By Daniel Kohn
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What's Irma Thomas up to these days? Just being Irma, she says, laughing. And she does probably the world's best job of being Irma—makes it seem effortless. Her upcoming four-night stand singing Motown hits with the Funk Brothers, for example, "is entirely out of my comfort zone," she says, explaining she hasn't performed a Motown song onstage in decades; that the Detroit powerhouse didn't hold much sway in the music-saturated New Orleans scene she came up in; and that she's used to doing her own repertoire with her own longtime band, the Professionals, "who know all my little hand signals and idiosyncrasies." Even so, she says, "I'll just roll with the punches. I love singing, and that's all that matters."
For those who didn't see the documentary-concert film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the Funk Brothers are the surviving members of Motown's classic studio band, whose licks were known to millions, though they never got any recognition themselves. The film and subsequent tours—including a fair gig last year—redressed that. This year, they're backing some formidable singers: the Mavericks' wondrous Raul Malo, OC soul stylist Derek Bordeaux, Joan Osborne and Thomas, who is overdue for some recognition herself.
She sounds a bit like an earthier Gladys Knight, except she sounded that way before Knight did. Motown didn't even exist yet when a 17-year-old Thomas began making records in 1959. Soon nicknamed the Soul Queen of New Orleans, most of her releases were regional successes, with her biggest national charter being the No. 17 "Wish Someone Would Care" in 1964. Otis Redding copied one of her songs and got his first hit. Her recording of "Time Is on My Side" was steamrollered by the Rolling Stones cover of it at the height of the British invasion, while Thomas worked the grueling chitlin' circuit and white frathouse parties. At a gig at Ole Miss, a drunken fratboy crashed into the mic stand, knocking out Thomas' front teeth. She finished the gig.
Eventually, even those jobs petered out, record deals went sour, and she wound up in Los Angeles, working in the auto-parts section of a Montgomery Ward to support her children. Thomas had become a mother at 14, and when she wrote and recorded the pleading "Wish Someone Would Care," she had four kids and her second marriage was foundering. Did we mention Thomas sings like she means every word of a song? When she sings "I Done Got Over It," you know she means that one, too.
"For some people, the combination of things that lead to a hit fall into place," she says. "If it's not me, that's just the way reality is. I feel blessed because here I am today: a woman in her 60s who never had a million-seller but still gets good gigs, sharing the bill with name acts and doing what I love."
Her career took an upswing in the mid-'70s when she moved back to New Orleans, where she's practically become the voice of the Jazz and Heritage Festival. She happily remarried. She's recorded several critically lauded, modest-selling albums on Rounder (the most recent is My Heart's in Memphis: The Songs of Dan Penn), and she won a Grammy nomination for a live album. Gig offers slowed after Sept. 11, she says, but she's busy bowling, keeping track of 15 grandkids and six great-grandkids, and doing charity work. She also graduated from college not long ago.
"Back when I was a teenager, becoming a mom ended school for you," she says. "Watching my friends and then my kids graduate, it looked like so much fun that I wanted to see what it felt like. I had my GED and started college when I was 45, and with stops and starts, I didn't finish till I was near 60. My degree is in business, and you need it in this business. I've paid my dues, and I hold to my price now because I don't stand on a stage and B.S. my way through a gig. I sing and give it all I've got."Irma Thomas performs with The Funk Brothers at The Orange County Fair, Citizens Bank Arena, 88 Fair Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 740-2000; www.ocfair.com. Tues., 8 p.m. Free with fair admission ($3-$7). All ages.