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The Hits, the Hurricane, and the Integrated Experience: R&B Great Irma Thomas Talks to CPI

The Hits, the Hurricane, and the Integrated Experience: R&B Great Irma Thomas Talks to CPI
It’s true Irma Thomas is a living legend of American Rhythm & Blues music, but she is also the embodiment of a principle central to CPI’s Crisis Development Model℠—the Integrated Experience. In the words of Jeff DeMars, CPI Meritorious Instructor and Conference Committee Chair:

Ms. Irma Thomas is noted and recognized throughout the United States and maybe even beyond the United States as the Soul Queen of New Orleans. And when you think of jazz and blues, you think of Irma Thomas. The reason why we invited Irma Thomas is because she was the Integrated Experience when we were hit with Hurricane Katrina. Many of us were deciding if we should come back after that disaster and trauma that we had been through.
 
But Irma set the pace with Integrated Experience; her attitude and behavior was ‘I'm going back in New Orleans, where my home is, and I'm going to rebuild.’ And she lost her nightclub, her house, and it was all over the news about Irma Thomas. It was global. I'm going to talk about the news; it was a global feature about Irma Thomas. And that set the pace for every one of us from New Orleans. And that's the power of the Integrated Experience.”

Recently, Terry Vittone, host of the CPI podcast series, Unrestrained, had an opportunity to call Irma at her home in New Orleans and get a first-hand account of her music and her experiences during and after Hurricane Katrina.

So, then, please enjoy this insightful and moving interview with the official Soul Queen of New Orleans, Ms. Irma Thomas. And, if you’re in New Orleans this July 19–24 at CPI’s 2015 Instructor Conference, enjoy Irma’s performance the evening of July 23, which will include her renditions of “Shelter In the Rain” and “Proud Mary.”
 
 

Interview Transcript

Terry: Hello, this is Terry Vittone, host of the CPI podcast series, Unrestrained. Today I'll be interviewing the legendary Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas, about her music, her experience during and after Katrina, why it was so important for her to come back to the Crescent City and rebuild, and her appearance at CPI's Instructor Conference in New Orleans this July 23. Hello, and welcome, Irma.
 
Irma: It’s good to be talking.
 
Terry: Thank you. My guest Irma Thomas is one of the greats in the history of American Rhythm and Blues music, and she is the official Soul Queen of New Orleans. She was born Irma Lee in Ponchatoula, Louisiana in 1941 and grew up singing in the Baptist church choir. She auditioned for the Specialty label when she was just 13. By the age of 19, she had been married twice and had four children. At age 20, she was singing with Tommy Ridgley's band in New Orleans' Pimlico Club when Ridgley set her up with auditions for the Minit and Ron record labels. She scored her first hit on the Ron label in the spring of 1960 with her debut single, "(You Can Have My Husband But) Don't Mess With My Man."
 
Irma's first release on the Minit label, 1961's "Girl Needs Boy," marked the beginning of her collaboration with producer and songwriter Allen Toussaint, an association that produced her early 60s hits "It's Raining" and "Ruler of My Heart." She also recorded an original version of the song "Time is On My Side," which was later covered by the Rolling Stones.
 
 

Irma continued to record and perform across the decades, scoring hits for a variety of labels, including Imperial, Chess Records, Cotillion, and Rounder, among others. She won a Grammy for her 2006 Rounder release After the Rain, and then she followed up that set with 2008's Simply Grand, a collection that features Irma in an acoustic setting with piano players including Ellis Marsalis, Dr. John, and Randy Newman. And I believe John Cleary's on that, as well.
 
Irma: And so is Nora Jones.
 
Terry: Excellent. So, Irma, let's begin.
 
Irma: Sure.
 
Terry: What are your first musical memories? Do you remember some of the first songs you sang and what music was playing around your house?
 
Irma: Sure, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Lightning Hopkins.
 
Terry: You seem to have a deep connection to the Blues.
 
Irma: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, all that early-late 40s, early 50s stuff, I grew up listening to a lot of that.
 
Terry: Excellent. And do you remember as a child the song that you sang first where you thought, "I can really put my, kind of my gut into this one?"
 
Irma: When you grow up in the South and you're singing in the churches and wherever, you don't think about how good you're singing because everybody around you sings. So how would you know how good yours is compared to somebody else?
 
Terry: I meant when you feel it in your gut that-
 
Irma: Oh, well, yeah.
 
Terry: Yeah, I was saying-
 
Irma: That's how I choose my songs.
 
Terry: Yeah, and that was my next question, how do you-
 
Irma: That if I can relate to it, as well, you know.
 
Terry: Right.
 
Irma: Some songs, you can really relate to, and some you can't. It's easier for a performer to find something that they can relate to because then they can sell the message in the song, you know.
 
Terry: So do you have an intuitive feel when a song is right for you?
 
Irma: Yeah, if it doesn't feel right when I'm listening to it, there's nothing there that makes any sense to me, then I don't usually record them. In fact, rarely do I record, I only did that one time, and I haven't done it since. I don't even sing that song anymore.
 
Terry: You know, I was taken by your treatment of your traditional Blues "Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor" on After the Rain. Beautiful.
 
 

Irma: Well, of course I had a lot to think about when I sung that song, remember?
 
Terry:Yes. Indeed. How often are you gigging these days?
 
Irma: Pretty regular, considering.
 
Terry: Yeah? Where is it taking you?
 
Irma: We just got back from Washington, D.C., doing a club called Blues Alley.
 
Terry: Oh, excellent.
 
Irma: And I have some dates coming up where I'll be touring, doing a few nights in London, and, of course, I have a Lincoln, Nebraska date coming up, and so I'm staying relatively busy.
 
Terry: Excellent. Next I'd like to ask you about your experiences surrounding Hurricane Katrina, and your incredible commitment to the city of New Orleans. Here at CPI, we talk about something called "the Integrated Experience," which basically says that no matter which perspective you're coming from, if we're in each other’s company, we're going to have a tremendous influence on each other, and we should recognize that and adjust our attention, effort, and respectfulness accordingly.
 
And one of our Certified Instructors living in New Orleans is a guy named Jeff DeMars. He's organized our Instructor Conference in New Orleans, and he said this, “The reason why we invited Irma Thomas is because she was the Integrated Experience when we were hit with Hurricane Katrina. Many of us were deciding if we should come back after that disaster and trauma that we had been through.
 
But Irma set the pace with Integrated Experience; her attitude and behavior was ‘I'm going back in New Orleans, where my home is, and I'm going to rebuild.’ And she lost her nightclub, her house, and it was all over the news about Irma Thomas. It was global. I'm going to talk about the news; it was a global feature about Irma Thomas. And that set the pace for every one of us from New Orleans.”
 

Stocktrek Images/Thinkstock
 
So, Irma, could you speak to your return after Katrina? I mean, why was it so necessary to return and rebuild?
 
Irma: Because the optimum word here is "home." H-O-M-E. Home. [Laughs.] And it's kind of hard for a lot of people to grasp that. It never occurred to me to even consider living somewhere else, because I was just determined. I had no foresight as to whether or not the water was ever going to go away. I just felt that it would, and this is where I wanted to be when the water left; this is where I wanted to be, back where I'm accustomed to being, and where I felt comfortable and nourished.
 
Terry: Well said. So now is the Lion's Den Pub still open? That was on Gravier, I believe.
 
Irma: Gravier and Broad, yeah.
 
Terry: Yeah.
 
Irma: South Broad, yeah.
 
Terry: Have you reopened, or do you-
 
Irma: No, we didn't.
 
Terry: Okay.
 
Irma: Because at the time (when we did get back into the city to be able to see what had happened and how much damage had been done) even if we had thought, considered opening it back up again, the people who we had working for us were all scattered all about, and the influx of folk who were coming in had no clue as to how to run a club here in the city. And, plus, like you said, everyone was concerned about my whereabouts, and once they found out where I was, I must have been on the road continuously every month for the first five or six months after Katrina. So you can't run a club and then be on the road. So my husband and I decided, you know what, maybe it's time we just let it go.
 
Terry: I read that you were actually performing in Texas when the hurricane-
 
Irma: I was.
 
Terry: That must've been-
 
Irma: In Austin, yeah.
 
Terry: You must have felt so displaced.
 
Irma: Well, you know, it's ironic; it's like it's a weird feeling. I didn't feel totally displaced, but I had . . . it's kind of a hard feeling to describe. I knew my home was under water, because we actually saw it on television.
 
Terry: Oh!
 
Irma: Yeah, when they were, when they were doing their, the news media was doing a flyover in a helicopter, and, of course, they didn't know the geography of New Orleans, so they were calling New Orleans East Chalmette, which Chalmette is another six or seven or eight miles further east of where we live. And when they were doing the flyover, since I knew the geography, I spotted my house right in the middle of wherever they were; they were flying over the canal where the MRGO [Mississippi River Gulf Outlet] area was.
 
Terry: Right.
 
Irma: They were flying over that area, and I told my husband, "Honey, come see. You can see our house," and at the time we were looking at it, the water was up to the eaves outside. We had no clue how much water was inside, but we figured if it was up to the eaves outside, it had to be at least halfway up the walls on the inside. And true enough, it did come up as much as about six, probably close to six or seven feet, on the inside, which was almost to the ceiling.
 
Terry: I read also that when you came home and saw your belongings, there was a sense of return for you, even though it, of course, had been–
 

Joseph Nickischer/iStock
 
Irma: Yeah. Yeah, I never, I never gave up on the city in terms of planning where else I was going to live, and where else I was going to go. That never occurred to me. Now, maybe if I was a parent, and still had kids, for whatever reason, I may have made a decision to get them somewhere to get them back in school in a hurry. But since my kids—I have grandkids and great-grandkids—I didn't have that responsibility. But even with that, I would not have considered moving away on a permanent basis because we did wind up purchasing a home in Gonzales, Louisiana.
 
And when we finally got a chance to get back to the state, to see what was going on, my husband and I, we had to make a quick decision. We bought a house that we were really not totally happy with, but we had to live somewhere because everybody out there who had relatives who lived here in New Orleans, they had people living with them. And I mean, you had occasions where they had as much as 20 people living in a two or three bedroom home, and they were just trying to make adjustments to help people out in a real tight squeeze. And, of course, FEMA didn't kick in to start helping with hotel fees until a couple of weeks or so later, so people were running out of money. And, I mean, a lot of things were going on to be discouraging.
 
But we never lost faith, so my husband and I went on and purchased a little bitty home in Gonzales that cost us almost twice as much as the one we had in New Orleans. But when you're dealing with people who can see an opportunity, opportunistic, and that price was, of course, a few—not a few thousand, but like maybe 20 or 30,000 more than we would have paid for it under normal circumstances-
 

Troy Snow/iStock
 
Terry: So you–
 
Irma: You had to live somewhere, and we were getting offers for interviews and what have you, so, you know–
 
Terry: So that, the price was to exploit the people who had been displaced by the hurricane, that's–
 
Irma: Well, the only thing you can relate it to, because we had looked at homes in that same subdivision, and the houses were going like a $110,000 max, the most that you would pay for it. And when we needed a home, we ended up paying close to $140,000 for that same 1,650-square-foot home.
 
Terry: Well, New Orleans' gain is Gonzales' loss, then, I suppose.
 
Irma: Yeah, we paid so much for it, we decided to just keep it. What the hell? [laughter]
 
Well, he has relatives out there, so rather than having to check into a hotel or something like that, we decided to just keep the house, and we go out there at least a couple of times a month, and check on the property and visit with his relatives and what have you, and friends; we have a few friends we've developed out there. So it wasn't a total loss. It's just that, yeah, opportunistic people took advantage of folk who were in need of situations, and that was not just one; it was everybody who saw a quick dollar in hand, so.
 
Terry: Well, that certainly is different than what we're celebrating at our Instructor Conference, which is the Integrated Experience.
 
Irma: Well, I'm glad I'm home.
 
Terry: Yeah, I bet. There you go.
 
Irma: I was persistent on being home. Everyone who interviewed me, because, like I said, we had to find somewhere to be interviewed (we didn't want to impose upon relatives) because we were with relatives until we found a place.
 
Everybody asked me, "Well, why do you want to go back to New Orleans?" and I kept restating, "It's home. Do you understand what a home means to a person? Don't you have a home that you have a great love for, that's your comfort zone, which you feel good in?" and they say, "Yeah."
 
"So, well, don't you understand why I'm going back to New Orleans? It's home. It's where I got my roots planted; it's where I got my start; it's home." I moved away and lived six years someplace else and came back, because it's home. [Laughs.]
 
Terry: That's great. Now, I hear that you plan to perform two numbers at our Conference. Could you tell us about the songs you plan to perform?
 
Irma: I have no idea, 'cause I haven't decided on what I was going to sing.
 
Terry: Okay. All right. Well, that will be a surprise then, and a delightful one for people. Well, that's always at the artist's discretion, right?
 
Irma: Yes.
 
Terry: Right, and so, when you're at home relaxing, who do you listen to these days?
 
Irma: I'm a TV addict.
 
Terry: You are?
 
Irma: I like game shows.
 
Terry: Oh, yeah?
 
Irma: Like, as we talk, I'm looking at Pyramid right now.
 
Terry: Oh, right. All right. Is it the $20,000, is that like-
 
Irma: It's an updated version of Pyramid. That's what it was originally, but now they've changed some rules, and the money's a little different, but, I mean, nevertheless, it’s fun to watch. And I'm a Jeopardy! addict. I'm a CSI addict, so, you know.
 
Because, when you do music constantly, unless I have to learn a new song or something, I honestly just get away from it, even my own material. I just try to get away from it, so it can be fresh each time I do it.
 
Terry: Okay, that makes sense, totally. Boy, I've really enjoyed going back and listening to the songs again. Oh, that beautiful song that was the flip of . . . is it called "Cry On"?
 
Irma: Yeah, you know, we've been debating that for years, like what was on the other side. I thought "I Did My Part" was on the flip side of "Cry On." But it may have been because back then they would do that. In fact, oftentimes they would release "Cry On," and then the DJs would turn it over and prefer the B side, as opposed to the A side. So I was fortunate that during that time when those songs came out I had about four or five songs in the top 10 on the local radio. I don't know how it was around the country, but on the local radio stations I had "It's Raining," I had "Cry On," I had "I Did My Part," and I had "Two Winters Long" on the radio all in the number-one spots at the same time.
 
Terry: It must have been an electrifying time. Were those all [Allen] Toussaint productions at that time?
 
Irma: Yes, they were; yes, they were.
 
Terry: Wow, that's remarkable. What a body of work you have. I play guitar with a Gospel quartet here in Milwaukee called the Masonic Wonders, and we do "Walk Around Heaven," and the standards and things like that.
 
Irma: Oh, yeah. Yeah, that's a Mahalia Jackson standard, as far as I'm concerned. [Laughs.]
 
Terry: Yeah, well, we have a falsetto singer, Felix Willis, who sings it beautifully, so I'm very into the Gospel and the Blues.
 
Irma: That's okay, I love Gospel. I'm still in the church choir, by the way. [Laughs.]
 
Terry:Yeah, and you put out a Gospel record.
 
Irma: I'm an alto. Yeah, I did one in '96. Yeah, it didn't get much airplay, because the DJs were questioning my Christianity. Okay?
 
Terry: Is that right?
 
Irma: Which means all they had to do was turn it over and read the liner notes; my pastor wrote the liner notes, so, you know, that was–
 
Terry: How about the judge not part?
 
Irma: Everything is a game out here, and it's, you know, it's sad that people have those attitudes, but that is one of the hardest businesses to break into on a national level, so I said, "Well, Lord, I tried, and You gave me this voice, I'm using it to make people happy in every way I can," and I still do, occasionally, I do Gospel shows, because I do one, I've been doing one every year, Jazz Fest, since the storm. I've been doing a tribute to Mahalia, and just recently, they just said, Irma Thomas sings Gospel now. But I enjoy singing Gospel music, and I try to get people to understand that Gospel music is not entertainment. And they seem to get their wires kind of crossed up on that, but I still keep plugging away at it, no matter what. I just don't do it when I'm singing R&B, though.
 
As long as I get the respect for what it is, I'm okay with. You know, everybody has his own opinion about it, I just didn't feel that Gospel music is something that should be as entertainment. It should be for what it is as prayer set to music, and it should be taken seriously.
 
Terry: Well said! Well it's been such a pleasure talking with you, and to go back and hear the music again. I mean just that unmistakable voice, and sometimes you have a little quaver that you bring in for emotional effect that is so truly moving.
 
Irma: Well, it's what I know how to do, and I only do it, as they say, when the spirit hits me, it's not something that's automatic, because I can sing that same song another day, and you may not hear anything. (laughs)
 
Terry: Well, some days it might be a little brighter, right, some days a little darker?
 
Irma: It's based upon emotions, it's really based upon emotions a lot.
 
Terry: All right. Thank you, Irma, that will conclude our interview today. For CPI, this is Terry Vittone saying thank you for listening and thank you, Irma!
 
Irma: You're so welcome!
 
Terry: All right. Take care.
 
Irma: Take care.
 
Terry: Bye-bye.
 
Irma: Bye-bye.
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