “When I sing it now, I think about the longevity and the blessings I’ve had. Some people never get those blessings. So, I do the song, a lot of times by request, and sometimes just for the sheer sake of singing it.”
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7
Baton Rouge Magnet High School, 2825 Government St.