Irma Thomas, Soul Queen of New Orleans, at 80: ‘I’m living fine, as far as I’m concerned’
Irma Thomas turned 80 this week. The obligatory references to her classic single “Time Is On My Side” are still appropriate.
Like Aaron Neville, who notched his 80th in January, the Soul Queen of New Orleans is in good health, good spirits and good voice. She and her husband, Emile Jackson, still live in the brick ranch-style home in New Orleans East they occupied before, and rebuilt after, Hurricane Katrina.
At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in March, Thomas performed one song at a wedding. Since then, she has taped a few holiday webcasts, but hasn’t performed for a live audience except in church.
She was the subject of a house float during this year’s COVID-curtailed Mardi Gras. A locally produced documentary about her is slated to air on WLAE this fall, coinciding with the rescheduled New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
After watching her morning game shows, she spoke recently about her childhood in the country, her socially distanced church choir and why she hasn’t listened to her new album yet.
What does turning 80 mean to you?
Just thankful that I’m still alive. When you’re past 60, you start taking stock. In this business, you’re blessed to live past your 60s or 70s. Several people who were already in the business back when I started out lived to be well into their 80s and were still performing. I feel blessed that I’m among those who can still do it at my age.
When you were coming up, I’m sure 80 seemed like an inconceivable age.
When I was coming up, 50 looked like an inconceivable number. When you’re young, everybody older than you seems old! (laughs)
Do you generally feel pretty good?
I feel fine. Life is what it is. You’re thankful for each day that you can still take care of yourself and move about. You’re a little slower but you can still get things done. I’m grateful that I’m not where I have to have somebody come in and help me do things. I feel pretty good about being 80.
How’s your voice?
It’s still good. I sing every Sunday in my church. I’m still in the church choir. We belong to a small church where we don’t have a lot of people, so we can do the social distances and have a good service.
We have a choir of three, sometimes four, who show up. I’m still singing and still soloing, cause somebody has to do the solos. All of us in the choir are lead singers, so that makes it easy for the choir director.
Three people sounds more like a trio than a choir.
Oh, we make it sound like a choir. Trust me.
We have social distancing in the choir. This past Sunday, I did a couple songs with my mask still on. We still have our rehearsals every Saturday. We’ve been doing it since this (pandemic) started and so far none of us have gotten ill, thank God.
How much do you miss performing?
I miss it a lot. You miss the ambiance of having your audience right there and having people that you can see and perform for. The adrenaline you get from the people makes a big difference in terms of your performances.
In addition to your secular show on Jazz Fest’s Acura Stage, you also perform in the Gospel Tent, where you sometimes break down.
To me, gospel music is prayer in song. You can get connected to it very easy. I was raised in the church. If you didn’t do anything else on Sunday, you went to Sunday school. It’s instilled in me. That’s how I survived all these years, through my faith and being brought up in the church and still being a strong participant. There are certain things I don’t do because of my faith.
And I was blessed to find a good husband to be my backbone. So I’m living fine, as far as I’m concerned.
You were raised Baptist?
It was a combination of all of it. I went to Catholic school. I graduated from preschool from a Methodist church. When we lived in the country, we attended a Methodist church. When I came back to the city as a child, the closest church was a Baptist church, so that’s where I wound up being baptized.
I’m connected with all of the faiths. They’re all serving the same God. The person you have faith in is Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter what your denomination is.
When did you live in the country?
Between Greensburg and Hammond is where I lived as a small child. My dad took me out there before I turned 5 and I stayed there until I was 9. My parents both worked in New Orleans. My dad was working for a steel company and my mom was working for Southern Bell Telephone Company. They both had pretty good jobs.
I didn’t have any siblings, and babysitters weren’t trustworthy back then. They left me with a lady and whatever she gave me made me sick. So my dad decided he wasn’t going to deal with no babysitters anymore.
He took me to stay with his mother in Greensburg. She passed away the same year. One of his sisters was living with his mom, so I stayed with her for a short time. I did a year in Hammond with my great aunt and uncle because that was the strawberry area and it looked like a fun place to live. I wound up back in Greensburg before I came back to New Orleans.
Think how different your life might have been if you hadn’t come back to New Orleans.
Well, I was a city girl living in the country. All of my early childhood training was in the city. The country was a strange situation for me to get adjusted to. But as a child, you adjust to your surroundings because you don’t have much choice. You either live it or you don’t.
My parents decided that’s where they wanted me to be at that time, so I gleaned what I could from living out there. I learned a lot by living in the country. I know how to plant food to eat. Push comes to shove, I can be a gardener. I used to grow stuff in my yard when I had the time to deal with it, but I haven’t planted anything in four or five years.
Did you go to high school at all?
No. I’m only 15 years older than my oldest kid. I finished junior high, eighth grade, at McDonogh 41. I started ninth grade but it was only a couple weeks.
And then you got pregnant and you didn’t go back.
They didn’t let you. You weren’t allowed to back then, unlike now where they’re graduating eight and nine months pregnant. You couldn’t do that back in the day.
So until you went to Delgado Community College later in life, that was your last formal schooling?
That was my last formal training. I took a GED test when I lived in California and I passed it. When I moved back to New Orleans, at 45, I decided to go back to school and try to get a degree of some kind. I was touring, so I would take a few classes when I was home during a break. I was starting and stopping. It took me over a 15-year period to get a two-year degree, but I was determined to get it.
Has your business degree been useful?
Very useful. I learned a lot about the business aspects of show business. It’s exactly what it says. Literally it’s a show, but it’s also a business.
When you were coming up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, many artists didn’t grasp that.
A lot of things was kept from you. You weren’t told a lot of things on purpose. Nobody schooled you on how much money you could be making, because they’re trying to keep money in their pockets as opposed to putting it in your pocket.
Do you make royalties on your old recordings?
Yeah, thanks to Ruth Brown. Before she passed away, she sued Atlantic Records for some past royalties. Other record companies, to keep from being sued, started giving money to artists. Right after Katrina, I started getting my royalties a lot better. Some of the companies who was holding royalties for me said they couldn’t find me. I said, “I don’t know why you couldn’t find me. Anybody in New Orleans could have told you where I was.” (laughs)
Anything I’ve ever done in terms of TV shows, I’ll get little royalty checks for 98 cents, a dollar and a half. It’s funny — they take out the withholding and the social security. (laughs)
When the British TV show “Black Mirror” used your song “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand),” you probably got a decent check.
I got a nice sized check. We got a nice surprise with that one. They’ve used “Time Is On My Side.” I still get residuals from that album because a lot of movies use songs from it.
I’m a lifetime member of the American Federation of Musicians, so I get my pension checks from them. Sometimes, you can pay a light bill with it. (laughs) At least I get something.
You, Little Freddie King, Jon Cleary and Ellis Marsalis Jr. made new recordings last year for a box set on Newvelle Records, which specializes in high-quality vinyl LPs.
The young man, Ben (Chace, the album’s producer), called me and had these songs he wanted me to record on vinyl. I picked through the ones I liked and we decided on how many and went into Esplanade Studios and did it (in January 2020), just before the COVID thing started.
It’s a great portrait of you on the front cover.
It looks like me. (laughs)
The huge picture of you inside the gatefold album is also very nice.
I haven’t opened it yet.
I don’t know. I just haven’t found the need to open it. I was on the recording session, so I know what it sounds like. (laughs) I have something to play it on, I just haven’t bothered to play it yet. If I could stay off the Game Show Network, I probably would listen to it. (laughs)
What’s your favorite game show?
I’m always going to be a “Jeopardy” fan and I love “The Price Is Right.” You learn stuff from “Jeopardy.” They have another show on the Game Show Network called “Common Knowledge.” They ask questions about things you should already know. There’s another one called “America Says,” which I like. These are things where you can actually learn information.
At 80, you’ve earned the right to watch as many game shows as you want.
I hope so! (laughs) I don’t have any gigs to prepare for, so I just look at the game shows. Every now and then, I’ll listen to some of my old music to get it back in my head so I won’t totally forget — in case something does come up, I’ll be prepared. But when you don’t have any gigs coming up, to have rehearsals … to me it doesn’t make any sense. (I’d rather) do something here in the house to kill the time. And that’s watch TV.
Do you have plans for another record?
I really don’t know. There’s some people who told Emile that they would like to do a record on me, but then you never hear from them again. I don’t actually have a Christmas album. We may consider going in the studio in the summer and record a Christmas album.
A lot of people are doing streaming, but I don’t know a lot about that. My audience is in the category near my age, so a lot of them are not that savvy when it comes to this technical music situation. We’re still learning how to operate all this stuff. Whenever I need help, I call one of our children. Once they show me how to do it, I’m okay with it. I enjoy learning.