American Routes Shortcuts: Irma Thomas

Dec 22, 2017

Irma Thomas
Credit American Routes

Irma Thomas launched her career as a teenager and still tears the house down at age 76. Irma grew up singing in church and auditioned with Specialty Records at age 13. She was turned away for being too young, but proved ready by 18 and charted her first hit in 1959, “Don’t Mess With My Man,” on Ron Records. She went on to record hits for Minit, Imperial, and Chess. In 2007, Irma won a Grammy for her album “After the Rain” on Rounder Records.

IT: As a child, and being a southern born black child, on Sundays you went to Sunday school. Everything was done a cappella, and we had this girl group that was a quartet. And my parents used to visit the Vogue Hotel Lounge and you could bring kids everywhere you went then. I heard people like Cecil Gant, Louis Jordan. I literally grew up where music was all around me. And my mom said whenever she wanted to find me all she had to do was go to the nearest bar and there I was listening to the jukebox. So it was just a part of who I was.

NS: When did you think that you had a voice to sing, whether it was gospel or soul? When did you have that feeling?

IT: I didn't. I never really felt that. Growing up and singing all the time, I didn't realize that I had something that was different than anybody else because everybody around me sung. And it still didn’t dawn on me that I could make a living doing that because most of the people that I knew that was in the singing business had day jobs. Now I got fired for singing on the job a couple times. You know you realize I grew up in segregated times. The first one, I was a dishwasher doing the 11 to 7 shift and my white bosses felt that I was distraction to the customers or what have you. The second time, I was a waitress at a nightclub, and I was waitressing and whenever the band would play and I felt like singing, I would just walk up on the stage and start singing. So my boss then told me then that he didn’t hire me to sing; he hired me to be a waitress and he fired me. Now ironically, some years later my boss showed up at the Marriott when I was doing a show and had the audacity to give me a note to make a request [laughs].

When I recorded "It’s Raining" and "Cry On," half the folk that bought my records were all white kids. And when I did shows for white kids, I taught them all the new dances. So music was the thing that brought a lot of people together. It was funny because the kids who bought the records had to hide them because the parents didn't want them with them. And I guess their parents said “The hell with it, let it go.” What was the point? You love what you like. I mean, music is music.

NS: Do you think music can help the country?

IT: Music in general is the only thing that is kind of holding it together when you think about it. Everything that comes up, disaster after disaster, who comes to the forefront? Music.

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