Irma: My Life in Music

The 90-minute documentary aired in October 2021 on WYES-TV, and on the WYES and PBS apps.

WYES presents a documentary on the life of GRAMMY Award winner Irma Thomas, whose career spans an amazing half-century. For the film, WYES partnered with The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation and Michael Murphy Productions.

The 90-minute program included an extensive interview with Irma herself, as well as commentary from many of her colleagues. Included are archival performances and interview footage culled from decades of performances filmed by Michael Murphy Productions at The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The footage is now part of The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation Archive. The program also includes rare photos from her career and family. 

“Being a partner in this program is so in keeping with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Foundation’s mission to honor and support New Orleans musicians,” according to Don Marshall, executive director of the Foundation. “We are in awe of her huge talent and delighted we can put a spotlight on her amazing career utilizing materials from across our Archive.”  

First and foremost, the program is a visual storytelling at its best as Irma will tell her own story, allowing audiences to relish the opportunity to get to know the artist and woman that quoting Bonnie Raitt, “Her voice today is as—just as beautiful and sultry and powerful as it was on her first records. And she’s a legend. She’s as good today as she was the day she came out of the church singing.”

Born in Ponchatoula, Louisiana as Irma Lee, Thomas first sang with a Baptist church choir as a teenager. By the age of 19, she had already been married twice and had four children. Retaining the last name of her second husband, she worked as a waitress and occasionally sang with bandleader Tommy Ridgley. With his help, she landed a record deal with Ron Records and by 1959 her first single, “Don’t Mess With My Man,” ranked number 22 on the U. S. Billboard R&B record chart. 

In numerous interviews New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint often noted that he often wrote songs with Irma Thomas’ voice “in his head.” As the producer, composer and pianist of many Minit Label recordings, Toussaint hired Thomas; and out of this collaboration came such beloved recordings as “It’s Raining,” “Ruler Of My Heart” and “Wish Someone Would Care.”

Throughout the Sixties, Thomas found work playing locally and on the Gulf Coast at clubs, proms and other high school dances. “I have fans who have been with me since they were teenagers,” she said in a recent magazine interview. Thomas later recorded for Imperial Records and Chess Records and ultimately moved to California in the late ‘60s. She returned to New Orleans in the early 1980s and opened a music club. 

In 1991 she was signed by Rounder Records and received her first GRAMMY nomination for Live! Simply The Best. She recorded numerous gospel albums and received yet another GRAMMY nomination in 1999 for the album Sing It!  

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina forced her to relocate to Gonzales, Louisiana, and she returned as soon as her home is eastern New Orleans was restored. Teaming up with Scott Billington and Rounder again, she recorded the album After The Rain, which was awarded the GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2007.

Thomas has performed with James Taylor, Paul Simon and Marcia Ball and has performed around the world. Her 1964 rendition of “Time Is On My Side” inspired a version by the Rolling Stones, and she plays annually at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. 

“No matter what kind of song she is singing, Irma’s big, warm voice has more honesty in it than just about any you will ever hear,” states Scott Billington, who produced her albums for Rounder Records. 

IRMA: MY LIFE IN MUSIC is produced by Cilista Eberle, Michael Murphy, Jim Moriarty and Rachel Lyons. Serving as executive producers are Peggy Scott Laborde and Don Marshall.