Sitting home alone
Success has come to lots of them
"I was really at the low point when I wrote that", she later related to author Jeff Hannusch. "I was just looking back at life. I was a 14-year-old mother, I had three kids when I was 17, and I was on my second marriage. At the time, I was breaking up with my husband, because he was giving me a hard time about being on stage. It was a song from my heart, that's probably why it sold so well; I really wanted someone to care, to stand beside me and care."
On the flip side of the single there was another topnotch song, this time written by Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley. "Break-A-Way" is a very enjoyable uptempo tune, perfect with hand claps and girl group chorus, and the lyrics seem to continue the same real-life story: "I made my reservation, I'm leaving town tomorrow, I'll find somebody new, and there'll be no more sorrow". Although the song didn't make the national US charts on its own, it was a local hit in New Orleans, and there was a British cover version by Beryl Marsden. Nearly twenty years later the song was recorded with even more success by Tracey Ullman, and recently also the original demo version by Jackie DeShannon has surfaced on CD.
Imperial released nine singles and two albums from Irma during her three-year stay on the label, and although none of the later singles was as successful as the first one, they were all great records. The first follow-up single, "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)"/"Time Is On My Side" was possibly the greatest of them all: "Anyone Who Knows..." is a magnificent uptown ballad, while the flip became better known as one of the Rolling Stones' early hits - although their cover version was only a bland note-for-note copy of Irma's recording.
Many of Irma's Imperial singles were big productions, similar to the records Dionne Warwick, Maxine Brown and Gladys Knight & Pips were making at the time. At first her material was recorded in Los Angeles (with backing vocals by Darlene Love and the Blossoms), but some of her later records were cut in New York under the supervision of Jerry Ragovoy, who also produced numerous memorable records with Garnet Mimms, Howard Tate and Lorraine Ellison. Imperial was also able to get her first class material from many of the top songwriters, including Van McCoy ("Times Have Changed", "He's My Guy", "It's Starting To Get To Me Now", "Some Things You Never Get Used To"), Randy Newman ("While the City Sleeps", "Baby Don't Look Down"), and Burt Bacharach and Hal David ("Live Again", "Long After Tonight Is All Over" - both unissued at the time).
Her first four Imperial singles all charted on Billboard's pop chart, but unfortunately the success of her later Imperial releases didn't live up to the expectations (one of them missed charts completely, and four of them "bubbled under", but did not hit the Top 100). "I had this gut feeling that my career was about to take off", Irma explained later, "I mean, I would have been up there with the Gladys Knights and the Dionne Warwicks and those people, because I was doing material equal to or better than the same stuff they were doing at the time [...] There was a misunderstanding about me as an artist. They thought I would be difficult to work with, when I really wasn't. I just wasn't getting good direction."
Another reason for the negligible success of these records might be that Imperial didn't have too many successful r&b acts at the time (the days of Fats Domino were long gone), and it's possible that the company simply wasn't very good at promoting them. Even if that was the case, you can't blame Imperial for not trying to do their best in 1965-66. They briefly reunited Irma with her former mentor, Allen Toussaint, who wrote and produced two real gems for her, "Take a Look" and "Wait, Wait, Wait", and when "Take a Look" somehow failed to reach the Hot One Hundred, they brought in James Brown to produce one more final attempt ("It's a Man's - Woman's World") at reviving her career. Although the song borrowed intriguing elements from at least three previous number one r&b hits ("It's a Man's Man's Man's World", "When a Man Loves a Woman" and "You'll Lose a Good Thing"), it didn't become the hit everybody hoped for, and today Irma considers it the worst record she's ever done.
In 1967 Imperial didn't renew Irma's contract, and after a short break she signed with Chess Records. At that time Chess was sending many of their top artists down to Muscle Shoals instead of recording them at their own studios in Chicago, and Muscle Shoals was also Irma's next destination. Two sessions at Rick Hall's Fame studio produced several fine sourthern soul ballads, three of which were tried as a single.
Her first effort for the label, "Somewhere Crying", failed to chart, and her cover version of Helene Smith's "A Woman Will Do Wrong" didn't do better (the song was also covered by Dee Dee Sharp on Atco, but it was Smith's original that hit the charts), but her reading of Otis Redding's "Good to Me" managed to become a minor r&b hit in February 1968. Unfortunately this was also her last release on Chess - according to Irma, she didn't go along with their plans ("They wanted to control my life, and I wasn't gonna go for that"), which meant that her singles didn't get proper national promotion from the label.
Irma's career took a downward turn after her frustrating experiences with Chess. In 1969 the Camille storm destroyed many of the local clubs that she had depended on, and in January 1970 she moved to California, where she lived for a few years, working as an automobile parts sale person. During this time she continued working club dates on weekends, and she also recorded for several labels (including an album, "In Between Tears", produced by Jerry Williams a.k.a. Swamp Dogg), but the results were mostly unremarkable. Her brief stay on the famed Atlantic label was particularly frustrating: She recorded as many as nineteen tracks for the label in three different sessions, but apart from a solitary Cotillion single, none of this material was released. She later complained that her producers were trying to make her sound like Diana Ross.
Finally, in mid-seventies she moved back to New Orleans, where she was still popular as a live performer. In 1977 she married her present husband and manager Emile Jackson, with whom she also owned a club ("Lion's Den") in New Orleans.
She had signed a recording contract with the Sansu label, but there were no releases from her on Sansu - instead the label recorded Irma's performance at the 1976 New Orleans Jazz Festival without consulting her at all. This material has later come out on Island and Charly ("Hip Shakin' Mama"), but Irma claims that she got no royalties from these releases. Her next studio album, "Soul Queen of New Orleans" (Maison de Soul, 1977) was a modest effort, which mostly contained new versions of her old hits. "Safe With Me" (RCS, 1980) put her in a more modern setting, but despite receiving a good deal of initial attention for the album, the label wasn't able to make Irma a pop star.
After the failure of "Safe With Me" Irma didn't record anything for six or seven years, but she continued to perform locally with her own band. Her comeback as a recording artist started in 1986, when Scott Billington of Rounder Records approached her. Author Jeff Hannusch (who had interviewed her in the book "I Hear You Knockin'") had told the company about her. Her first Rounder album "The New Rules" was produced by Irma and Scott Billington, and it was followed by another set, "The Way I Feel", both of which contained a mixture of new songs and remakes of already familiar material. The third album, "Live! Simply the Best", gained her a Grammy nomination in 1991. It was recorded at Slim's in San Francisco, and Irma was backed by her own band, the Professionals.
After another excellent studio album, "True Believer" in 1993, she got a chance to do a gospel album. "It's my roots", she told in a Soul Express magazine interview. "I had been wanting to do it for years, but I never had the budget to do it with". Irma chose the material herself with some songs being her special favorites. The music on "Walk Around Heaven" (1994) was mainly slow and passionate - most of the songs were traditional gospel songs, and Irma's singing was really strong. Nowadays she is singing regularly in a chuch choir in First African Baptist Church of New Orleans. "I don't do gospel music when I'm singing R&B", she says, "I don't mix the two of them in the same show".
Fortunately Irma didn't abandon secular music completely, although it took three years before she released her next album, "The Story of My Life" (1997), again on Rounder. "The big problem has been finding material that I can relate to and record", she complained in an Offbeat magazine interview shortly after the release of the album, "I feel young, but the reality is that I'm a mature 55-year-old woman. It's not easy finding appropriate material that I can record that will appeal to my fans. I'm really selective because I have to live the songs I record."
The following album, "Sing It!" (1998) was something special, as Irma joined her forces with two of her long-time fans, Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson. They all sang together on a number of songs, while each of them also got to sing a couple of solo tracks. The record got fairly good reviews, and the trio performed together on several occasions.
Irma's next album, "My Heart's In Memphis: The Songs Of Dan Penn", came out in August 2000. As the title indicated, it consisted of songs written by Dan Penn. Although there were a few remakes of previously recorded tunes ("I'm Your Puppet", "Woman Left Lonely" and "Zero Will Power"), most of the material is new and specially written for the album. A well-produced album with several outstanding performances, this was the most of sophisticated of Irma's Rounder albums, and perhaps also the best.
When the hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, there were some confusing reports that Irma might be among the people missing after the storm. However, it soon appeared that she had been away from home, gigging in Austin, Texas. Although she had not been in danger herself, the hurricane left both her home and the Lion's Den club underwater. Both of them had apparently been properly insured, but Irma and her husband chose to locate to Gonzales, Louisiana for a period of time before the repair work at their home could start.
Although most of the material had been chosen before the storm, her 2006 album "After the Rain" reflected on the big catastrophy that had claimed many lives and destroyed much of her home city. The album differed in style from her previous Rounder albums, as many of the tracks had an rougher-edged and bluesier sound. The lyrics of the songs didn't directly deal with the actual events, but it was easy to see that many of them commented on the aftermath of the storm on the emotional level. The album starts with a memorable version of Arthur Alexander's ballad "In the Middle of It All", and goes on to include folk-blues songs like "Another Man Done Gone" and "Make Me a Pallet On Your Door". In addition to the songs on the album, she had also recorded an atmospheric version of Bessie Smith's "Back Water Blues", which appeared on the benefit album "Our New Orleans".
Although Irma has had only limited success as a recording artist after her mid-sixties heyday, she has been able to continue singing and performing through the years. During the sixties she was a popular performer in the Southern college circuit (which was portrayed in the film "Animal House"), she toured with people like James Brown, she appeared in New York's famous Apollo theatre, and she even visited UK once. Today she remains a very popular artist in New Orleans, and she has also found herself a small but dedicated cadre of fans elsewhere in the US and many other countries, too.
In 1994 Irma did her first extensive European tour, which brought her even to my home country. Although she is one of my all-time favorite singers, I didn't quite expect that she would be so fantastic. She really seemed to be enjoying herself, and she sounded great both on her classic Minit and Imperial material and on more recent tunes. Her version of the Ann Peebles song "I Needed Somebody" was a real show-stopper, and the audience just didn't want to let her get off the stage. The show ended with a wild version of "Iko Iko", and when I sat by the riverside after the show, waiting for the morning and the first train to take me back home, I was wondering if it all had been true.