Irma Thomas

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Irma Thomas
Thomas at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, 2006
Background information
Birth nameIrma Lee
Also known asSoul Queen of New Orleans
Born (1941-02-18) February 18, 1941 (age 81)
Ponchatoula, Louisiana, U.S.
  • Singer
  • songwriter
Years active1959–present

Irma Thomas (née Lee; born February 18, 1941)[1][2] is an American singer from New Orleans.[3] She is known as the "Soul Queen of New Orleans".[2]

Thomas is a contemporary of Aretha Franklin and Etta James, but never experienced their level of commercial success.[2] In 2007, she won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album for After the Rain, her first Grammy in a career spanning over 50 years.[4]

Life and career[edit]

Born Irma Lee, in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, United States,[5] she was the daughter of Percy Lee, a steel chipper, and Vader Lee, who worked as a maid.[6] As a teenager, she sang with a Baptist church choir. She auditioned for Specialty Records at the age of 13. By the time she was 19, she had been married twice and had four children. Keeping her second ex-husband's surname, she worked as a waitress in New Orleans, occasionally singing with bandleader Tommy Ridgley, who helped her land a record deal with the local Ron label. Her first single, "Don't Mess with My Man",[5] was released in late 1959, and reached number 22 on the US Billboard R&B chart.[2]

She then began recording on the Minit label, working with songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint on songs including "It's Raining" and "Ruler of My Heart", which was later reinterpreted by Otis Redding as "Pain in My Heart".[5] Imperial Records acquired Minit in 1963, and a string of successful releases followed. These included "Wish Someone Would Care", her biggest national hit;[5] its B-side "Breakaway", written by Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheely (later covered by Tracey Ullman, among others).

"Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)" was co-written by a young Randy Newman and future country star Jeannie Seely. This song has gained renewed appreciation as a result of its inclusion in numerous episodes of the science fiction anthology television series Black Mirror, stretching back to the first season.[7] On its B-side is "Time Is on My Side",[5] a song previously recorded by Kai Winding and later by the Rolling Stones.[2]

Her first four Imperial singles all charted on Billboard's pop chart, but her later releases were less successful.[2] Unlike her contemporaries Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick, she never managed to cross over into mainstream commercial success. She recorded for Chess Records in 1967–1968 with some success; her version of the Otis Redding song "Good to Me" reached the R&B chart.[5][2] She then relocated to California, releasing records on various small labels, before returning to Louisiana, and in the early 1980s opened the Lion's Den Club.[2]

Down by Law, the 1986 independent film by Jim Jarmusch featured "It's Raining" in the soundtrack.[8] The film's actors Roberto Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi, whose characters fell in love in the movie, danced to the song.

After several years' break from recording, she was signed by Rounder Records, and in 1991 earned her first Grammy Award nomination for Live! Simply the Best, recorded in San Francisco.[9] She subsequently released a number of traditional gospel albums, together with more secular recordings. The album Sing It! (1998) was nominated for a Grammy in 1999.[2]

Thomas is still active as a performer as of 2021, appearing annually at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (and was scheduled to appear at the iterations that were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic).[10][11] She reigned as Queen of the Krewe du Vieux for the 1998 New Orleans Mardi Gras season.[12] She often headlined at her own club, but it went out of business due to Hurricane Katrina, which caused her to relocate to Gonzales, Louisiana, 60 miles (97 km) from New Orleans.[13] According to her website she is now[when?] back in her home in New Orleans.[citation needed]

Thomas appearing with James Taylor and others in 2008

Thomas is interviewed on screen and appears in performance footage in the 2005 documentary film Make It Funky!, which presents a history of New Orleans music and its influence on rhythm and blues, rock and roll, funk and jazz.[14] In the film, she performed "Old Records" with Allen Toussaint.[15]

In April 2007, Thomas was honored for her contributions to Louisiana music with induction into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.[16] Also in 2007, Thomas accepted an invitation to participate in Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino where, singing with Marcia Ball, she contributed "I Just Can't Get New Orleans Off My Mind".[17] The same year she won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album for After the Rain.[4]

In August 2009, a compilation album with three new songs titled The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary Celebration was released from Rounder Records to commemorate Thomas' 50th year as a recording artist.[18]

Thomas was the subject of the 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival poster. She was chosen as the subject before the painting was chosen for the poster. Artist Douglas Bourgeois painted the singer in 2006.[19] In 2010, Thomas rode in the New Orleans parade "Grela". In April that year, Thomas performed at the Corner Hotel, Richmond, Victoria, Australia.

In 2011, Thomas performed twice at the Bluesfest music festival in Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia.[20] On April 24, she performed on the Crossroads stage, coming on after Mavis Staples; then on April 25, she headlined the Crossroads stage, coming on after Jethro Tull and Osibisa.

In 2013, Thomas was nominated for a Blues Music Award in the "Soul Blues Female Artist" category,[21] which she duly won.[22] She won the same award in 2014.[23]

In 2018, Thomas received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance at the Americana Music Honors & Awards.[24]

Artists worked with[edit]




Year A-side B-side Record label and catalog reference US chart statistics[28]
1959 "Don't Mess with My Man" "Set Me Free" Ron Records 328 No. 22 – R&B
1959 "A Good Man" "I May Be Wrong" Ron Records 330
1961 "Girl Needs Boy" "Cry On" Minit Records 625
1961 "It's Too Soon to Know" "That's All I Ask" Minit Records 633
1962 "Gone" "I Done Got Over It" Minit Records 642
1962 "It's Raining" "I Did My Part" Minit Records 653
1962 "Two Winters Long" "Somebody Told Me" Minit Records 660
1963 "Ruler of My Heart" "Hittin' on Nothing" Minit Records 666
1963 "For Goodness Sake" "Whenever (Look Up)" Bandy Records 368
1963 "Foolish Girl" "When I Met You" Bumba Records 711
1964 "Wish Someone Would Care" "Breakaway" Imperial Records 66013 No. 17 – Pop
1964 "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)" "Time Is on My Side" Imperial Records 66041 No. 52 – Pop
1964 "Times Have Changed" "Moments to Remember" Imperial Records 66069 No. 98 – Pop
1964 "He's My Guy" "(I Want A) True, True Love" Imperial Records 66080 No. 63 – Pop
1965 "Some Things You Never Get Used To" "You Don't Miss a Good Thing" Imperial Records 66095
1965 "I'm Gonna Cry Till My Tears Run Dry" "Nobody Wants to Hear Nobody's Troubles" Imperial Records 66106
1965 "It's Starting to Get to Me Now" "Hurt's All Gone" Imperial Records 66120
1965 "Take a Look" "What Are You Trying to Do" Imperial Records 66137
1966 "It's a Man's-Woman's World (part 1)" "It's a Man's-Woman's World (part 2)" Imperial Records 66178
1967 "Somewhere Crying" "Cheater Man" Chess Records 2010
1967 "A Woman Will Do Wrong" "I Gave You Everything" Chess Records 2017
1968 "Good to Me" "We Got Something Good" Chess Records 2036 No. 42 – R&B
1970 "Save a Little Bit For Me" "That's How I Feel About You" Canyon Records 21
1971 "I'd Do It All Over You" "We Won't Be in Your Way Anymore" Canyon Records 31
1972 "Full Time Woman" "She's Taking My Part" Cotillion Records 41444
1973 "She'll Never Be Your Wife" "You're the Dog" Fungus Records 15119
1973 "In Between Tears (part 1)" "In Between Tears (part 2)" Fungus Records 15141
1974 "Coming from Behind (part 1)" "Coming from Behind (part 2)" Fungus Records 15353
1977 "Don't Blame Him" "Breakaway" Maison de Soul 1012
1978 "Hip Shakin' Mama" "Hittin' on Nothin'" Maison de Soul 1058
1979 "Safe With Me" "Zero Willpower" RCS Records 1006
1980 "Take What You Find" "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" RCS Records 1008
1980 "A Woman Left Lonely" "Dance Me Down Easy" RCS Records 1010
1981 "Looking Back" "Don't Stop" RCS Records 1013
1988 "Mardi Gras Mambo" "I Believe Saints Go All the Way" Sound of New Orleans 10311


2013 "For The Rest Of My Life" "Forever Young" Swamp Island



Year Title Record label Notes
1964 Wish Someone Would Care Imperial
1966 Take a Look Imperial
1973 In Between Tears Fungus
1977 Irma Thomas Live – New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Island
1978 Soul Queen of New Orleans Maison de Soul
1979 Safe with Me RCS
1981 In Between Tears Charly Reissue of Fungus LP
1981 Hip Shakin' Mama Charly Reissue of Island LP
1984 Down at Muscle Shoals Chess/P-Vine from 1967/68 for Chess
1986 The New Rules Rounder
1988 The Way I Feel Rounder
1991 Live: Simply the Best Rounder
1992 True Believer Rounder
1993 Walk Around Heaven: New Orleans Gospel Soul Rounder
1993 Turn My World Around Shanachie
1997 The Story of My Life Rounder
1998 Sing It! Rounder with Marcia Ball & Tracy Nelson
2000 My Heart's in Memphis: The Songs of Dan Penn Rounder
2006 After the Rain Rounder
2008 Simply Grand Rounder /Decca
2014 Full Time Woman – The Lost Cotillion Album RGM/Rhino from 1971/72 for Atlantic/Cotillion


Compilation albums[edit]

Year Title Record label Notes
1979 Irma Thomas Sings Bandy Bandy/Minit recordings
1983 Time Is on My Side Kent Minit/Imperial recordings
1986 Break-A-Way: The Best of Irma Thomas Legendary Masters Series (EMI-USA)
1987 BreakaWay Stateside Minit/Imperial recordings
1990 Something Good: The Muscle Shoals Sessions MCA/Chess Chess recordings
1991 Safe with Me/Irma Thomas Live Paula
1992 Time Is on My Side: The Best of Irma Thomas Volume 1 EMI-USA Minit/Imperial
1996 Ruler of Hearts Charly Minit/Bandy/Island
1996 Sweet Soul Queen of New Orleans: The Irma Thomas Collection Razor & Tie Minit/Imperial
1996 Time Is on My Side Kent Expanded version of 1983 LP
2001 If You Want It, Come and Get It Rounder
2005 Straight from the Soul Stateside Minit/Imperial
2006 A Woman's Viewpoint: The Essential 1970s Recordings Ace Fungus/Canyon/RCS
2006 Wish Someone Would Care/Take a Look Collectables Imperial
2009 The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary Celebration Rounder Three previously unreleased, out of fifteen tracks


Guest appearances[edit]

Year Title Artist Label Notes
1993 Blues Summit B.B. King MCA Duet on "We're Gonna Make It"[32]
2005 I Believe to My Soul Various artists Rhino Singing "Loving Arms"[33]
2005 Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast Various artists Elektra/Nonesuch Singing "Back Water Blues"[34]
2006 Sing Me Back Home The New Orleans Social Club Burgundy/Honey Darling Duet with Marcia Ball on "Look Up"[35]
2007 Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino Various artists Vanguard Duet with Marcia Ball on "I Can't Get New Orleans Off My Mind"[17]
2010 Ya-Ka-May Galactic Anti- Vocals on "Heart of Steel"[36]
2011 Let Them Talk Hugh Laurie Warner Bros. Vocals on "John Henry" and "Baby, Please Make a Change"[37]


Year Title Notes
1978 Always for Pleasure
2005 Make It Funky!
2006 New Orleans Music in Exile
2010 Treme TV series


  1. ^ Jeff Hannusch (1985). I Hear You Knockin : The Sound of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues. Swallow Publications. ISBN 978-0961424503. I was born in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, February 18, 1941
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Ankeny, Jason. "Biography: Irma Thomas". AllMusic. Retrieved May 16, 2010.
  3. ^ Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 181. ISBN 1-904041-96-5.
  4. ^ a b "Irma Thomas". May 14, 2017. Retrieved August 22, 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Colin Larkin, ed. (1997). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (Concise ed.). Virgin Books. p. 1175. ISBN 1-85227-745-9.
  6. ^ 1950 United States Federal Census, New Orleans, Orleans County, Louisiana, E.D. Number 36-504, p. 43-44
  7. ^ "Here's Why You Hear That One Song Over and Over in 'Black Mirror'". February 11, 2018. Retrieved April 16, 2018.
  8. ^ "Down by Law (1986) : Soundtracks". Retrieved August 23, 2017.
  9. ^ "Irma Thomas – Soul Express 4/1994". Retrieved September 21, 2015.
  10. ^ "The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival : Line-up : Irma osThomas". Retrieved August 23, 2017.
  11. ^ Clapp, Jake (July 15, 2021). "New Orleans Jazz Fest 2021: Here's the daily lineup and how to buy single-day tickets". Gambit. Retrieved November 13, 2021.
  12. ^ Lind, Angus (February 1, 1998). "The Passing Parade". Times-Picayune. New Orleans, LA. p. E1.
  13. ^ Simon, Scott (July 1, 2006). "A Visit with the Soul Queen of New Orleans". Weekend Edition Saturday (NPR).
  14. ^ "IAJE What's Going On". Jazz Education Journal. Manhattan, Kansas: International Association of Jazz Educators. 37 (5): 87. April 2005. ISSN 1540-2886. ProQuest 1370090.
  15. ^ Make It Funky! (DVD). Culver City, California: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. 2005. ISBN 9781404991583. OCLC 61207781. 11952.
  16. ^ Shepherd, Mike. "Louisiana Music Hall of Fame – IRMA THOMAS – 2007". Retrieved August 23, 2017.
  17. ^ a b "Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino – Various Artists – Songs, Reviews, Credits – AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved August 22, 2017.
  18. ^ "The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary – Irma Thomas – Songs, Reviews, Credits – AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved August 22, 2017.
  19. ^ "Art critic calls 2008 Jazzfest poster 'the best ever'". Retrieved August 23, 2017.
  20. ^ "Byron Bay Bluesfest 2011". December 1, 2010. Retrieved August 23, 2017.
  21. ^ "Blues Music Awards Nominees – 2013 – 34th Blues Music Awards". Retrieved March 21, 2013.
  22. ^ "Blues Music Awards – Past Years". Archived from the original on October 26, 2010. Retrieved May 24, 2013.
  23. ^ "2014 Blues Music Awards Nominees and Winners". Retrieved May 16, 2014.
  24. ^ "AMA Awards". Archived from the original on October 18, 2012. Retrieved December 6, 2012.
  25. ^ Hannusch, John (2001). The Soul of New Orleans, a Legacy of Rhythm and Blues. Swallow Publications. ISBN 978-0961424589.
  26. ^ ""Times Have Changed But That Don't Make 'Em Better-Interview With Irma Thomas"". Retrieved January 19, 2021.
  27. ^ Sinclair, John. "Irma Thomas: An Audience with the Soul Queen of New Orleans". Retrieved May 16, 2014.
  28. ^ "Irma Thomas – Chart history – Billboard". Retrieved August 23, 2017.
  29. ^ "Irma Thomas: A discography of US singles". Retrieved May 16, 2014.
  30. ^ "Irma Thomas". Retrieved May 12, 2020.
  31. ^ a b "Irma Thomas – Album Discography – AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved August 22, 2017.
  32. ^ "Blues Summit – B.B. King – Songs, Reviews, Credits – AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved August 22, 2017.
  33. ^ "I Believe to My Soul – Various Artists – Songs, Reviews, Credits – AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved August 22, 2017.
  34. ^ "Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast – Various Artists – Songs, Reviews, Credits – AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved August 22, 2017.
  35. ^ "Sing Me Back Home – The New Orleans Social Club – Songs, Reviews, Credits – AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved August 22, 2017.
  36. ^ "Ya-Ka-May – Galactic – Songs, Reviews, Credits – AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved August 22, 2017.
  37. ^ "Let Them Talk – Hugh Laurie – Songs, Reviews, Credits – AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved August 22, 2017.

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