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unkown pleasures

Sounds like R&B to me

By James Reed
December 23, 2004
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Please forgive Irma Thomas if she seems a little prickly about how her music is often miscategorized. After four decades singing her sultry R&B scorchers (''It's Raining," ''Wish Someone Would Care"), this is a woman who has been officially proclaimed ''the Soul Queen of New Orleans," by the city's mayor, no less.

''They put my album where? In the Cajun and zydeco section?" she asks incredulously when told that's where her music is located at Tower Records in Cambridge. ''Well, it figures. Everybody thinks music from New Orleans is Cajun, and it's really not. Cajun is more an ethnicity than a type of music."

Thomas, 63, has never enjoyed the success of fellow R&B singers such as Aretha Franklin or Etta James, and that's a shame. She recorded ''Time Is on My Side" a few years before the Rolling Stones, though it was their version that became the massive hit. She politely declined to sing the song for years afterward, but it's back in her repertoire now.

Next week, you have three nights to hear Thomas's version, which is much better than Mick's rendition, by the way. She plays at the Regattabar Dec. 28-30. We caught up with Thomas last week at her home in New Orleans.

Q: What's it like to play your music for a bunch of Yankees in New England as opposed to fans in New Orleans?

A: (Laughs). Well, you know, they're not as stiff as you might expect. They're a really great audience, very attentive to the songs and how I sing them. People have their favorite song that I sing, and I tell them the truth: Look, I don't remember every song I've recorded. It's impossible, so I use a ring binder that has my songs. And yes, they dance a little bit. It's kind of hard not to dance to this music.

Q: How have your songs evolved over the years?

A: Well, for one thing, I understand them a lot better. I've had 40 years of experience, so I can relate to what I'm singing. Thankfully, my life hasn't been as sad as some of my songs, though. Life has been really good to me. I'm very blessed.

Q: What do you look for in songs you'd like to record?

A: My songs have to tell a story. It has to be something that's sincere and has a message that I can deliver to people.

Q: Is ''Time Is on My Side" still a touchy subject for you?

A: No, it's not a touchy subject. I didn't do that song for a long time, but then Bonnie Raitt played the Jazz Fest here in New Orleans and invited me on stage to sing with her. She told me I really should be singing ''Time Is on My Side" again. At the time that I recorded it, I really felt like time was on my side. And it still is.

James Reed writes about performers who are up-and-coming, little known, or ones you might have lost track of. He can be reached at jreed@globe.com for suggestions.

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