It’s one of the great Jazz Fest moments that wasn’t: Irma Thomas and the Rolling Stones performing “Time Is On My Side," the single they both released in 1964, together at the Acura Stage.
There’s no guarantee such a “Time Is on My Side” summit would have occurred even if Mick Jagger’s wonky heart hadn’t scuttled the Stones’ scheduled May 2 appearance at the 50th anniversary New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Nothing had been confirmed.
But the possibility was “in the wind,” Thomas said this week. “There was a possibility, yes.”
Some unnamed people, Thomas continued, “thought it would have been a great 50th anniversary situation. I kind of thought it would have been a great idea, too. But it didn’t happen. Some things just weren’t meant to be.”
Instead, her fans must hope she performs “Time Is On My Side” during her 1:55 p.m. set Sunday at Jazz Fest’s main Acura Stage.
She doesn’t always sing it, in part because of the complicated history involving Thomas, the Rolling Stones and their shared song.
Unlike many of the Soul Queen of New Orleans’ other classic singles, “Time Is On My Side” was neither written nor produced by the late Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer Allen Toussaint.
It was originally recorded by jazz trombonist Kai Winding and his orchestra. Verve Records released Winding’s mostly instrumental version in October 1963.
In early 1964, Imperial Records, which had assumed Thomas’ recording contract after acquiring Minit Records, brought her to Los Angeles to record her “Wish Someone Would Care” album.
She was given a batch of songs from which to choose. She liked a demo recording of “Time Is On My Side” which contained more lyrics than Winding’s original take.
Without Jazzfest, there might have been no Jazz Fest.
She recorded her version at a Los Angeles studio on La Brea Avenue. Musicians on the track included Earl Palmer, the New Orleanian who became one of the most prolific session drummers of all time, as well as equally prolific bassist Carol Kaye. Jackie DeShannon, who co-wrote another Thomas classic, “Breakaway,” was on guitar. The girl-group the Blossoms, featuring Darlene Love, contributed backing vocals.
Thomas mostly stuck to the arrangement she heard on the demo tape, but improvised a spoken-word part near the end: “I added a little bit extra embellishment.”
She liked the result more than Imperial did. The company relegated “Time Is On My Side” to the B-side of the “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)” single.
A remake by the Stones
But several young British musicians very much liked “Time Is On My Side”: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the rest of the Rolling Stones. They resolved to cut their own rendition.
White artists remaking songs originally recorded by black rhythm & blues musicians was not uncommon in the 1950s and ‘60s. Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and many others did so.
The Rolling Stones, at the time an up-and-coming rock ‘n’ roll band still in search of a breakthrough hit in America, also relied on R&B and blues artists for source material. The Stones’ very first single, released in June 1963, was a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On” backed by bluesman Willie Dixon’s “I Want To Be Loved.”
The Stones recorded two versions of “Time Is On My Side.” The first take, recorded in London in June 1964, featured an organ. It was released as an American single on Sept. 25, and on the album “12 x 5.”
The Stones’ better-known version, with an electric guitar in place of the organ, was recorded in Chicago on Nov. 8, 1964. It was released in the United Kingdom in January 1965 on the album “The Rolling Stones No. 2.”
In late 1964, Thomas traveled to England for a brutal three-week tour, with multiple performances per day, often in different towns. Jagger and Richards attended one of the shows. Chatting with her at the side of the stage, they gushed over “Time Is On My Side,” Thomas recalled, and said they planned to release their own take on it.
Thomas wasn’t particularly concerned by that news. But soon enough, she and many other R&B artists found themselves relegated to the pop music sidelines by the British Invasion and its mop-top British heartthrobs.
A pivotal hit
“Time Is On My Side” turned out to be a pivotal record for the Rolling Stones. It was their first single to crack the Top 10 on the Billboard pop singles chart in America, peaking at No. 6.
They kicked off their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” with “Time Is On My Side.” A fresh-faced Jagger, his sleek sweater contrasting with his bandmates’ suits and ties, elicited screams from the teenage girls in the audience every time he slapped his thigh on the “time, time, time” refrain.
To many casual listeners, “Time Is On My Side” became a “Rolling Stones song.” Much to Thomas’ frustration, people started thinking she was covering the Rolling Stones when she sang it – even though she had recorded and released it first.
“Every time I did it, they said I was doing the Rolling Stones. And I was not doing the Rolling Stones. I was doing Irma!”
Tired of explaining, she eventually dropped “Time Is On My Side” from her setlist. She didn’t perform it for more than 20 years.
Finally, Bonnie Raitt, a friend and fan, asked Thomas to sing it with her during a New Year’s Eve 1992 broadcast from New Orleans. Raitt introduced Thomas as “one of the real national treasures of rhythm & blues.” Thomas, Raitt continued, recorded “Time Is On My Side” “before the Rolling Stones did it, I might add.”
Raitt “literally started me back to doing the song again,” Thomas said.
In the spring of 1970, a modest gathering took place in what is now Armstrong Park and the adjacent Municipal Auditorium. It boasted four outd…
They’ve worked together many times, and will again on Sunday. In addition to her own set at Jazz Fest, Thomas will join Raitt, Jon Cleary, Davell Crawford and Al “Lil Fats” Jackson for a tribute to Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew at the Acura Stage at 12:15 p.m.
A much-loved pro
With her catalog of classic songs, sunny, upbeat disposition and consummate professionalism, Thomas has endured as one of New Orleans’ best-loved singers. She works as much as she wants. She’s won a Grammy. And occasionally, an unexpected windfall lands in her lap.
Case in point: “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand),” the A-side of the “Time Is On My Side” single, has turned up multiple times in the popular British science fiction anthology series “Black Mirror.” Three different characters have sung it. In a fourth-season episode titled “Crocodile,” Thomas’ original recording is heard on a car radio; as a result, she received a “nice” royalty check.
At 78, she is three years older than Jagger, and is familiar with the challenges of advancing age. She had her left knee replaced in 2011. This year, she rode as the honorary grand marshal of the Femme Fatale parade while battling bronchitis. She also powered through a seven-day blues cruise with the flu.
She almost never cancels. Following that grueling 1964 British tour, she lost her voice. Ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. Samuel Zurik – grandfather of local investigative reporter Lee Zurik – ordered her not to sing for three months. But she still showed up at all her gigs alongside replacement singer Carol Fran.
“I physically went, but I could not physically sing,” Thomas said. “It was important to keep my reputation on the up and up. So many entertainers would use poor excuses to not show up on a job for whatever reason. I wanted people to see that I was not playing a game.”
In the summer of 2018, she was getting more fatigued than normal. Doctors detected a fast, irregular heartbeat, the result of partial blockage. Fortunately, “they didn’t have to replace anything in my heart,” she said. “They just had to clean up some things.”
Making people happy
So when news broke on March 30 that the Rolling Stones had canceled their Jazz Fest appearance because Mick Jagger needed heart surgery, she could sympathize. Onstage at the French Quarter Festival on April 12, she noted that people were praying for him and wished “that young man” Jagger well.
“I’m three years older than him, so he can be the ‘young man’ as far as I’m concerned,” Thomas said, laughing. “I was out of diapers when he was just getting here.”
Closing in on 80, she still very much loves what she does. “I enjoy making people happy. I get as much fun and enjoyment out of singing as the folks who pay to come see me.
“Time has truly been on my side. That could very well be my mantra, because I didn’t think that, at my age, I’d still be able to sing, let alone get on the stage and do what I do.”
She was 23 when she first recorded “Time Is On My Side.” How does she feel about that notion now?
“It’s still on my side.”