New Orleans has been a steady producer of the very best R&B talent over the years, from Fats Domino to the Neville Brothers. Irma Thomas first carved out her place in the scene as a teenager in the 1950s with the hit “You Can Have My Husband (But Please Don’t Mess With My Man)”, but is probably best known for her later hit “It’s Raining”, and her influence on the Rolling Stones’ “Time Is on My Side”, modeled after Thomas’s own version of the song. While others of her generation have settled quietly into retirement or limited their careers to a few appearances at festivals, Thomas’s reputation has only grown with the years: she is the long-reigning “Soul Queen of New Orleans”.
After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the resulting devastation was only still being realized, the news started reporting that some local celebrities were missing in the aftermath, including Fats Domino, Alan Toussaint, and Irma Thomas. The immediate flood of calls that her record label began receiving demonstrates the status of local treasure that Thomas has achieved. While she had actually been far from the storm, gigging in Texas at the time, Thomas returned to find her two homes ruined and her nightclub washed away. Many local musicians banded together after Katrina for benefit concerts, recordings, and appearances to remind the world of the great musical strength of the city. Always demonstrating a strong connection to her hometown, it made sense that Irma Thomas would be among the locals to step forward at this time; she did even more than that at Madison Square Garden’s “From the Big Apple to the Big Easy” benefit concert when offering a heartbreaking and chilling performance of “It’s Raining” that trumped even the super-star headliners of the night. The tragic circumstances of Katrina would ultimately be responsible for shining the spotlight back on local artists and, certainly, reminded people of Irma Thomas’s gifts as a singer and storyteller.
The selected songs on Thomas’s sixth album, After the Rain, span the catalogue of American songwriting from the past 75 years, and while most of them had already been chosen before Katrina hit, the themes of rain, water, and loss found throughout is an eerie coincidence and brings a new light to the old songs. Arthur Alexander’s “In the Middle of it All” takes on a different story of loss here, and when Thomas sings “My friends look at me and say / ‘I wonder what made the girl that way / The girl doesn’t smile at all’ / But I wonder what my friends would say / If their world just came down one day / And they were in the middle of it all”, it’s more than a story of lost love that comes to mind. That’s the gift of Thomas as a storyteller demonstrated on this album; each song is breathed an entire new life as it comes out of her mouth. The one song included specifically with the hurricane in mind is Thomas’s custom version of the old blues number “Another Man Done Gone”, recorded here as a smoldering tribute to Katrina’s victims as well as the service-men and -women lost in Iraq: “The water’s at his door / I didn’t know his name / Another man done gone– / He’s in a faraway land / He won’t be home again / Another man done gone… another thousand gone”. The link between Irma Thomas and Hurricane Katrina is an obvious one, but as the Queen said herself about the songs on this record: “You can get your own depression going, I don’t need to help you with it… The songs are not meant to bring sadness, it’s meant to get you through it.”
Beyond just the achievement of recording this record in Louisiana shortly after Katrina, the album also celebrates the singer’s 20-year anniversary of working with Rounder producer Scott Billington. Although she is known for her R&B roots and rich, throaty alto, Billington wanted to take this record in a different direction to feature Thomas vocally. The typical horn section and heavy instrumental background was bypassed completely for a stripped-down, raw sound, here made up of bare vocals and acoustic instruments handled by some of New Orleans’s finest, such as Sonny Landreth and Dirk Powell. What results is a recording with a more bluesy and folksy leaning than longtime fans may be used to hearing from Thomas, but it’s also an ideal framing for her vocals, which have only grown richer over the years. This is an album that truly highlights the talents of a New Orleans treasure at a time when we are painfully aware of how many treasures have been washed away.
B.B. King & Irma Thomas – You Can Have My Husband