This essay is one in a series celebrating deserving artists or albums not included on NPR Music's list of 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women.
New Orleans soul singer Irma Thomas cut stone classic after classic in the early 1960s as a teenage belter on the legendary local label Minit Records – proving grounds for local rhythm and blues royalty like Aaron Neville and Ernie K-Doe, and Allen Toussaint's first home base as a producer. The singles she recorded there — ballads like "Cry On," "It's Raining," and "Ruler Of My Heart," and the sassy, upbeat "Hittin' On Nothing," whose lyrics gave the Detroit Cobras the title for their debut album almost 50 years later — are still her best-known and most well-loved songs. Maybe that's because the aching ballads and feisty, independent R&B dancefloor fillers had a toughness and an emotional depth to them that belied her years; by the time she signed to Minit at age 19, Thomas already had several small children, a divorce and a remarriage, and one charted R&B hit — "(You Can Have My Husband But Please) Don't Mess With My Man" — under her belt.
1964's Wish Someone Would Care, Thomas's first long-player, remains her biggest and most impactful album release to date. It's not the usual entry point into her work for newer fans: usually the compilation discs Sweet Soul Queen of New Orleans and Time Is On My Side fill that role. With overlapping tracklists, they round up those early sides in what amounts to an embarrassment of soulful riches, A's and B's that gave her a long string of regional hits. "Besides Fats Domino," she told music historian Jeff Hannusch in 2000, "I was the only other artist that had two-sided hits here... Sometimes I had three songs in the New Orleans charts at the same time." But it was Wish Someone Would Care, which peaked at No. 104 on the Billboard 200, that introduced the local hitmaker to the world at large.
Thomas was born Irma Lee in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, just a few days before Mardi Gras 1941. Her family moved to New Orleans when she was a toddler, and except for a few years' stint in Los Angeles — and endless days on the road — it's where she's lived since. In her hometown, which celebrates its musical elder statesmen (and women) enthusiastically, Thomas is an institution: Her annual Mother's Day concert has been a local calendar staple for more than three decades, as are her sets — including a regular tribute to Mahalia Jackson — at the huge Jazz and Heritage Festival each spring.
Thomas got her start, of sorts, in the late '50s, at the Pimlico Club, where she was a waitress and Tommy Ridgely was the bandleader. (A few years earlier, barely into her teens, she'd auditioned for Specialty Records scout Harold Battiste, who liked her sound but thought she was too young to sign.) Ridgely invited her onstage to sing, and the crowd and the band liked it, but her boss didn't. Thomas got fired, but Ridgely felt he heard something there, and he took her to meet Joe Ruffino, the owner of twin local labels Ric and Ron. Dorothy LaBostrie, the songwriter who had recently helped Little Richard sanitize the lyrics to a little tune called "Tutti Frutti," was at the audition, and she thought Thomas's rich, bright voice would sound great on "Don't Mess With My Man," her composition. They cut it for Ron Records at Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studio on Rampart Street and in May 1960, it hit No. 22 on Billboard's rhythm and blues chart. Irma Thomas was now, definitively, a former waitress.
Her contract with Minit — which had actually passed on her after an earlier audition, but got interested after her first success with Ron — led to a fruitful partnership with Allen Toussaint, who wrote, arranged or produced the run of sides that remain catnip to soul collectors and record nerds, not to mention part of the core soundtrack of New Orleans. ("Irma's voice stayed in my head all the time," Toussaint told me during a 2007 interview. "And it still does.") In 1963, not long after Toussaint left for the Army, Minit was sold to its distributor (and Fats Domino's first label) Imperial, which itself had just become a subsidiary of the West Coast-based Liberty Records. Liberty decided it was time for Thomas' first long-player, and flew her out to Los Angeles to record. Wish Someone Would Care displays Thomas' copious range like a vast buffet, from the breathless, near-manic rush of Jackie DeShannon's "Break-A-Way" to a smoldering take on Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone To Love" to the slow, assured R&B love vigil "Time is on My Side," which would, of course, become a much bigger hit the same year for The Rolling Stones.
The centerpiece is the title track, the first composition of her own that Thomas had ever recorded. It's a song that comes straight from a heart so broken that the singer can't even imagine finding all the pieces, let alone how they might fit back together; a song about a yearning that's deeper than romance or physical want, an anguished, purely existential desire for the relief of being seen. At the time she recorded the song, Thomas was 22, the mother of little kids in the middle of her second divorce. She was angry and tired, and she wished someone would care. The slow-burning, meditative ballad was as devastating as a hurricane, and it scooted up to No. 2 on the R&B chart and No. 17 on the Hot 100 – still her highest-charting hit to date.
At the time of the album's release, Thomas had five more decades (and counting) as a recording artist ahead of her. She finally brought home her first Grammy award, for 2006's After the Rain, a belated accolade for an artist who'd long since, in the hearts and ears of her fans, achieved regal status. Indeed, now 76, the woman who's been working overtime since adolescence shows little sign of slowing down: If anything, post-Grammy, her legacy has taken on even more sparkle. But to get to the essence of Irma Thomas, there's no better key than "Wish Someone Would Care" — a song that, with its agony and honesty, draws heart's blood.