Irma Thomas - New Orleans Soul Queen

Soul Queen of New Orleans

While Kanye West was being stupid at the Grammys Awards show, I was at a local venue taking in “Blues at the Crossroads: The Soul of the Blues.” For me, the featured performer was Irma Thomas, who came on in the middle of the show, between Alecia Chakour, paying tribute to Etta James, and Lee Fields, channeling James Brown. Ms. Thomas returned to the stage to close the show, with the others backing her up on “Time Is On My Side.”

My sister Anne and I saw Irma Thomas at the 2001 Kansas City Blues Festival. The event was held at Penn Valley Park, across Main Street from the Hallmark Cards Center. The event took place on a sweltering July weekend. Anne and I even made the news. The Kansas City Star newspaper published a story about the festival and the people who were crazy enough to sit out in an open field with no shade. Accompanying the story was a picture of Anne and me sitting in our lawn chairs, looking a bit dazed but happy. I remember it being so hot that even beer had little appeal.

Various informal events were scheduled between stage performances. Inside a tent was set up a small stage and folding chairs. Irma and her pianist husband played some songs and chatted with the crowd. She was dressed casually and was agreeable to having her picture taken with her fans. I thought, “She’s a regular person just like us.” That evening, she was on the main stage with her full band, dressed in a sparkling gown, and put on a great show. I no longer was thinking she’s just a regular person. Instead, I was impressed with all the effort she put into that show to entertain us.

The other night’s headliner was Elvin Bishop. In spite of the heat, my sister and I had such a good time that we made plans to attend the next year’s festival. Unfortunately, the Kansas City Blues Festival became defunct before the scheduled 2002 dates.

I remember “Time Is On My Side” was a huge hit for the Rolling Stones. It was many years later when I learned Irma had recorded her version only a few months before. A single mother who had been singing for years, she was looking for this to be her breakout record and put her on the road to major success. It was the the British Invasion, and the Stones’ note-for-note copy buried hers. She did not perform that song for decades, because people thought she was covering the Rolling Stones.

Here is a very interesting interview with Irma Thomas from 2000.

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