There’s not many artists whose career spans six decades. Irma Thomas’ does. The Soul Queen of New Orleans  released her debut single (You Can Have My Husband But) Don’t Mess With My Man on the Ron label 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 recently rereleased by Alive Records.

In Between Tears was Irma’s first album in four, long years. After a hurricane reeked havoc Irma’s beloved New Orleans in 1969, 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 producer Swamp Dogg  to record In Between Tears.

For In Between Tears, Swamp Dogg wrote all but one of the tracks. He also put together a tight and talented band. The rhythm section included bassist Robert Popwell, drummer Squirm and guitarist Duane Alman and Jesse Carr. Swamp Dogg played piano, Paul Hornsby organ and The Swamp Dogg Band supplied the strings. In total, seven tracks were recorded. They became In Between Tears.

When In Between Tears was released in 1973, it wasn’t a commercial success. Irma Thomas’ comeback wasn’t a successful one. However, like so many albums that aren’t a commercial success on their release, they’re only appreciated years later. That was the case the In Between Tears. Back in 1973, people were wondering why In Between Tears hadn’t been a bigger commercial success. Had Irma’s absence from the music industry affected her music, or was it the change in style and  sound on Between Tears? After all, Swamp Dogg has his unique production style,  one that wasn’t necessary suited to Irma Thomas.

In Between Tears opens with the title-track. It was  written by Swamp Dogg and Doris Troy. Chiming guitars, rhythm section and piano accompany Irma. The tempo is quick, the sound full and Irma’s voice world weary, but strong. She’s backed by sweet, tight, female backing harmonies, a meandering bass and  sweeping strings. They add a sense of sadness, while a piano and weeping guitar compliment their sound. Meanwhile, Irma gets across the sense of anger, sadness and betrayal in the lyrics, about a woman whose husband has left her. Soon, she makes the song her own. It’s as if she’s never been away from music. 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, it’s the perfect track to open the album.

She’ll Never Be Your Wife ,was Irma’s comeback single, after a year year absence from music. A piano, swirling strings and the rhythm section combine, before Irma’s vocal enters. Her voice has a deep, husky sound, perfect for the heartache and pain in the song. The tempo is slower, the sound laden with emotion. Swathes of sweeping strings a wailing Hammond organ provide the backdrop to Swamp Dogg’s song  about betrayal and a relationship breaking up. Mixing emotion, anger and defiance, you can imagine Irma refusing to sign the divorce papers, telling her man, she’ll never be his wife. Irma vocal is full of anger and bitterness at this betrayal, singing it like she’s lived it, you share her pain and  hurt. 

A dramatic combination of reverberating guitars, wistful strings, stabs of growling horns and the rhythm section that accompany Irma on These Four Walls. Her voice is strong and joyous, that’s she’s living with the man she loves. That’s despite him still being married, with a family to feed. Some day, whether in hope or belief, she says, they’ll be together. Accompanying her are harmonies, whose voices soar soulfully in unison, while the arrangement is slow and dramatic. Sadly, it’s slightly spoiled by the constant reverberating guitar. It’s a sound that you quickly tire of, and takes the shine of what could’ve been a minor classic. Regardless of this, Irma delivers a vocal that’s emotive and laden with hope and desire.

What’s So Wrong With You Loving Me has a slow, spacious introduction. Chiming guitars, rhythm section and piano combining before Irma’s strong emotive vocal. Harmonies soar, as the arrangement unfolds. 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 passion, constantly questioning. Swamp Dogg’s arrangement is dramatic, using drums, piano and strings to get across the duplicity and danger this relationship is fraught with. Together with Irma’s vocal, this is a potent combination.

Very different in sound and style is You’re the Dog (I Do the Barking Myself). Blazing horns, chiming guitars, piano and driving rhythm section 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 frustration and anger has been unleashed. It’s very different from Irma’s usual style of delivery, but allows Irma to demonstrate her versatility as a vocalist.

Coming From Behind/I Wish Someone Would Care sees another change in style. It opens with a monologue from Irma. Veering between miserable and weary, to bitter and angry, Irma’s vocal is delivered against an arrangement that’s slow, spacious and interspersed with drama. Heartbroken, Irma’s man has left her. Despite this, she knows he’ll return. This 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. While the tempo’s still slow, the arrangement still features 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 above the understated arrangement, allowing Irma’s voice to take centre-stage. As much as I enjoyed the monologue, I much prefer Irma’s emotive, pleas  on I Wish Someone Would Car. It’s 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 harmonies and ever-present braying horns  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  In Between Tears’ highlights.

When We Won’t Be In Your Way  unfolds, I hear this unwelcome addition of rocky guitars. 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 spoils the rest of the arrangement. 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, an uptempo track that sees Irma forget about the sadness and heartache of a failed relationship. Defiantly, she sings how she’d do it all again. There’s a sense of defiance and bravado, even vulnerability in her voice. Behind her piano, rhythm section and guitars combine with blazing horns, which provide the perfect finishing touch. Together, they create a backdrop for Irma’s now, roaring, screaming vocal, which is laden with defiance and bravado. Given the drama and emotion, this seems a fitting finale to In Between Tears.

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, In Between Tears wasn’t a commercial success. That’s no refection on the music  on In Between Tears. Maybe the partnership betweenThe Soul Queen of New Orleans and Swamp Dogg was doomed to failure. Swamp Dogg had his trademark production style which didn’t exactly fit with Irma’s elegant and sophisticated style. Despite this unlikely musical marriage, In Between Tears worked. It allowed Irma Thomas to step out of her comfort zone and demonstrate her versatility. As she did this, she was transformed into a master storyteller, one who sounded like she’d lived the lyrics a thousand times. Providing a dramatic backdrop was Swamp Dogg’s band. Together, they created In Between Tears, a true hidden gem in Irma Thomas’ back-catologue.

Since its original release in 1973, In Between Tears has been rereleased several times,  by a variety of labels. The latest label to do this was recently released by Alive Records. They’ve rereleased In Between Tears on both CD and vinyl. This gives music fans everywhere, the opportunity to rediscover or discover, In Between Tears, one of Irma Thomas’ hidden gems. Standout Tracks: In Between Tears, She’ll Never Be Your Wife, These Four Walls and Turn My World Around.


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