Irma Thomas: A Soul Survivor

Singer Irma Thomas is better known in many circles as the Soul Queen of New Orleans. Thomas speaks, and sings, about on life After the Rain, the title of her most recent CD.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And as we close out our two days of conversations about the struggles and the celebrations of those who call New Orleans home, we can't forget the music and the people who make it. Singer Irma Thomas, better known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans, surely counts as one of the performers who defines the city. We last spoke with her in February, just after she won her first Grammy for her 2006 album titled "After The Rain." She's with us to talk about how she's doing and the music scene today. She joins us from member station WWNO in New Orleans. Welcome, Soul Queen.

Ms. IRMA THOMAS (Singer): It's my pleasure being with you.

MARTIN: When we spoke last, you were just maybe a day from receiving your Grammy. Have you come down off your Grammy high?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: I don't think you ever, ever come completely down. I'm not a person who hides or has an entourage and is guarded by this one or that one. I'm an everyday person who goes out into the neighborhood and do those things I need to get done like every other normal citizen. So I'm getting the congratulations from my folk here in New Orleans on a daily basis. So when am I going to come down? Never.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Well, I'm glad to hear that. And I was going to ask, where have you put the Grammy in your home? And that reminds me that when we last spoke, you have not been able to move back into your home. So where are you living?

Ms. THOMAS: I've been back into my home since April. I moved in a week before the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival so I could be close to home. I moved into the one room and a half bath that we had put together so we could be in and wouldn't have to commute back and forth to, you know, from Gonzales, Louisiana where I was at the time that I had gone to the Grammys. And where I did not have a mantel around the fireplace, there is a mantel where the Grammy has a special spot all its own.

MARTIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You got that mantel - a good reason to get your mantle back, you going to put your Grammy and gaze at it. Do you like, hug it?

Ms. THOMAS: I have come to the point where I truly appreciate, and I have come to the point (unintelligible) everytime I said, because who in their right mind would think that at 66 years of age I'd still have a viable career and still be receiving, you know, awards of this nature just being who I am?

MARTIN: "After The Rain," of course, the album for which you won the Grammy, it was actually the - as I recall you telling me, it's a collection of songs that was compiled largely before the storm, but it turns out to be…

Ms. THOMAS: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: …kind of incredibly apt for…

Ms. THOMAS: Yes, yes, yes.

MARTIN: …describing what it was like after the rain.

Ms. THOMAS: Yes.

MARTIN: Do you want to sing something?

Ms. THOMAS: We're cued up to do something, if you insist.

MARTIN: All right.

Ms. THOMAS: Are you insisting that I do…

MARTIN: I insist. I insist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I insist, my queen.

Ms. THOMAS: Well, why don't we do "In the Middle of It All?"

MARTIN: All right.

(Soundbite of song, "In the Middle of It All?")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) My house is a lonely house. But it once was a happy house. And the two of us, we were so happy, as I recall. But now the rain falls around it and loneliness surrounds it. And I'm in the middle of it all. My friends look at me and say, I wonder what makes a girl that way. The girl doesn't even 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.

MARTIN: Grammy-winning blues legend Irma Thomas, thank you.

Ms. THOMAS: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Do you think that New Orleans will come back?

Ms. THOMAS: Yes, I think New Orleans will come back. I also am realistic enough to know that it'll never be what it was, but New Orleans is always going to be a special city because the few of us who were a part of it for so many years that are here are going to let off that kind of feeling, and it's going to be infectious like it's always been in the past. The people who are moving here who are new to the city are already becoming New Orleanians with the language and the atmosphere that we share here, that laidback feeling that we making them fat with the food again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: It's going to come back. It's going to take time. It won't ever be what it used to be.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask about the club - your club, the Lion's Den was shut down after the storm. Have you been able to open that back up?

Ms. THOMAS: I have no intentions. In fact, it has been - we gave up the lease on the building where we were, and it's now open under new management and it's called the Chocolate Bar.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. THOMAS: You know, you don't press the envelope. We were trying to sell the business to keep our people who we had working before the storm, so Mother Nature just kind of helped us out of the business. And so we took advantage of that situation and just let it go and said, okay, Lord. You're telling me something, I'm going to answer and then leave it go, and we let it go.

MARTIN: I was talking to a resident of 13th Ward earlier this week, and he told me that really a day can't go by without thinking about the hurricane in some way, that life is still defined by it in a lot of ways. He says if I go to the hardware store, get some sheetrock, if I, you know…

Ms. THOMAS: Yes.

MARTIN: …try to go to the doctor, I'm thinking about it. I wanted to ask about the music. Have you noticed a change in the music in New Orleans because of the storm?

Ms. THOMAS: Yes. There's a change - a major change, and part of it is there's a lack thereof. Quite a few of the major musicians who was a part of the local music scene around here are not back yet. A lot of them are commuting. They had what they call a silent march. They were in protest of the low wages that's being made for the few venues that are here.

And I can understand that, because some of the musicians are taking whatever they can get because they're in survival mode. But then there's the other side of the musicians who feel, well no, don't take what you can get. Make demands to get what you're worth, and it's a struggle there. The music scene has changed in that respect, where you don't have as many live clubs up and running as before. And the few that are, the same musicians are kind of working their round from club to club.

MARTIN: Now I don't think this is the first storm that affected you, if I have that right. I think back in the 50s…

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, no.

MARTIN: …right, there was a storm that shut down a lot of the clubs in the South. And blues musician have been, I think, particularly vulnerable. Did you notice after that storm, did it affect - did it find its way into your music? And are you finding that Katrina is finding its way into your music?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, Katrina is finding its way into everybody's music, be it non-musician or musician. It's the type of storm that won't let you forget. You kind of use it as a therapeutic source to allow yourself to breathe by performing and singing or doing whatever it takes to let out that stress that comes with trying to reformulate your life. And so you hear music played with more depth and feel more feeling than before, and it's coming out because this is our way of - our therapy. The way musicians play now, there's a little kind of sadness underneath even the happy songs. You can - there's a little wave of sadness in the music in a sense, and it's going to be there for a while. It's not intentional. It's just what it is.

MARTIN: Do you think I could talk you into one more song to sing us out?

Ms. THOMAS: Would like to go out on an up note?

MARTIN: Yes, I think that's a great idea. Let's do it.

Ms. THOMAS: Okay. Why don't we do "Stone Survivor" which was written by a local person, Dave Egan, who's a Louisiana man. And it's called "Soul Survivor," but I like to dedicate it to all the folk who helped New Orleans come back, those who are the volunteers who came to the city and spent their time, thank you for helping us be stone survivors.

MARTIN: All right. Grammy-winning blues legend, Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, joined us from member station WWNO in New Orleans. Thank you, my queen.

Ms. THOMAS: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of song, "Stone Survivor")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) The further you rise, the further you may drop. Where you land maybe hard or soft. Many fools have made it to the top, and there's always some other fool ready to kick them off. But I'm a soul survivor, and I've seen this little old world go round. I'm a straight through driver and the ever-spinning wheels won't get me down. Down or up, I'll play the blues. Might get rough, but I live the life I choose and I ain't no apologize because I'm a stone survivor. Yes, I am.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.