Irma Thomas' entrance into the music business is the kind of story rock dreams are made of.
The veteran R&B vocalist, who appears tonight and Saturday at Club Lingerie, was a 17-year-old mother of three working as a waitress in a New Orleans nightclub when she sat in with bandleader Tommy Ridgley's group. Thomas was promptly fired by the club owner . . . and hired as a singer by Ridgley. He arranged for her to record "You Can Have My Husband (But Please Don't Mess With My Man)," the local hit that launched her singing career in 1958.
"Singing kind of found me and, being a young mother with a family to support and no skills, I guess that was the only recourse I had left," said Thomas, 46, in a phone interview from her New Orleans home. "The bottom line is I wanted to make some money--I didn't want to sell my soul to the devil and do anything I had to be ashamed of but I wanted to make a good living."
The Lingerie performance with her regular, seven-piece backing band will be Thomas' first Los Angeles performances since she lived here in the early '70s as an "unknown, struggling somebody trying to get a gig." But it's a different story now in her home town, where Thomas is known as the "Soul Queen of New Orleans."
"I don't try to get up there and play a game with my public," she related. "I'm not a prima donna person and I never have been.
"I'm reachable and I try to make my audience as comfortable with me as possible. I wouldn't want to spend $25 and watch somebody who (acted like), "Look at me, I'm God.' "
Thomas' career flowered in the early '60s when she began recording for the local Minit label with producer/songwriter Allen Toussaint. Toussaint, writing under the name Naomi Neville, custom tailored songs like "Ruler of My Heart" and "It's Raining" for her. But Thomas imbued those signature songs and later classics like the superb "Wish Someone Would Care" with a tough independence atypical of the usual "girl singer" fare from that era.
Some of those early songs had a profound impact on more famous artists. Otis Redding made some minor alterations and transformed "Ruler of My Heart" into "Pain in My Heart." The Rolling Stones scored their first big American hit by almost exactly duplicating the arrangement on Thomas' version of "Time Is on My Side" in 1964.
"I didn't get as angry with Otis Redding because he literally tried to change the words but the Rolling Stones sang the song awful," Thomas remembered. "But the English groups were the 'in' thing at the time and it mattered not if you had vocal ability, so they had the big hit and mine was pushed aside and forgotten."
Thomas enjoyed her greatest national success in 1964 when "Wish Someone Would Care," released by Imperial records, reached number 17 on Billboard magazine's pop chart and three other singles cracked the Top 100. But her stay at the label was short-lived and Thomas spent most of the '60s playing the Gulf Coast club circuit until Hurricane Camille wiped out a year's worth of bookings in 1969.
That drove Thomas to Los Angeles in 1970 and to Oakland two years later when "If I Had It to Do All Over, I'd Do It All Over You" became a Bay Area hit. A three-week engagement at a New Orleans hotel sparked renewed interest there and she followed the work home in 1975, remarried and reestablished herself as a popular live performer locally and overseas.
Her recording career was resurrected in 1986 when her first album for Rounder, "The New Rules," received much critical acclaim. The new "The Way I Feel," a mixture of soul standards and fresh material from veteran R&B tunesmiths like Toussaint and Jerry Ragovoy, was just released by the label.
Thomas is also fulfilling a long-deferred dream by taking classes at a community college to continue the education that was cut short by her early motherhood. While her matter-of-fact attitude toward the music business prevents any starry-eyed optimism, she feels confident that greater success is on the horizon.
"Things come in stages," Thomas reflected. "I don't know if I missed (national recognition) when I was young but maybe destiny has its way of saying you'll get yours eventually if you hang in there so I'm taking it a little at a time.
"In the back of my mind--I don't know when, how or what time--I feel nationwide stardom is just over the hill. And when it happens, I can truthfully say I didn't play any games to get there. I earned it."