Irma Thomas - What Are You Trying To Do
Miss Irma Thomas
I’ve been on record for a long time citing Betty Harris as my fave New Orleans vocalist (though technically she wasn’t a native Nawlins-ian). I am of the opinion that Harris’s work under the guidance of Allen Toussaint made for some of the best records in that cities 1960’s soul (and funk) catalog. Harris and Toussaint had a relationship not unlike that of Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach, in that it reflected the dynamic of a great “auteur” providing material for, and crafting the recordings of his muse. The “other” great female artist with a similar working relationship with Toussaint was the mighty Irma Thomas (who to be fair, is considered by most to be the premier ‘Soul Queen of New Orleans’). Thomas started recording as a teenager for the Ron label, moving on to work with Toussaint at Minit from 1961 to 1963 (when Toussaint went into the Army). Her best work for Minit, including the classic ‘It’s Raining’ achieved huge local status without even grazing the national charts (a fate shared by dozens of brilliant New Orleans 45s). Her contract was sold to LA based Imperial records (a label with a long and fruitful New Orleans connection, principally the recordings of a certain Antoine Domino). During her time with Imperial, Thomas recorded with Eddie Ray and HB Barnum in LA (where her first LP would be recorded), and Jerry Ragavoy and Nick DeCaro in NYC. During the LA and New York sessions she recorded some of the finest soul 45s of the era, including the epic ‘I Wish Someone Would Care’ (written by Thomas herself, and a national Pop and R&B top 20), it’s flipside, the Northern Soul fave ‘Break-A-Way’ and a number entitled ‘Time Is On My Side’ that a little combo named the Rolling Stones had a bit of success with. During this period Thomas recorded songs by Randy Newman, Doc Pomus, Richard Berry and a couple of great numbers written by Van McCoy (including the smooth ‘It’s Starting To Get To Me Now’). Thomas’s Imperial sessions sounded little like her earlier New Orleans work, and when Thomas reunited in the studio with Toussaint in 1965 (still for Imperial) the polish remained. In fact, the sides that Toussaint wrote and produced for Thomas, ‘What Are You Trying To Do’and ‘ Take A Look’ are among the most traditionally sophisticated he’d ever create*. The earlier comparison of Toussaint to Burt Bacharach works not only because of their similar “auteur” status, but because Toussaint occasionally looked to the pop master for stylistic cues (see his arrangement of ‘Until The End’ by Eldridge Holmes). ‘Take A Look’, with it’s Latin undercurrents and sophisticated strings bears the hallmarks of many a Bacharach arrangement/production (take a listen to Chuck Jackson’s version of ‘Any Day Now’ for comparison). The side of the record we’re here to chat about, though, is the spellbinding ‘What Are You Trying To Do’. I mentioned before that ‘Break-A-Way’ was popular with the Northern Soul crowd in the UK, and such is the case with this record, which has appeared on Northern comps and still pops up on soul DJ’s playlists with regularity. The record has a pounding dance beat, Detroit-ish baritone sax flourishes and a wonderful vocal by Thomas, which rises to a crescendo in the approach to every chorus. The tune has a great pop flavor, and the arrangement is polished without losing its edge. It has one of the most finely layered, “uptown” arrangements in the Toussaint catalog. The record opens with the band and strings pulsing, and Thomas coming in gradually. The approach to the chorus, with the background vocals and swelling strings is absolute perfection. This is the kind of record that seems as if it were crafted specifically with dancers in mind. It maintains a beat that is pulsing without becoming obtrusive (letting the strings and vocals push the beat along – the drums are very low in the mix, and the rhythm guitar and tambourine take a more prominent role – and has a sing-a-long chorus that draws the listener inside the record. Thomas’s beautifully modulated voice takes a classy record and moves it to another level entirely. Irma Thomas would record only one other 45 for Imperial – ‘It’s A Man’s-Woman’s World’ – an answer record to James Brown’s ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’, produced by Brown himself – before being dropped by the label. She would record a few sides for Chess, including the underrated ‘We Got Something Good’ - and then bounce from small label to smaller label through the 70’s. * When I refer to this 45 as “traditionally sophisticated”, I do so not to infer that the rest of Toussaint’s work is in any way unsophisticated (it never is), but rather that the two sides of this record conform to a set of stylistic criteria that, when placed side by side with, say, ‘We Remember’ by Curly Moore, would be judged by less informed listeners to have a “cleaner”, more radio friendly sound.