Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans (Photo: irmathomas.com.)
When I told Irma Thomas, The Soul Queen of New Orleans that I had been on a soul music search for a very long time and was glad to finally meet her and get her take on what it actually was, she laughed at me.
“You’ll never find what you’re looking for because it doesn’t exist,” she said. “You’ll find it when you truly understand what it is.”
Now I wasn’t born just yesterday but I needed a bit of clarity on this one. “Soul is the gem of black American music,” I said and then repeated a phrase I’ve heard over the years about soul music. “It’s the ‘real’ thing,” I said.
“Soul,” she continued, “is the satisfactory feeling that you get from doing what you love. It has nothing to do with a genre of music, and everybody has it.”
I didn’t start out trying to take the conversation down this route at all, but since it was going there, I had to ask: “Then how did soul get its name in the first place?”
“I don’t mean to make this a conversation about race,” she said, “but what happened in the 1960s, when rhythm and blues and rock and roll were in their earliest stages and in order to separate black musicians from white musicians, DJs had to put titles on music and they started calling black folks’ music “soul”, but there is no such genre as soul–it is a feeling that’s connected to the person that is doing what they love to do and that’s the soul of it all. It’s in gospel, country, R&B, rock and roll, rap. It’s the soul of the music coming through.”
I guess I should have known this, seeing that I’m a soul music fan, but you live and you learn.
Irma Thomas was officially named the Soul Queen of New Orleans by Mayor Ray Nagin in 2007, but the title has been with the respected Grammy award-winning singer since her start in the recording industry, nearly 50 years ago. For refined soul, listen to her first song, “(You Can Have My Husband But) Don’t Mess With My Man” or “It’s Raining.” Both are pure, definable soul from the vocals to the piano to the tempo. And even though The Rolling Stones popularized the song “Time Is On My Side,” Thomas released it first; in fact just months before their version was recorded. Hers is soulful; theirs is just as good but with a different feel It was common practice for songs to cross over from soul to rock and roll during the emergence of these two music forms.
Irma Thomas loves what she does, and this is why NPR featured her as one of its 50 Great Voices in 2010. “I get great joy seeing the looks on people’s faces when I sing what they like, when I know that they're feeling the song. Often times, when I’m allowed to, I take requests from my audience members instead of developing a set list of songs.”
What's your favorite Irma Thomas tune? She just might sing it for you this Friday during her performance at Boston Summer Arts Weekend, Friday, July 27 at 9:15pm on the Main Stage in Copley Plaza.