Irma Thomas, The Soul Queen of New Orleans career in the music business has spanned six decades, with her first single (You Can Have My Husband But) Don’t Mess With My Man on the Ron label charting back in 1960. Since then, Irma has recorded for some of the best know soul labels, including Minit, Chess and Imperial.  She was a contemporary of artists like Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick. Unlike her contemporaries, Irma never found the mainstream success they enjoyed. Sadly, her longevity didn’t translate into commercial success, but Irma Thomas is a hugely respected artist who has released over a dozen albums and over thirty singles. One of these albums was Irma’s third album In Between Tears, released in 1973 on the Fungus record label. This album was later rereleased in 1981 on the Charly label. 

In Between Tears saw Irma team up with legendary producer Swamp Dogg with Duane Alman playing guitar. Due to the hurricane in 1969 that had reeked havoc Irma’s beloved New Orleans, she had to move Los Angeles. Once there, her musical career was put on hold, with Irma working in the retail sector. That was until 1973, when Irma released the single She’ll Never Be Your Wife on the Fungus label. Her comeback was complete when she entered the studio with Swamp Dogg at the helm to record In Between Tears. When the album was released, it wasn’t a huge commercial success, but instead, is now considered a minor classic, which demonstrates just what deep soul is about. The big question is, what difference had irma’s absence from the music industry made to her music, and was there a different sound on Between Tears?

In Between Tears opens with the title track In Between Tears, a track that was written by Jerry Williams Jr. and Doris Troy. When the track opens with chiming guitars, rhythm section and piano accompanying Irma, the tempo is quick, the sound full and Irma’s voice world weary, but strong. She’s backed by sweet, tight, female backing vocalists while, the bass line is fast, strings sweep in adding a sense of sadness, while a piano and chiming guitars complete the line-up. As Irma sings the lyrics, she gets across the sense of anger, sadness and betrayal in the lyrics, about a woman whose husband has left her. Even though Irma’s been away from the music industry for four years, her ability to make a song her own, hasn’t deserted her. She sings the lyrics as if she’s lived them a thousand times, and combined with Swamp Dogg’s faster and fuller arrangement, made all the better by the addition of female backing vocalists, this is an excellent track to start the album.

She’ll Never Be Your Wife was Irma’s comeback single, after a year year absence from music. When the track opens, a piano, swirling strings, guitars and the rhythm section combine before Irma’s vocal enters. Her voice has a deep, throaty sound, perfect for the heartache and pain in the song. The tempo is slower, the sound laden with emotion, grand sweeping strings a wailing Hammond organ the latest addition to the arrangement. Again, Jerry Williams Jr song is about betrayal and a relationship breaking up, with Irma refusing to sign the divorce papers, telling her man, that his new lady will never be his wife. Like the opening track, Irma is able to get across the emotions involved in this situation perfectly, her powerful voice full of anger and bitterness at this betrayal. Backed by another great arrangement from Swamp Dogg, the album just keeps getting better. Hopefully, the next seven songs will be just as good.

It’s a dramatic combination of reverberating guitars, strings drenched in sadness, short bursts of horns and the rhythm section that accompany Irma as These Four Walls opens. Her voice is strong as she sings about how happy she is, being within these four walls, albeit, her man is still married, with a family to feed. Some day, whether in hope or belief, she says, they’ll be together. Accompanying her are female backing vocalists, whose voices soar soulfully in unison, while the arrangement is slow and dramatic, but slightly spoiled by the constant reverberating guitar. It’s a sound that you quickly tire of, and whoever was responsible, spoiled an otherwise excellent arrangement and song. However, regardless of that, Irma’s vocal is hugely emotive, laden with hope and desire.

What’s So Wrong With You Loving Me opens with a slow, spacious introduction, chiming guitars, rhythm section and piano combining before Irma’s strong emotive vocal accompanied by backing vocalists whose voices soar high. The arrangement veers between a slower style and then quickens, allowing both Irma and her band to get across the drama in the lyrics. They’re about two married people having an affair, and how they have to lead a double life, flitting around in pursuit of their forbidden love. During this track, Irma’s voice is a combination of power and passions, constantly questioning. Swamp Dogg’s arrangement is stirring and dramatic, using drums, piano and strings to get across the duplicity and danger this relationship is fraught with. Together with Irma’s vocal, it’s a potent combination resulting in an outstanding track.

It’s a very different sound and style on You’re the Dog (I Do the Barking Myself). Blazing horns, chiming guitars, piano and driving rhythm sections accompany Irma’s powerful, dynamic vocal. She sings about how she feels the roles are reversed in the relationship, how she’s keeping her man and he needs to buck his ideas up. Behind her, chiming sometimes, screaming guitars accompany the bursts of braying horns and dramatic piano while, backing vocalists accompany a now, roaring, screaming Irma, whose frustrated and angry. Although very different in style from previous tracks, this song allows Irma to demonstrate not only her versatility as a vocalists, but her hugely powerful vocal.

The style changes on Coming From Behind/I Wish Someone Would Care. It opens with a monologue from a miserable and weary, but bitter and angry Irma against a backdrop of slow rhythm section, piano and chiming guitars which are interspersed with drama and space. This monologue is about how Irma’s man has left her, how sad and miserable she is, but how she knows he’ll return, which brings out the anger and bitterness in her voice. Although this works well, it maybe goes on a bit too long. Things change when I Wish Someone Would Care starts, with the tempo still slow, the arrangement still featuring those chiming guitars, piano and slow rhythm section. Irma’s voice grows in power, becoming a roar, laden with emotion and sadness, as she almost pleads for somebody to care for her. Her voice sits atop an spacious, understated arrangement, allowing Irma’s voice to take centre-stage. This it does, with her emotive performance having much in common with the previous track. Personally, as much as I enjoyed the monologue, I much prefer the emotion ridden pleas of Irma on I Wish Someone Would Care, a truly impassioned performance.

When Turn My World Around bursts into life, it’s immediately apparent that this track is something special. From the bursts of blazing horns, guitars and driving rhythm section that combine with Irma’s weary vocal, the tempo is quick and the sound full. At a breakneck pace, a brilliant track unfolds, with Irma lost, needing love and affection, her lover having left her. Lush strings sweep in, joining backing vocalists while Swamp Dogg’s arrangement that features braying horns throughout the track, that match the passion and energy of Irma’s emotionally charged vocal. By the end of the track, Irma and Swamp Dogg have worked their magic, creating one of the album highlights.

One thing that I’m not a fan of on a soul album, are rock guitars. That to me is a no-no. Recently, I wrote a review of an Ann Peebles album that featured a track that bore the scars of this aberration. When We Won’t Be In Your way begins, I’m horrified to hear this unwelcome addition. The introduction is drama laden with wailing Hammond organ, dramatic rhythm section and soaring, screaming guitars. They give way to a brow-beaten, weary Irma, who has gathered up her kids and left her husband. Horns cut in, briefly blazing, giving way to more screaming guitars. However, although they succeed in creating a sense of the turmoil Irma’s describing, they overpower everything else. This is unfortunate as it despoils the rest of the arrangement at this point. What’s even worse is that this song features an outstanding and hugely emotive vocal from Irma. The sad thing is that this would’ve been a great song without the screaming, rock guitars.

In Between Tears closes with I’d Do It All Over You, another faster track that sees Irma forget about the sadness and heartache of a relationship, as she sings about how she’d do it all again. There’s a sense of defiance and bravado, even vulnerability in her vocal. Behind her piano, rhythm section and guitars combine to produce as fast paced arrangement, with the addition of blazing horns the perfect finishing touch. Together, they combine to create a fast, furious and fulsome backdrop for Irma’s now, roaring, screaming vocal, which is laden with defiance and bravado. Such an excellent, energetic and dynamic track seems the perfect way to end this album, as anything else would seem like second best.

After four years away from the recording studio, Irma Thomas had lost none of her enthusiasm, energy and talent. On In Between Tears she delivers each song with a mixture of emotions. One minute she’s heartbroken and despairing, the next, she’s feisty, full of defiance and bravado. During some songs, there’s a world weary sound to her voice, as if she’s lived a dozen lives, when in reality, she was only thirty-two. This demonstrates one of Irma’s talents, the ability to bring the story behind the lyrics to life. When she does this, she becomes a masterful storyteller. Of the nine songs on the album Swamp Dogg, aka Jerry Williams Jr. wrote of cowrote eight of them. Not only that, but he produced the album as well. With a crack band behind her, the result was an album that deserved to do so much better. Unlike many albums, this album is long on quality and short on filler. Sadly, the album wasn’t a huge commercial success. It has been released several times since then by various labels, but in my opinion, the best way to buy it is as part of a compilation released by Kent Soul in 2008. It features the album plus the rest of Irma’s 1970s recordings, in total nineteen great tracks. This allows you to hear some brilliant music from The Soul Queen of New Orleans. Standout Tracks: In Between Tears, She’ll Never Be Your Wife, These Four Walls and Turn My World Around.


1 Comment


    1. Irma Thomas : In Between Tears (1973) | Mr. Moo's What Da Funk

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