One of the truly great voices of Southern soul, New Orleans’ Irma Thomas never quite broke through and achieved the kind of success of peers like Aretha Franklin. It’s instructive to ponder why that’s the case: while she had chart hits in the USA during the ’60s, there was maybe something a little too left-field in some of Thomas’ song choices, and while she’s recently started to receive wider recognition for her achievements – her 1964 recording of Jerry Ragovoy’s “Time Is On My Side” was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame last year – there’s still much to discover in her back catalogue.
Thomas was signed to Atlantic by label executive Jerry Wexler in the early ’70s. She landed on the Cotillon imprint, originally started in 1968 as a subsidiary focused on blues and soul, though the label’s remit expanded soon after, releasing Emerson Lake & Palmer, Sister Sledge, the Woodstock soundtrack and The Velvet Underground’s Loaded, among others. A motley crew, but Thomas’ tenure was short-lived, and during her time with the label she only released one single, “Full Time Woman/She’s Taken My Part”, in 1971. One of Thomas’ best singles, Wexler once acknowledged it was one of the highlights of his career.
It took until 2014 for Thomas’ complete Cotillon story to be made public, with the release of Full Time Woman (The Lost Cotillon Album) on CD, now revisited on vinyl. It draws from several sessions she recorded for the label between November 1971 and September 1972, in Jackson, Detroit, Miami and Philadelphia, filling a gap between her Chess Records years and subsequent sides for Imperial. “Full Time Woman” itself is a devastating plea, Thomas’ voice at its devotional best as she navigates the deep melancholy of songwriter Alice Stuart’s lyrics. The arrangements bathe Thomas’ voice in a gleaming radiance, with a gorgeous, dappled brass section taking the song’s key change to the cloudy skies.
Elsewhere, there are plenty of surprises: a sweet, sparse “All I Wanna Do Is Save You” breaks down into shimmering strings and a see-sawing chorus melody; a version of Bobbie Gentry’s classic “Fancy” captures both the regret and the bolshiness that cleaves the song in two, Thomas extracting as much tang from Gentry’s lyrics as possible, a rich novella distilled to a five-minute song. It’s followed by a deep soul reading of Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “Time After Time”, as revelatory as Dusty Springfield’s 1967 rendition (which also went unreleased when first recorded).
The collection closes with two strong versions of Phil Hurtt & Bunny Sigler songs, “No Name” and “Adam & Eve”, by which stage, you’re left wondering exactly why this material sat, unheard and unloved, in the archives for 40-something years.