Time's still on her side

Sep 2, 2009 at 12:00 am

Editor's note: This is the complete transcript of an interview that appeared in the paper edition of Metro Times in an abridged form.

Unlike a lot of musical royalty, Irma Thomas never called herself the "Soul Queen of New Orleans." That title was given to her by the citizens of one of the greatest music cities in the world. "No, that wasn't something I'd have ever come up with!" the R&B and pop diva says by phone from her New Orleans home. It's only in this decade, however, that Thomas has received the mainstream respect she so deserves — first in the form of a 2007 Grammy for After the Rain, her beautiful post-Katrina album, which she then followed up with Simply Grand, on which she was joined by two generations of admirers, from Dr. John and Randy Newman to Norah Jones and Marcia Ball. But aficionados have loved her a long time for, among other things, recording the original versions of three songs that became big hits for others — "Time is On My Side" (the Rolling Stones), "Ruler of My Heart" (redone by Otis Redding as "Pain in My Heart") and the simply marvelous, Jackie DeShannon-penned, girl-group anthem, "Break-A-Way" (a UK hit for Tracy Ullman). Just as she's done at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for years now, Irma Thomas promises to bring the soul to this year's Detroit International Jazz Fest.

Metro Times:
This year's festival has a theme of "family." It's always seemed like the great musicians of New Orleans were sort of part of an honorary "musical family."

Irma Thomas: You could say that. Growing up in New Orleans, of course, music was everywhere. It was all around. But it's claimed a lot since the storm. The people who made up the original logistics, they're not here anymore. Some of them are gradually working their way back home. But, unfortunately, it will never be the same again, even after they return. Some of the flavor is just going to be slightly changed. But the good thing is that the mentality is still here, fortunately.

MT: You've survived two New Orleans hurricanes over the years. The first took you and your family to California, where you developed your career. And then during Katrina four years ago, the initial news items reported that you and Fats Domino were both lost.

Thomas: [Laughs] That was humbling, to say the least. But I was in Texas! To show you the irony — and that's why I have faith and it reinforced my faith — that was the only gig I had planned for the month of August and it's what took me out of the city that weekend. We left Saturday morning and the storm had not shown any direction at all. It was just kind of lingering in the Gulf. We didn't know where it was headed; it could've gone to Florida. So the band and I took the flight out that morning, thinking we'd come back on Sunday, and, of course, the rest is history.

MT: Didn't you still have family there?

Thomas: Oh, yeah. They all got out, though. We talked Saturday night right before my gig.

MT: I know you lost your nightclub in the storm and your home was very damaged. How's the recovery coming along?

Thomas: Oh, we're back in the house! We decided not to go back into the club business. But we've been back in the house for three years this coming April.

MT: What made you decide to stay in New Orleans after the tragedy?

Thomas: I didn't want to stay anywhere else! The folks in Austin, Texas, were very hospitable to us. They tried to make us as comfortable as anyone could do under the circumstances. Poor Marcia Ball worked her little heart out and tried to make us feel OK with what was going on. And if there had been a choice to be made, I probably would've stayed there. But I always wanted to be home. There really is no place like it.

MT: How's the city's recovery coming along?

Thomas: It's slow. It's very slow. As far as the recovery that's taken place for the people who aren't political folk, they've pretty much been on their own. There hasn't been a lot of financial help that's gone to the people who really need it. Brad Pitt and his wife came down and he's made a large effort to try to get the Lower Ninth Ward up and running for folks trying to get back on their property and helping them build homes that will be able to stand up against the storms. But that's a very slow process as well. The people who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward were the people who gave New Orleans its flavor. A lot of them were musicians and longtime families with longtime traditions. There have been generations of musicians who've been coming out of the area for years and years and years. And a lot of the city's work force came out of that area as well. Quite a few people, though, weren't financially able to have homeowners insurance and those things that help you get back on your feet.

There are many areas where people would like to come home but it's going to take them a while to get financially stable enough to make that happen. There are a few companies that have tried to help financially the best they could. But they are not the conglomerates that can dish out $40,000 or $50,000 at a time. So it's a very slow process. Nevertheless, those of us who want to be here are here. My subdivision is almost 65 percent back now. And a lot of the houses are being sold at prices where people can come in and fix them up so they'll have a nice house when they get done. And the schools are finally starting to get in the position again where people can bring their children back. So it's gradually getting back.

MT: Not to get too political, but I imagine George Bush isn't a popular man in New Orleans these days.

Thomas: But they still try to keep his name in the loop, for whatever reasons, I don't know! I admit there's diehard Southern people who just refuse to accept the fact that the United States could actually elect a black president. And they're going to nitpick him to death because he's a man who's trying to move forward. Yes, it's a lot of debt to be incurred. But there was also a lot of debt before he got there! And at least he's trying to benefit the nation as a whole. They're all rushing to judgment and that's typical. I'm not surprised by that. But they need to realize that, look, the man is trying to get us in a better position than we were in. And rather than nitpicking just because you can and will and have your old way of thinking, give the man an opportunity to show himself. Every move he makes, they've got to nitpick him apart. They didn't nitpick Bush like that! So why you nitpicking him? He's not doing things to try to hurt you; he's trying to help you. He surrounded himself with people who can give him some decent advice and he's trying to weigh the pros and cons. So some of these politicians need to get off their old political stool and work for their people and stop worrying about how it's going to make them look. The hell with how it's going to make you look! Put this nation in a better position to get some respect again!

I'm not saying everything President Obama's done is perfect or is right. But at least he's trying. That's already a helluva lot more than Bush ever did! When Bush got on that plane and flew over us, when we were up to our ears and elbows in water, I thought that was chicken. Because what he should've done was sent some help in here immediately. But he didn't. They were sending help immediately to other countries but they never sent anything immediately here. So why didn't they nitpick Bush over that? They didn't. But they still want to nitpick this man to death because he wants to get health care for everybody. Maybe he needs to rethink the kind of health care he wants to give to his people. But by the same token, at least he's trying!

There are a lot of people who can't afford the health insurance! For me, I've now turned old enough where I don't have to spend that kind of money. But before I got to 65, I was putting out $1500 a month for health insurance! And that's with a $1500 a year deductible! The older I got, the more it went up. So I can just imagine what people are going through in this economy if they're not as old as I am. It's kinda difficult these days not to become political. But as far as I'm concerned, if you're going to nitpick one, then nitpick them all. But they never did with Bush, never put his feet to the fire like they're doing to this man. And I'm not just saying that because he's a black man. Whoever he is, if he's trying to help this country, he deserves the opportunity. Because he's the kind of man who will listen. He's listening to what the people say. If he stops listening, then you've got something to complain about.

We haven't had a president like this in a long time. He listens and he's willing to change. He's been willing to say "I'm wrong about this. Let's take another look at it from another perspective." But then you've got people raising hell who can't even see the big picture. Some of these people in the commercials that are flashing on TV down here are like they've never done their homework. They don't know what the hell they're talking about! They don't even know what the man is trying to do but yet they're saying it's going to hurt them. He's not trying to socialize medicine. He's trying to give people who need insurance an opportunity to be able to afford insurance. That's all he wants to do. But they jump on anything they can sensationalize and use it to scare people. Well, people need to start thinking for themselves and not listen to people who act like they know. And if you don't know something, go online, read a book, make some phone calls. Do what you need to do to get some questions answered before you form an opinion. But people don't want to do that. That requires too much time. [laughs]

And as far as getting us into debt, Bush spent billions of dollars on a war that we didn't need.

MT: He was surely the worst president of my lifetime.

Thomas: Well, he was. And the irony of it is he was in there so long because they let him stay in for another four years. And I'm sure a lot of them who voted for him that time are now pretty darn sorry and kicking themselves in the butt. But by the same token, you have to live with the problems you create. Unfortunately, we all have to suffer because of somebody else not wanting to do the right thing. And it's still gonna take a lot. Whatever President Obama is trying to do, he ain't gonna get it done in the first four years. That should be obvious to anybody. But in all honesty, I don't think we're gonna end up in as much debt as a lot of folks think. I really don't. Because if you look at the bigger picture, businesses will start up again and they'll be rehiring. It will get people busy again. But they're using this excuse that the economy is bad as a crutch to keep doing things the same. And it's so unfair.

MT: I think Obama's already done more good in several months than Bush did in eight years.

Thomas: Amen. But so many people won't look at that side of the picture.

MT: Well, our society still suffers from the scourge of racism. That's part of it.

Thomas: Well, you're always gonna have those who have that old, alcoholic, cronyist racist attitude. And they don't know why they're being that way. They can't give you one legitimate reason. I grew up in a very segregated time. But I've always looked at the person, not the color. I've been that way all my life. And I've had some good reasons to be very prejudiced. But what good is it going to do me? Why would I hate you because of the color of your skin? You haven't personally done me anything. The irony of all this prejudice is when we were working in your kitchen, we had every opportunity to poison you. And we didn't do it, did we? You thought enough of us for us to suckle your children. I mean, they drank our mother's milk — we literally gave you nature's food. And yet you hate me? But we're not too good to feed and change your babies' diapers and clean up behind you and cook? If I was so bad, why didn't I take that opportunity to get rid of you? [laughs] God knows we had the opportunity!

MT: You recorded the original versions of songs that became massive hits when covered by others. And yet, you've never seemed angry or bitter about it.

Thomas: Why should I be? What good would that do me?

MT: It didn't bother you?

Thomas: Of course, it bothered me. But it never made me bitter. But once again, let's go back to the times. Whenever there was a black person who had a record that seemed like it was a hit, they'd always have a white person cover it. [laughs] Think about those Fats Domino hits that Pat Boone tried to cover but wasn't too successful doing.

MT: Oh, those were horrible!

Thomas: [laughs] OK, then. You also had Peggy Lee covering, I think, an Etta James song or something like that. So it was just a sign of the times. They didn't even start putting our pictures on the album covers until the late '60s! My first album came out in '64 and my picture was nowhere on the front of it. They just didn't do it! [laughs] So how can you be bitter when everything we did over the years, somebody copied and did better with it? But I also didn't play all the political games that people had to play back in those days to make it. I just wasn't a part of that scene. I had a family to take care of and singing was a way for me to take care of my family. And so I wanted to be able to look in that mirror and like what I saw when I got up every morning. So if I didn't really make it until now, I'm very thankful that I had lots of time. And if I had made it back then, would I have known how to handle the money? Things may have been different. But they may not have been different because I always had a level head on my shoulders. But one never knows.

So I'm of the belief that nothing happens by happenstance. Everything has a reason. Your life is mapped out for you, whether you like it or not. You still have to do things to make things happen for you — but the course is already mapped out. And so things didn't happen just because it wasn't my time. And then I had time to watch others and learn from their mistakes! [laughs]

I had no reason to be bitter with those folks because it was the norm. And I opened a show for Otis in the year that he did that song. He liked "Ruler of My Heart" and he told me he was going to do it. I thought he was going to do it the same way but, of course, he changed the words a little and then there was a bit of a legal battle over that between him and the writer. But it got resolved and the whole thing was good.

The Rolling Stones saw me in England and they decided to cover my song. And I had no problems with that. The only problems I had was when I'd sing "Time Is on My Side" and then folks would tell me, "You're doing a Rolling Stones song!" No, I'm not! [laughs] If you'd do your homework, you'd know that! It got to the point where I just stopped singing it for a while. But you had to keep in mind that when they did that, the Beatles had already come to the United States and started what they called the British Invasion. So anyone British who covered anything, it was going to be a hit. But one thing I can say about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones — and I can't take it away from them, no matter what — is they always gave credit to those people who they copied. And I think that was very big of them. They never took credit for other people's work. Keith Richards used to say it all the time. He worked with Aaron Neville's son, Ivan, a lot down here. And whenever I saw him, he'd always mention where they got that song from and the whole nine yards. They loved American music, whether it be black or white. And they always gave me credit. So I just always say it was a sign of the times.

MT: You've recorded R&B, blues, gospel and jazz music. How would you label yourself?

Thomas: An entertainer. [laughs] Because I sing it all. I've even sung what you can consider country. I've sung jazz. I've sung pop. The only thing I haven't sung is classical; I haven't sung any opera. But I really consider myself just an entertainer. Because I really do believe in giving my audience what they want. I bring a cheat book along to my gigs in case someone yells out for a song I haven't done in a while. I don't always remember it all. And I don't pretend that I do! I just tell them, "Look, I'm not as young as I used to be. I don't remember everything!" It's more important for me to give my audience what it wants rather than appearing all knowing. I mean, I know what I'm doing. But if I don't know something, I'm not going to stand up there and pretend I do. It's not cheating. It's giving my fans what they want to hear. They'd rather see a real person up there. I'm not 20 years old anymore. My brain doesn't retain like it used to. And I'm not going to get up there and fool anybody as though it does.

MT: You still tour with your own band. Most similar artists just use pickup bands in different cities ...

Thomas: No! Unh, uh! I try to keep the musicians I know who can work well with what I do.

MT: Is it difficult to keep a band together?

Thomas: No, not really. I do wind up taking a lot of jobs that are financially lower than I'd like to because I want to keep my guys working as much as possible. I also give them a reality check that I can't work as much as I used to, either, because, physically, I just can't do it. So I try to do the choice gigs and the ones I think are really going to be fun, to enjoy what we can enjoy and make as much as we can when we can. [laughs]

MT: Did the Grammy for After The Rain help take your career to another level?

Thomas: Oh, it did. It did. It definitely helped. It did start a slow period right after, though, because when you win an award like that, they suddenly think your prices are going to go up exorbitantly. But I never raised my price to the point where I wasn't affordable. I just simply lifted it to the point that I should've been getting for years! [laughs]

Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to mailto:[email protected]