The Soul Queen of New Orleans got turned down at her first audition with Minit record executives in the late 1950s. To hear her tell it, they were lucky they got a second.
"I had proven myself a viable artist by then," Irma Thomas says, recounting the sequence of events that led to her Minit callback in the early '60s. Between the two tryouts she had recorded a hit single, "(You Can Have My Husband But) Don't Mess With My Man," for the New Orleans imprint Ronn Records. Her first Ronn audition, set up by singer and friend Tommy Ridgley, also had a side note: Thomas — then a teenage dancer at the High Hat Club in the Treme, where Ridgley played — didn't show.
"I didn't believe him," she says, laughing. "[Ridgley] was the one who more or less saved my butt [by] getting me into the business. Because I had gotten fired while singing with his band, singing on the job. Which was my second firing for doing that."
Even after five decades of iconic recordings — celebrated this week with the Rounder Records release The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary Celebration — Thomas, now 68, finds little irony in the notion that she could be rejected at an audition. Or that she could be fired — twice — for singing. Her mindset in those salad days, as a single mother raising three young children, was too pragmatic.
"My youngest was about 13 months old — who's now 51," she says. "When you're about 17 or 18 years old and you're naive about the business itself, you're just tickled that you're in the recording studio. You're never thinking beyond that day or that moment, because you never realize that day how important those memories would be to you. You're just thinking about, here's an opportunity that you can feed your family."
She also declines to assess her career in the kinds of stages attached by critics and fans: the mid-'60s Minit/Imperial recording sessions of songs by Allen Toussaint and Jerry Ragovoy, including singles "It's Raining," "Ruler of My Heart" and "Time Is on My Side"; moving to California after Hurricane Camille and dropping off the pop radar for much of the '70s; then relocating back to New Orleans in 1976, opening the Lion's Den club with husband and manager Emile Jackson, and returning to the limelight via a 1986 collaboration with Rounder producer Scott Billington, The New Rules, kick-starting a 25-year partnership that has resulted in 10 studio albums and three Grammy nods.
Asked whether the title of a 2007 compilation, Two Phases of Irma Thomas, was missing a few phases, Thomas laughs. "Who takes time to divide their livelihood up into phases? I don't. To me it's an everyday occurrence. Every day I wake up and I'm still alive and well, having a viable career, I'm thankful. It's humbling. I learned to appreciate the fact that there's so many who started before me — and some after me — who are not here. So I feel very blessed in that I'm still able to do it, and put on a pretty decent show that people still enjoy."
It's practically common law in the Crescent City that the Soul Queen deserves a larger audience outside of New Orleans. A vocal talent commensurate with superstar contemporaries like Aretha Franklin, Thomas watched several of her songs find greater fame as reinterpretations: Otis Redding turned "Ruler of My Heart" into the anchor of his debut album, Pain in My Heart, and the Rolling Stones co-opted "Time Is on My Side" nearly note-for-note. It's enough to make even the most modest singer a little sore.
"I never had to worry about somebody saying that I was doing an Otis Redding song, because people were well aware, locally, that I had done 'Ruler of My Heart' first," Thomas says. "But now, on the other hand, when I did 'Time Is on My Side,' I toured the U.K. in '66. Well, the Rolling Stones didn't record [it] until late '67. ... I wasn't angry at the Rolling Stones; I was just pissed because the general public refused to do their homework.
"That was the time of the British Invasion," she adds, some derision clinging to her words. "Just because the British did it, didn't make them the owner of it, you know?"
As for Mick Jagger's mewling version?
"Well, he can't sing, but he's laughing all the way to the bank," Thomas says, letting loose another of her throaty laughs. "I still say the man can't sing."