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Irma Thomas is the Soul Queen of New Orleans

Misha Berson
The Seattle Times (MCT)

SEATTLE — In New Orleans, Irma Thomas is musical royalty. And fans of Big Easy music all over the world bow down to her gloriously soulful song stylings too.

Thomas is a Ponchatoula, La., native who first hit the R&B charts 50 years back with such classic singles as the spine-tingling "Time Is On My Side" and sassy "(You Can Have My Husband but) Don't Mess with My Man."

At 69, the lady tagged as the Soul Queen of New Orleans is finally getting the wider recognition she's long deserved. Why? "They all started listenin'!" the chatty, candid Thomas answered, by phone from her home in New Orleans. "'Cause I haven't changed. I've matured age-wise, and my voice has matured too. I just think people finally started listening, and realizing I was worth listening to."

In 2007, Thomas won her first Grammy Award, for her powerful album, "After the Rain." Another Grammy nomination (her fourth) was bestowed on her follow-up, "Simply Grand" (which paired her with Norah Jones, Dr. John and other-singer pianists).

But since 2005, she's also been recovering from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. A resident of the hard-hit Ninth Ward, Thomas "lost everything — my nightclub, my house were severely affected. My band and I flew out to do a job in Austin, Texas, right before the hurricane hit, and we went from there to the Baton Rouge area, my husband's hometown. His friends and family opened their homes to us until we could figure out what was happening."

Thomas agrees the disaster did bring a new appreciation for the uniqueness of New Orleans culture, especially the music. "I'm glad it finally put the spotlight on Louisiana music in general. It gave people an opportunity to really look at it all from a different perspective, because they thought they'd lost it."

Thomas reports that she and her husband, and the two of her four adult children who live in the affected area, are "not doing bad, considering the time that's elapsed. A lot of the people here just had this will to come home, and rub two pennies together, and stick up a wall or live without a wall. With that kind of I'm-not-gonna-quit attitude, we're further along than I expected we'd be."

New Orleans is special due to "a melting of cultures here that's different than in other cities, There's always an underlying rhythm to the way we speak that's different. We're a very open, hospitable society, even after the storm — open our homes, share our music, our food. And you can always get good directions to find out where you want to be!"

Fronting her seven-member band, Thomas says "I have a good time wherever I go, because I love what I do and try to bring that kind of joy and fulfillment to my audience."

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