Irma Thomas, seated, is joined backstage after her Grammy triumph by, from left, husband Emile Jackson, the author and producer Scott Billington.
Wherein I give you Part II about a wonderful, gracious blessing named Irma Thomas.
When we left this story in last month’s column, I had arrived at Dockside with some frayed nerves. Christmas traffic and a wet, waking kid hadn’t helped matters, but when I played “These Honey-Do’s” on the boom box and saw the room light up with smiles all the way around, the struggles of my day suddenly ended and victory filled the air. Irma Thomas nodded, looking at the lyric sheet. The players nodded with their eyes closed, already imagining the parts they would play. I encouraged all to take liberties with the groove. Dave Torkanowsky assured me they would do just that. I wrapped my kid up for the trip home. My work was done.
I went to hang out for the background vocal sessions a couple of nights later. It was a wonderful surprise to hear what Irma and record producer Scott Billington and the players had done with “These Honey-Do’s.” It had such an angular, modern jazz feel, unlike anything I had imagined, and yet it was still the melody, the words, the pure DNA of the song dressed up in a smoky, subterranean groove. The instrumentalists having finished their work, this night belonged to the backing singers. I witnessed the addition of background vocals to several tracks, including “If You Knew How Much…” and Kevin Gordon’s “Flowers.” It’s always amazing to see and hear the songs take on new dimensions while never becoming over-produced. I knew this would break new ground for Irma Thomas. I knew that this record, with its earthy tones and sparse production, would help Irma to be more fully recognized for who she is: one of the greatest singers the world has ever known.
“After the Rain” received rave reviews throughout the following year and was nominated for a Grammy in the Contemporary Blues category. I felt like I had some skin in this game, and sprung for a ticket to Los Angeles, along with Grammy tickets. I took the opportunity to spend a few days in Los Angeles, and with the help of Keith Abel hooked up with some L.A. writers. First, there was John Lee Schell and Tony Braunagel of the Phantom Blues Band. These guys, originally Texans, had been all over the L.A. scene for years. They had backed Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Ricki Lee Jones and countless others. In a sweet little backyard studio, we re-acquainted and started right to work on an idea John Lee had, “Peace, Love and BBQ.” This pushed just the right spontaneity buttons within me, and we brainstormed furiously for a couple of hours, recorded a rough demo, did some backslapping and said so long. I don’t often do these “songwriting appointments,” not knowing if I, or anyone, will be on their creative toes that particular day. But today was a very good day. The following day I drove out to Canyon Country to meet a complete stranger named Terry Wilson. When he opened the door and we each saw a big, bearded mirror image of ourselves, we immediately laughed and hugged. We went out to Terry’s workspace and started on an idea he had, “It Might Be Memphis.” Again, everything clicked, and we had a full demo within a few hours. Another wonderful friendship was forged. Next day would be the Grammys.
I sat with Irma, her husband, Emile Jackson, and Billington for the pre-televised ceremony. When Irma was announced as the winner, I screamed. Billington was in tears. Within moments, all of New Orleans would be celebrating. It went quickly from there. Irma gave a gracious acceptance, dedicating her prize to her beloved New Orleans. At that point, she could have cut me loose to go and do whatever the winners do after they’ve won. But she beckoned me to come along, graciously including me in her victory party. A special Grammy usher was assigned to us, and we were guided through a labyrinth of press and media interviews. We got to a room marked, “CNN.” I stepped back and let Irma enter the room with the others. But a few seconds later, the usher emerged and told me that Ms. Irma would like for me to join her in the interview. I felt that was so generous, that in the midst of her great victory, she made this gesture more for me than for herself — such queenly manners can’t be faked.
By the time the press activities were finished, it was time for the televised ceremony, which Keith and I enjoyed from the nosebleed section. It was fun, though the major categories were practically irrelevant to me. The after-party was even better. The food and frolic was almost Roman. Chaka Khan was singing “I Feel For You,” live, while pretty girls on trapezes, wearing body suits, made sensuous, yearning gestures as they hovered high above. The great songwriters David Porter and Steve Cropper were hanging out in one of the dark corners, conversing generously with anyone who cared to chat.
“Peace, Love and BBQ” would eventually become the title track for Marcia Ball’s celebrated album and nominated in the Contemporary Blues category, along with Irma’s next album, Simply Grand. Having some involvement in Irma’s follow-up as well, I would go to the Grammys that year and root for them both. The Great Dr. John would take the prize.
“It Might Be Memphis” was released by Terry Wilson’s talented wife, Teresa James, and received heavy airplay on blues radio. Phantom Blues Band just released a great version of “Stone Survivor,” formerly covered by Irma.
I learned from the Wilsons, Schell and Braunagel that the big bad city isn’t so bad when you settle into your own community, whether it’s Studio City, Eagle Rock or Canyon Country. You get to know the same butcher and barber and they call you by name. The stakes are higher, the cost of living is higher, but it’s the same game — trying to write an amazing song. As a Louisiana artist, I get to go there and be the guy from Louisiana. The big city folks would want a little gris-gris to rub off on them, so they welcome the country cousin.
Likewise, Country Cousin gets the bug and has to go and get him some L.A. once in a while. Thanks to Irma (and a good GPS), Los Angeles now seems much closer, less abysmal.
Braunagel came through with Robert Cray not long ago. He says, “C’mon! Let’s write the next one! I’ll take you to where they got the killer chile rellenos!” I’m hoping to get there soon. And whenever Irma’s ready, I will bring the songs.