By Philip Booth
Irma Thomas, a.k.a. the Soul Queen of New Orleans, is a longtime R&B favorite, fresh off the San Francisco Jazz Festival, headed to the Tampa Bay Blues Festival on Sunday. Next up: two performances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, including an encore tribute to gospel great Mahalia Jackson.
So is Thomas plagued by genre confusion? Not at all, she said recently from her New Orleans East home, the interior of which was entirely reconstructed after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of her neighborhood (the singer was on tour in Austin, Texas, at the time).
"If the song feels good, I sing it," Thomas said. "I don't worry about what genre the song is in. I think singers sell themselves short when they try to categorize what they do. I sing rhythm and blues, I sing a little jazz, I sing a little pop, a slight bit of hip-hop with Galactic. I even like country. If it's telling a good story and it has a good feeling, why not let them know there's another side to you?
"You probably won't ever hear me rapping, though," she added. "But I've been doing monologues since back in the '60s. When I was touring with James Brown I had three songs to sing, and I did a monologue to stretch the time. They didn't call it rapping back then."
The Louisiana native, 70, is probably best known for such '60s singles as Ruler of My Heart, It's Raining, You Can Have My Husband (But Don't Mess With My Man) and Time Is On My Side, later a huge hit for the Rolling Stones. Thomas moved to California at the end of the '60s and returned to New Orleans in the mid '70s, eventually opening a nightclub, the Lion's Den, that was wiped out by Katrina. She launched a comeback 25 years ago.
Recently, Thomas added another role as a performer. Last year she played a character she knew well on the final episode of the debut season of HBO's Treme, a drama focused on a group of musicians and other New Orleans residents after Katrina.
"It was fun," she said. "It's easy to play yourself. It (the show) is capturing the essence of New Orleans, in terms of the arts and music culture, the neighborhood culture. The whole atmosphere and ambience of the city is really being portrayed very well."
Thomas also has been busy on the recording front, releasing three new songs for 2009's 50th Anniversary Celebration, a compilation of her work.
Then there was that guest shot with popular New Orleans jazz-funk jamband Galactic, for the funky track Heart of Steel on last year's highly collaborative Ya-Ka-May album.
"I sung it the way they asked me to sing it," she said. "Next time I heard it I went, 'Is that me?' That's that youthful technology. It really made me sound like somebody who's at least 30 years my junior. I never thought about me singing that way, with that kind of hip-hop feeling to it and me not being a rapper. And yet it was all New Orleans."