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Irma Thomas, Soul Queen of New Orleans, headlines Tampa Bay blues festival

Soul Queen of New Orleans Irma Thomas has been a pillar of the Crescent City's rich musical tradition for five decades. • The singer, who headlines this weekend's Tampa Bay Blues Fest, scored her first R&B hit single in 1960 with the wonderfully sassy You Can Have My Husband (But Don't Mess with My Man). She spent the remainder of the decade working with famed songwriter/producer Allen Toussaint. She recorded classics like Time Is On My Side, which the Rolling Stones covered, and Ruler of My Heart, a song Otis Redding reworked as Pain in My Heart. • In recent years, Thomas has become a must-see act at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where she has not missed a year since debuting there in 1974. In 2006, the Crescent City royal finally won a Grammy for After the Rain. Thomas' latest album, Simply Grand, features her singing with such star pianists as Norah Jones, Randy Newman, Dr. John and Ellis Marsalis. We recently phoned Thomas, who turned 68 last month, at her new post-Katrina home in New Orleans East.

How have you kept your voice sounding so rich and strong? Is there a magic potion you're brewing there in New Orleans?

No! Just waking up every day and just being thankful to be alive. And I don't drink and I don't smoke. My biggest habit is eating, but I think that's true of a lot of people.

In the liner notes to Simply Grand there are pictures of you with all the guest artists. I take it the performances were done live in the studio?

They sure were! We didn't have any patchwork going on. That's how I record all of my stuff. The only time I do anything without the band is if I'm having a difficult day with my vocals. Then I'll go back and overdub the initial vocal track, otherwise it's all done with the musicians. You don't get the ambience and that special feeling when you can't feed off the energy of everyone in the room.

Are you doing a lot of the newer material in concert?

No. People want to hear all my older songs from the 1960s.

Speaking of the 1960s, what did you think the first time you heard the Rolling Stones' cover your hit Time Is On My Side?

I really didn't think anything of it — at first. And then I didn't get angry at the Rolling Stones. I got angry at the general public. I would perform the song and they thought I was covering a Stones song. So I just quit doing it.

For how long?

I didn't finally start doing it again until 1996. By then, people were finally doing their homework.

It had to bother you, in the 1960s, how all these British groups were appropriating, ah, black music, and becoming rich stars while artists like you struggled.

As far as the Rolling Stones go, or any of those British groups, it was what they called the "British Invasion." If you were from Britain, it was perfect because that's the way the masses were going. A lot of artists got pushed away. (Laughs) I wasn't happy with any of them British Invasion artists!

Shortly after headlining our Tampa Bay Blues Fest, you'll be back home, playing the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Do you still get excited about your hometown's signature music event?

Sure. I look forward to it. Especially now, since Katrina (displaced so many musicians). You don't get to see people, but when they come in for Jazz Fest it's a big homecoming.

I see at Jazz Fest you will again be doing the tribute to gospel great Mahalia Jackson. I have witnessed your performance in the Gospel Tent, and get chills just thinking about it. What makes those performances so meaningful to you?

It's giving praise to almighty God for being blessed. I have always been very humble when it comes to God. I am always ready and willing and hopefully able to sing him praises. I am, in all sincerity. That's the one thing I don't play with! I do feel it, I give God great respect. There are people who don't believe. But I have that faith. I have proof.

Irma Thomas, Soul Queen of New Orleans, headlines Tampa Bay blues festival 03/18/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 18, 2009 4:30am]
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