"Stay Literally Forever Young": A Conversation with Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans
Irma Thomas is best known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans”. The Grammy award-winning Queen has been performing R&B, Jazz, Gospel, and Soul music in her signature emotive, finely wrought style professionally since the late 1950s.
From being fired from one of her first jobs for ‘singing while working’, to her first Grammy win at age 65, to continuing to record music after 50+ years in the business. . . There’s no stopping Irma Thomas now.
Thomas, who turned 80 in February, has gotten renewed attention due to Black Mirror’s seemingly endless inclusion of her timeless and haunting song, Anyone Who Knows What Loves Is (Will Understand).
To some, Thomas may be almost famous. She’s never risen to the ‘household name’ recognition of her contemporaries but nevertheless has given us a catalog of music that we can all find our joy, pain, unspoken fears, and love in.
In an early May phone conversation, Thomas reflected on her legacy, Louisiana, what she’s still longing to do, and her belief that Soul music is not a genre. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Maya Cade: Well, I’ll jump in: You're a person with a recognizable "That's Irma sound" when you hear your music... What do you think defines that Irma sound?
Irma Thomas: I have no clue. You have to ask somebody who says that. Because it's me, and when I hear myself, I'm very critical in the fact that I said not so much of the tone of my voice, but whatever song I sing, I can hear something else that I could have done with [a] particular line.
MC: I hear you there. That reminds me, I think the concept of what R&B is has shifted over the years. I'm really curious to hear how you see what you've traditionally done stylistically, and what's been done vocally today. Do you like what's being done vocally in R&B today?
IT: Not 100%. I am finding I have a problem with lyrics. 95% of the stuff that I'm hearing, the lyrics don't tell full stories. It's like as if though they found a beat that they liked and they made up some words and they put those words that fit to that beat. But the song doesn't tell a story.
It's rare lately to find a good, strong story in a song among the younger people. Those who've been around a while and… have had experiences, they approach songs differently than the youth of today.
It makes no sense to me, but it makes a lot of sense to them. So if it's successful for them, I can't knock it, but I don't have to agree with it.
"If it doesn't make any sense to you, then it doesn't make any sense to anybody else."
MC: Are there any artists that you gravitate towards when you hear them on the radio?
IT: I don't have a handle for this new age, this generation's perception of what's good music and what's not. Since I don't really like it, I don't listen to it. So if somebody asked me what was the latest song that was in the Top 10, I couldn't tell them because I don't listen to it. I couldn't give you the first song title, because I have no clue.
MC: Do you consider yourself to be a lifelong learner?
IT: Continuously. You're never too old to learn. You're never too old to learn. When you get to the point where you too old to learn or you know everything, then you losing out on a lot. Because even though I don't agree with a lot of the music that the youth of today record, I don't close them completely out because I could learn something. The ones that do catch my attention, I listen to it. It sounds pretty decent. I'll listen to it.
But nevertheless, there may be something there to learn. So I don't shut it out 100%. But like I said, it's not something that I want to listen to on a regular basis.
MC: You're a contemporary of Etta James, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin. If I'm not mistaken, you all got your start around the same time.
IT: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
MC: I'm curious, what does legacy mean to you?
IT: Well, like you said, a lot of my contemporaries was around the same time I was and the foundation that we laid is what the youth of today is trying to glean from and think they're coming up with something new, when there really isn't that much new under the sun. But at least we give them something to listen to, that if they pay attention and really listen to it the way they should, in terms of trying to have a good storyline and tell a good story, then there's a lot to be had there. That would be the legacy that we're leaving behind.
But in all honesty, when we were recorded back in those days, we weren't thinking about legacy. When you go into the studio even now, we don't think legacy. We think recording a good piece of music that makes sense to you and to everyone who may listen. If it doesn't make any sense to you, then it doesn't make any sense to anybody else. I can't sing a song that doesn't make sense to me.
MC: Listen, I love that. I love that. Do you think it's fair to say your legacy is all in the story you've told in your songs?
IT: I would dare say that wouldn't be too far off the mark. No, it wouldn't be too far off the mark. But like I said, I don't look at it as a legacy. I look at it as a song that I enjoy telling that storyline and that I could to some way or another, relate to it because it's life. Those songs, when I go into the studio with a song, I don't choose a song just on the beat. I also choose it for its content because I have to live with that song. Somebody is going to ask me to repeat that song again. I don't want to have to tell them, "Well, no, I don't like it. I'm not going to sing it."
MC: Are there any songs you’ve recorded that you won’t sing?
IT: I've only got one song that I [won’t do]... A song that I recorded called It's A Man's Woman's World. I don't sing that song because I don't like it. First of all, I did it under protest. James Brown wanted me to sing it and he didn't have any lyrics written out. He just told me to say anything that was coming in my head and that's exactly how it came out. So I don't repeat that song because it was nothing that came from within. It was just something made, and he thought it was great. I thought it was horrible.
MC: Oh, my God. Do you remember the last time you performed it?
IT: Not since the studio. I meant I wasn't singing it again and I have not sung it again.
MC: Listen, I know that's right. When you stick to your principles-
IT: Of course. If you don't have principles, you don't have anything.
MC: I’ve read many of your interviews now and you describe soul music as a feeling, not a genre.
IT: Exactly... Soul is not a genre. It is a feeling. It's what you feel when you're doing what you love. It's strange that I have to explain to people what Soul is, because if they have any faith and have any knowledge of religion, as far as biblical teachings, it says when you die, you're absent from the body, but you're with God, meaning that your body is still here, but your Soul is with God. That's your essence. Your living essence is your Soul. So it's not a genre. It can't be a genre. Soul is whatever you enjoy and love doing as a part of your being. It's just beautiful.
MC: It is, it is. As an avid TV and film watcher, I often think about how soul music is the universal language on TV.
IT: Oh, it is.
MC: Your music is often used as the universal language of emotional weight and turmoil. What do you think about that?
IT: I'm glad they're using it. That's what I think about that. They capture what I was what I was feeling or what I do feel, expressing that particular piece of music. I was blessed in that they used a song that I recorded back in 1964 for [the TV show] called Black Mirror. I recorded Anyone Who Knows What Love Is back in 1964. I was 23 years old when I recorded that song. They used it for, I guess they're still using it as far as I know of. I don't really watch Black Mirror because the one time I watched it, I didn't quite get what the story was about. But I was happy in that they were using the song because it was tastefully used. It was my version of the song, rather than getting somebody else to sing it.
MC: On accreditation... Do you feel like you've carved out your niche? In music, you feel like you have done all you wanted to do?
IT: No. I want to still record. I don't want to stop recording. In fact, I'm hoping and looking forward to having another recording session some time in my future. In fact, just before the beginning of the pandemic, I had just finished the recording of vinyl, called Love Is The Foundation. It's an album. They released it this past November. I did a lot of covers of some songs that I liked from back in the day. I covered Our Day Will Come and several other songs, some Little Willie John material.
MC: Do you ever have thoughts of retiring?
IT: I don't plan on retiring. Why should I? I'm having too much fun, if there's such a thing as having too much fun.Let me put it this way, I am enjoying the fact that I'm still able to perform and sing with some qualities still in my voice, because I know folk who are my age can barely talk, let alone sing.
IT: I just had my 80th birthday in February. As far as I'm concerned, I'm going to be around till the good Lord calls me home, but I'm going to keep doing what I was blessed to do. That's using my voice to bring some joy to somebody. I've been blessed to be able to have done that.
MC: For sure. Something I want to know is... What does New Orleans mean to you right now... in these pandemic times?
IT: It's home. That sums it up. It's home. It's my comfort zone. I could live, I could adjust anywhere. It's just that it probably would never, I would never get adjusted New York to live there. I enjoy it when I'm there. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy New York to the fullest. As they say, I get my bite out of the Big Apple. But in terms of being there on a permanent basis… [But] as they said in the Wizard of Oz, there's no place like home.
MC: Listen, that's right.
IT: I've known folks when we had the club, who came to New Orleans, supposedly for a weekend during Jazz Fest, wound up staying a month, then going back to their place where they were living and packing up all ... They'd just pack up and move back and find an apartment or buy a piece of property and live here because New Orleans is one of those cities that is very hospitable. They will welcome you. They welcome strangers as if they're their family. That hasn't change in spite of what people think. That has not changed.
"Until the point comes to where it becomes a chore to do, I'm going to continue to do it."
MC: We are so blessed because that has not changed.
IT: Are we? Yes, we are. I hope it never does because we should have somewhere that we can visit, even if we don't stay any long length of time, that we are greeted with open arms and made to feel welcomed wherever. That makes a vacation of vacation when you can go and be treated special like family, even though they may not know you, they never met you before and their lives. They treat you like family, invite you to places that normally, you're not accustomed to being invited. Let's go have a drink. "Come, go home with me. My mom got this or we have this, and we'll share this meal with you." That's New Orleans.
MC: It is. Yeah, that's why I'm just so excited to return home to New Orleans soon, you’ve certainly reminded me. I do want to ask, what encourages you to keep going?
IT: My spirit, I have faith. I was blessed with a gift, and why not? I could sit around and roll and it won't be gracefully. It would be aggravating because I'm not used to keeping still. I don't exercise the way I used to. I should, but I don't because I'm getting lazy, but I'm entitled.
MC: You're entitled to rest.
IT: I'm entitled to be lazy if I want to be, but I'm not one that just totally has given up because I've gotten older, because I don't know how you're supposed to feel at 80. My body tells me you can't do a lot of things that you're used to do. I can do them. It just takes me longer to get it done. But why should I resign myself to not doing anything? Until the point comes to where it becomes a chore to do, I'm going to continue to do it.
MC: That's beautiful. Is there anything you want to leave the people with before we conclude our interview?
IT: Well, other than what you've asked, I'm going to be Irma till Irma is gone. I don't see any reason to change, in terms of how I feel about life. It's a gift and I'm going to enjoy it. I'm going to continue singing in my church choir, like I do every Sunday when I'm in town and when I'm home and I've been home a lot, so I'm at church every Sunday, and enjoy life and enjoy my grandchildren.
MC: Oh, what a blessing.
IT: I feel so blessed to be around, to actually experience and see that happen. So as far as I'm concerned, I'll leave you with this. It's a song that I sing at the end of my shows because that's how I feel about my audience. I want them to stay mentally forever young.
IT: Because when you stop thinking like you're young, like a young person, then you've gotten too old. I'm still learning the technology, how to maneuver around with the technology that's out now. I don't shy away from it. I'm not afraid of it. It's the way of life then it's the life that you're going to have to get used to. So I'm embracing it.
MC: Irma Thomas is embracing life.
IT: Stay literally forever young. That's what I leave you with.
Maya S. Cade is a writer and screenwriter from New Orleans living in Brooklyn. She can be found endlessly tweeting about film, music, and the future at @mayascade.