Edwin Buggage Editor-in-Chief
A Soulful Journey
The name Irma Thomas is synonymous with timeless music. Over the numerous decades of her storied career, she’s a template of timeless excellence. Throughout the month of October WYES will be airing an amazing documentary about the life of this great iconic singer.
IRMA: MY LIFE IN MUSIC premiered on Monday, October 4, 2021, at 8:00 p.m. And will have repeat airings on Saturday, October 9, at 8:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. and on Sunday, October 17, at 5:30 p.m. The 90-minute program is produced by Michael Murphy Productions with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation. IRMA: MY LIFE IN MUSIC is written and directed by Cilista Eberle and Michael Murphy.
On this day, Irma Thomas is lighthearted and welcoming as she speaks about the new film and her life.
“WYES came to me and said they wanted to make a documentary about my life. In producing it we did a lengthy interview, and it covered the music and non-musical parts of my life.” Laughing she says, “I don’t think I was that interesting.”
“My family is from New Orleans, and we have always been a part of the arts, and I filmed my first Jazz Fest in 1989 and did this for twenty-five years and after that we started making films. We’ve made several films with a focus on New Orleans. WYES called us and asked if we were interested in making a film about Irma Thomas. I then called her, and she said yes. We feel this is an incredible film that people will enjoy great music and learn more about Irma Thomas,” says Michael the film’s Director and Writer Michael Murphy.
On the Beginnings of Greatness
Thomas is part of a generation, where New Orleans and its music influenced many all over the world. In her journey that’s taken her to faraway places sharing her gift of song; in what’s been a long and storied career, Thomas reflects saying, “They are so many who have been around, and we do, and we do it because we love it. I would have never imagined that one day I would be the subject of a documentary.”
It is a long way from Ponchatoula, Louisiana where Irma Lee Thomas first sang with a Baptist Church choir as a teenager. Her soulful gospel approach is heavily influenced by the sounds she heard growing up.
Reminiscing of this time in her life she says, “I loved Mahalia Jackson, my parents were old school, you went to Sunday school. I was introduced to gospel music early in my life. My mom played gospel around the house and my dad played what I like to call gut bucket blues. And back then all the Black radio stations had a gospel program, music was so much a part of my everyday life and I fell in love with singing.”
In a career spanning several decades beginning in 1959, her first single, “Don’t Mess With My Man,” ranked number 22 on the U. S. Billboard R&B Record Chart. In numerous interviews, New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint frequently noted that he often wrote songs with Irma Thomas’ voice “in his head.” As the producer, composer and pianist of many Minit Label recordings, Toussaint hired Thomas; and out of this collaboration came such beloved recordings as “It’s Raining,” “Ruler Of My Heart” and “Old Records.”
Her impact is one that’s earned her the title of “Soul Queen of New Orleans”. The documentary features new interviews from many of her colleagues including Record Producer Scott Billington; Producer and Director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Quint Davis; former GRAMMY Awards Telecast Producer Ken Ehrlich; Recording Artist Erica Falls; Recording Artist and Actress Ledisi; Singer and Songwriter Bonnie Raitt; Creative Director of Preservation Hall Ben Jaffe; Pastor of the Nazareth Baptist Church Reverend Marc A. Napoleon; Musician, Songwriter and Record Producer, the late Allen Toussaint, and his children Alison Toussaint-LeBeaux and Reginald Toussaint; and Recording Academy Membership & Industry Relations Representative Reid Wick, who speak reverently of her talent as a singer and her impact on their lives.
“I feel blessed that these people have so many great things to say and that I have made an impact with my music.”
Getting Your Flowers While You’re Here
Thomas’ talent was always evident and in 2007 she won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album, for After the Rain. For a career spanning five decades, where she’s recorded modest hits and performed, and saw some songs she recorded first become hits for other artist including the Rolling Stones (Time is on my side) and Otis Redding (Ruler of my heart) (Re-named Pain in my heart).
“I love what I do, when you enjoy, I have achieved a lot in my time as a singer. Making songs and performing on many stages large and small. The culmination of that is that I received a Grammy. Many have gone through their careers and never received one. It was a great honor, but if I wouldn’t have, I would have never doubted my ability as an entertainer.”
Pearls of Wisdom
In a life that like all of us have had its ups and downs, Irma Thomas is what you would call an eternal optimist, and is grounded in her faith.
Speaking on her philosophy of life she very plainly speaking says, “Do unto other and you have them unto you.”
Continuing she says, “There is a difference between worrying as opposed to being concerned. I don’t worry about things I can’t do anything about. I have never been a pity party kind of person. I believe every experience is a learning experience and I see life as half-full. Every adventure is an adventure, and you choose to either learn or not learn the lesson.”
“I am not a pew person, I have to be in the choir I pray about it, and I get answers.”
What Does it Mean to be from New Orleans
Making a film or creating content centering on New Orleans is something I may have attempted to do, but it is more than simply the spectacle, it is a deeper spirituality that connects to people on a human level is what the essence of New Orleans is about.
“I think my connection to the city makes my approach different and what becomes the final product different than some of the films made about New Orleans. Also, I am bringing consultants, who help me to create a product that is true to what I am trying to present. I think Irma’s story is just that,” says the film producer, and New Orleans native Michael Murphy.
This is the magic that shines through in Irma. It marries great storytelling and performances of one of the true treasures of New Orleans music, who has a new album, called “Love is the Foundation” aptly titled, for an incredible singer whose shined her light on the world.