Music News & Reviews

Soul Queen of New Orleans headlines at the Mondavi

Irma Thomas, the soul queen of New Orleans, will perform at the Mondavi on Wednesday.
Irma Thomas, the soul queen of New Orleans, will perform at the Mondavi on Wednesday.

The poster for “Blues at the Crossroads: The Soul of the Blues” show at the Mondavi on Feb. 4 pays homage to the multi-act rhythm and blues and soul concert posters and handbills of the 1960s. During that decade, up to a dozen hit-makers from record labels of all sizes, states of solvency, and stature would be shoehorned into a single bill and perform at college campuses, military armory halls and such theaters as the Apollo in New York City.

The “Crossroads” concert brings together five acts to recapture the vitality of those road shows and salute the songs of such soul legends as Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. Vocalists Irma Thomas and Lee Fields are the foremost veterans on the card with résumés beginning before the other artists were born. Also featured are the high-octane sextet The Dynamites, bluesy siren Alecia Chakour (from the Warren Haynes Band), and guitarist Eric Krasno (from Soulive and Lettuce).

“You had various locations where various people became the headliner,” said Thomas about those former shows via phone from New Orleans. “But overall we were all headliners in our own right because all of us had records that were in the Top 100 charts.”

Thomas, who turns 74 this month, is just as at home inside breathy ballads and gospel music as she is within swamp and up-tempo girl-group grooves. She favors songs driven by stories that organically evoke her own emotions. And her passion and warmth has led to induction into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, a 2007 Grammy for “After the Rain” and last year’s Blues Music Award for best soul blues female artist.

Raised in New Orleans and the Louisiana countryside, Thomas first sang as a child in a Baptist church choir. By age 19, she had two ex-husbands and four children. In 1959, she worked as a waitress at a club where her boss told her to quit singing onstage with the house band during her table shifts. She sang one day while the boss was out. He returned while she was leaving the stage and fired her.

“He just pointed toward the door,” said Thomas. “And I knew what that meant. I told the bandleader at the time I just lost my job. He told me don’t worry about it. I would be able to work with them. So that’s how it started. A finger pointed toward the door and that was that.” Her musical career was launched.

Thomas’ first single was the sassy 1960 shuffle “(You Can Have My Husband but) Don’t Mess With My Man,” which peaked at No. 22 on Billboard’s R&B chart. In 1962, she recorded “It’s Raining” and the amazing ache of “Ruler of My Heart (which Otis Redding later reinterpreted as “Pain in My Heart”) for producer Allen Toussaint.

By 1964, “Wish Someone Would Care” rose to No. 17 on the charts with the vibrant “Breakaway” as its B-side. And she lip-synced to “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” on “American Bandstand” in a dress she made for herself.

Her 1964 version of “Time Is on My Side” predated by months the cookie-cutter version that the Rolling Stones sang on their Ed Sullivan Show debut. And her expansive discography includes sessions for Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and Rounder Records, 1991’s “Live: Simply the Best” recorded at Slim’s in San Francisco, and 1998’s “Sing It!” album with Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson.

After 1969’s Hurricane Camille wiped out many venues that Thomas worked on the Mississippi coast, she moved west. “To my disgust,” said Thomas, “when I got to California the work did not come easy musically, so I just got me a regular day job. I worked at Montgomery Ward’s for seven years. I went from lingerie to automotive. You do what you got to do when you have a family to feed.”

By the mid-1980s, Thomas was back in New Orleans and singing in her current husband’s corner bar. She was officially inaugurated in 1989 by city officials as the Soul Queen of New Orleans on the very day her father died. She was uprooted again in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina and has since returned home.

For the Mondavi show, Thomas is sticking to her own catalog.

“The only cover tune that I might do would be ‘Forever Young,’” she said. “That’s the Bob Dylan version. I did a birthday party and enjoyed doing it to the point that I got emotional. So I said, ‘You know, that would be a good way to say thank you to my fans.’ I’ve had fans who hung in there with me all these years. That kind of loyalty – you can’t say thank you enough.”

Blues at the Crossroads: The Soul of the Blues

What: Five acts (including Irma Thomas) performing songs from the legends of R&B and soul.

When: 8 p.m. Feb. 4

Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center (1 Shields Ave., Davis)

Cost: $15-$30

Information: (866) 754-2787; www.mondaviarts.org

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