Smiling Over Irma Thomas

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Music critic David Was is all smiles over After The Rain, the new CD by veteran R&B singer Irma Thomas. It features duets with an all-star roster of piano players including Dr. John, Ellis Marsalis and Norah Jones.

DAVID WAS: Veteran Blues and R&B singer Irma Thomas had just reached retirement age at 65 when she first won her first Grammy in 2006 for the album "After the Rain."

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

It's our musician contributor, David Was.

WAS: The title is reference to Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out Irma Thomas' home and her nightclub. But it turns out no mere gust of wind could keep the soul queen of New Orleans down. She was one of the few who had flood insurance and rebuilt, though she lost everything in the house.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. IRMA THOMAS: (Singing) Broken windows and empty hallways, hailed at moon, in a sky streaked with gray.

WAS: Her new round of record albums, "Simply Grand" is a collection of songs featuring an all-star coven of piano wizards from Norah Jones to Dr. John.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) I'll be your every kind of money, when you're down to your last dime.

WAS: Soul like this doesn't come from nowhere. Cutting her teeth in a Baptist choir in Ponchatoula, Louisiana steeped the teenage Irma in the emotive style she'd later master, that and winding up in a shotgun marriage after finding herself pregnant at the age of 15. Such is the cruel crucible that either makes you or breaks you.

She took the former path, was signed by a local label when she was 19, and had a top-25 R&B hit with "(You Can Have My Husband but) Don't Mess with My Man." Irma Thomas went on to record four chart pop singles for Imperial Records, including a version of "Time is on My Side" that the Rolling Stones must have taken notice of.

(Soundbite of song "Time On My Side")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) Time is on my side, yes it is. Now, you always saying that you want to be free. You'll come running back - just like I hoped you would, baby. You'll come running back...

WAS: The past is past, but Irma Thomas today sounds every bit as sassy and girlish on her new album as she did back then. "Somebody Told You" is a rocking duet with pianist John Medeski. She originally cut the song in 1962 and in the same key.

(Soundbite of song "Somebody Told You")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) It's always somebody saying this, somebody saying that, but never act. Somebody told you.

WAS: A version of "This Bitter Earth" with Wynton's dad Ellis Marsalis on the keys is mindful of Dinah Washington's original but is read with sobriety and a jazzy restraint by the singer.

(Soundbite of "This Bitter Earth")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) This bitter earth, what fruit it bears.

WAS: As a further rebuttal to F. Scott Fitzgerald's line about no second act in American lives, Ms. Thomas graduated from Delgado College in 2001 at the age of 61. With a diploma on the wall and a Grammy on the mantle piece, she could have just sat at home waiting for the next hurricane to hit. Instead, she's recorded a compelling new collection of songs at age 67, an act of God in itself.

BRAND: Day to Day contributor David Was. He's half of the musical duo "Was Not Was."

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) Sail on, sail on.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Day to Day is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

BRAND: And I'm Madeleine Brand.

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