×
header-image

An Interview with Irma Thomas

[THE SOUL QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS]
“I WOULD RATHER MAKE SOME NEW MEMORABILIA.”
Things Irma Thomas was able to salvage from her Hurricane Katrina–destroyed home:
Posters
Old records
The Christmas tree
by T Cooper
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Irma Thomas

[THE SOUL QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS]
“I WOULD RATHER MAKE SOME NEW MEMORABILIA.”
Things Irma Thomas was able to salvage from her Hurricane Katrina–destroyed home:
Posters
Old records
The Christmas tree
by T Cooper
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Irma Thomas

T Cooper
20 Snaps

“The Soul Queen of New Orleans” is sitting on a squeaky black leather couch in the television room of her newly renovated home in New Orleans East. Everything is echoey and new: the pink marble floors, freshly painted peach walls, every stick of furniture, a boxy flat-screen TV wedged into a corner, and the sparkly gold and crystal chandelier that dangles over our heads. A freshly cleaned swimming pool twinkles through the glass sunroom off the rear of the house, and in the living room stacks of cardboard boxes filled with furniture await assembly.

Irma Thomas and her husband Emile Jackson have only recently settled back into their home after the post–Hurricane Katrina flooding submerged their neighborhood. They had been staying in Gonzales, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, while they worked on getting their home back in shape. Before the storm, the now-sixty-seven-year-old Thomas was set to record her seventeenth album at the legendary Ultrasonic Studios in New Orleans. But like so much of the city’s musical history, Ultrasonic was washed away in the floods, so Thomas and her producer pulled the best area musicians into Dockside Studio in rural Maurice, Louisiana, and laid down After the Rain, which just may be the best record of Thomas’ nearly fifty-year career.

The Recording Academy agreed, awarding the album a Grammy last year, Thomas’s first (after two prior nominations, in ’91 and ’98). On After the Rain, there are no horns, so her voice is more on display than ever, and unlike many singers whose instruments get thrashed as the years roll on, Thomas’s voice has only refined with age. She has been called the best female R&B vocalist of all time, albeit one who didn’t have the industry push that folks like Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, and Tina Turner had.

Thomas started singing as a teen in her church choir, and by age twenty she had four children and was twice divorced. While waitressing at New Orleans’s Pimlico Club in the late ’50s, she occasionally sat in with bandleader Tommy Ridgely, who helped set her on the path to recording her first hit single, “You Can Have My Husband (But Don’t Mess With My Man),” in 1960. The song reached No. 22 on the Billboard R&B chart, setting in motion a slew of recordings for Minit (later Imperial) Records, including charters like “It’s Raining,” “Ruler of my Heart,” “Wish Someone Would Care,” and “Time Is on My Side” (well before the Rolling Stones bit her take in their cover of the song).

Thomas has reached that rare point in a life where memoir is actually appropriate—if a little overdue. Two women affiliated with local colleges are encouraging Thomas to “get it all down” on tapes that will eventually be combined with recollections from fans into the singer’s memoir. The book project is a constant in the back of her mind, but I caught Thomas deep in the midst of recording her eighteenth album with her longtime Rounder Records producer and collaborator, Scott Billington. The new album is called Simply Grand and is set for an August 2008 release; it features Thomas alongside various pianists including Randy Newman, Norah Jones, Ellis Marsalis, John Medeski, Marcia Ball, and Dr. John, among several others.

This interview took place over the course of an early December 2007 day, during a period when hundreds of Katrina’s homeless were still huddled in boxes beneath overpasses and living in tents in downtown’s Duncan Plaza. The city was a week away from dispersing everybody from the plaza and erecting a fence around the area to keep them from coming back. The front page of the Times-Picayune was decrying rampant corruption surrounding property assessment and the subsequent appeal process in the wake of the storm. I don’t know how to describe it other than that there was a palpable pall over the city of New Orleans, a place I called home for a few years in my early twenties—and a place that truly never leaves your blood once it anoints you as one of its own.

—T Cooper

I.

Irma Thomas’s husband Emile Jackson shuffles into the room in house-slippers, followed by a dapper older gentleman with a square suitcase swinging beside him. The man had just cut Jackson’s hair, the clippers buzzing and clicking softly from a room behind the kitchen. Thomas pulls a blue fleece blanket over her thighs and pushes the lever to recline her section of the couch. When she kicks her feet up, I can see that her white socks read “No Nonsense” in gray lettering, as she casually waves good-bye to her husband’s barber over a shoulder.

TC: OK, so let’s get into what everybody was fretting about a couple years ago: How’d you learn that you were “missing” after Katrina?

IT: Watching television. We had played a Saturday night gig at Antone’s in Austin, Texas, and Antone offered us to work one more night, and we did. So we go to bed on Sunday night—of course the storm hit Sunday—and we wake up Monday morning to see how New Orleans made it through, and we get this newsflash that the levees had breeched, and there was water in the city. So later that day we’re checking CNN, and they’re saying, “We’re concerned where two of New Orleans legends are located, we haven’t been able to find them: Fats Domino and Irma Thomas.” And I said, “I know where I am!” But I couldn’t contact anybody, because all the 504 numbers were blocked, and I wasn’t able to tell anybody until we got to Baton Rouge on Wednesday. All that time they thought I was missing in action— or resting in peace somewhere.

TC: Was your record company trying to find you?

IT: They were able to get the word [out], and as soon as they caught up with me, the interviews started up. I was inundated.

TC: Was it weird to be doing all these interviews on TV when back home—

IT: Yeah, it was weird. And humbling, and kind of struck me as odd, because I know I’m known all over the U.S. and some parts of Europe, but the magnitude that they were concerned surprised me, because on a normal basis they couldn’t care less.

TC: All of a sudden everybody’s worried about Irma Thomas—

IT: Now I’m an important entity. Look at me!

TC: I remember watching the end of the Grammys that year after the storm, and there you were with a few other artists that they were all of a sudden celebrating and including.

IT: Here we are in a city where it’s like pulling teeth to get your records played on the radio, but all of a sudden…

TC: Was anybody here at the house during the storm?

IT: Nobody. We had left, locked down like we normally do when we go out of town. We packed just enough things, because we expected to come back Sunday. When we left, the storm was still out in the Gulf somewhere, and they weren’t sure if it was coming to New Orleans.

TC: Was there a part of you that wanted to get back and, I don’t know, do something?

IT: I wanted to get home, but nobody in their right mind wanted to be where the water was. The only reason I wanted to get back this direction is that, when everything was down, I wanted to see what I could salvage. We could see our house on TV, and where the water was in reference to the roof. But those days after the storm when the waters were subsiding, my husband was able to come in and check on some things. But I didn’t come back to this house until October.

TC: Was he able to grab some things when he finally got in?

IT: Well, there wasn’t much to grab, because the water sit here for three weeks, and by that time the walls had disintegrated, and the National Guard had broken our garage door because they were making sure nobody was inside. Well, two of my neighbors died in their attic, so they weren’t doing a really thorough search, because if they were, my neighbors wouldn’t have died in the attic.

TC: The neighborhood doesn’t seem super-populated at this point.

IT: Well, you can’t tell in the daytime, but in the evening come through here and you’ll see a lot of ’em working on their properties. This house next door [pointing] is up for sale, the one across the street, we don’t know what he’s going to do.

TC: Did everybody straight-up lose everything?

IT: Literally, you could say everything. Those things that I was able to salvage were some of my posters. The things in the loft are still in the loft. I didn’t take much out of there except some old records that I wasn’t sure how they were going to make out in the heat. But everything else that was up in the loft made

IT: some blankets and quilts, and my tree. [Points out decorated Christmas tree in living room]

TC: That thing made it through the storm?

IT: [Laughs] That made it. Because the water initially came up just below the ceiling inside [indicating wall in front of us], what, six or seven feet. Then when it sit, it sit at about four or five feet, it just sit there so long. And the smell was unbelievable. But I had some posters, some Jazz Fest posters higher up on the walls upstairs that we were able to restore.

TC: Years ago, a friend gave me that pink Jazz Fest one of you, signed from, what, ’92? It’s up in my apartment. But before I came down to interview you I had this flicker of generosity, like, Maybe I should bring this to her, because I’ve been reading about all these people sending you memorabilia since you lost so much.

IT: No, no! Well, make note that I would rather make some new memorabilia. Thank you for offering the old, but I’d rather just make some new. [Laughs]

TC: And your two Grammy nomination medals were replaced?

IT: Before I went out there to perform for the Grammy foundation, I had done an interview and mentioned [losing the medals in the flood]. They got word of it, so that night when I finished my performance, they gave them back to me. I was just floored, I wasn’t ready for that, I was just bawling away. I’ve never been extremely materialistic about things. Yes, you’re going to feel a little sad because you’re looking at forty years of your career and sixty-some years of your life gone down the drain. But by the same token, you got life, so you can make new memories, you know?

TC: And your family, was everybody safe?

IT: Everyone got out safely. There was one set of kids we weren’t sure about, but they’d gone to Lake Charles.

TC: And the neighbors? You lost two, but the rest?

IT: The rest got out but, I mean, we would’ve been one of the ones that got plucked off the roof, because we had left before and nothing happened. So they decided to stay and of course they weren’t prepared for what happened, because no one was prepared for the flooding. What people don’t understand about the people who lost their lives is, normally, when there’s a hurricane coming, you have people—and we are among them— who stay up all night to see what the storm is going to do. Well, after it passes, you go to bed to catch up on the sleep you didn’t get the night before. A lot of folks who lost their lives in this flood were caught asleep.

TC: It happened so quickly.

IT: One of our church members said he woke up and was walking down the street, and he saw this water coming and he ran back to his house; he didn’t realize the levees had broke. So that’s what happened to a lot of folks who died. In fact, up until the end of last year, and some early parts of this year, they were still finding bodies in some of the homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, for that same very reason. People couldn’t understand, like, “Why did these people stay?” Well, the storm was over when the levees broke, so these people were catching up on sleep.

TC: And these are generations of people who stay—

IT: Thank you, thank you. Even after Betsy [in ’65]— the Lower Ninth was hit hard in Betsy—they had gotten into that comfortable zone, I would call it. Once the storm had passed, they would go to bed. And some of them just never woke up.

II.

In the early ’80s, Irma Thomas and her husband opened their own club, the Lion’s Den, on Gravier Street across from Orleans Parish prison. She used the club for her own shows during Jazz Fest, as well as a practice space for her and her band, the Professionals. During my first week in New Orleans in 1994, I went to one of these open Thursday night rehearsals, and was instantly hooked by Thomas’s rich voice and unforgettable, generous stage-presence. She even personally home-cooked red beans and rice on most nights, setting out a plentiful buffet for customers to enjoy in between dancing and listening to music.

TC: At the Lion’s Den, there was this older couple who always sat at one table to the right of the stage. I saw them every night I went, and they would just get up during certain songs, dance a little, and then sit back down.

IT: I can’t think of their names, but I know who you’re talking about. I haven’t heard from them [since the storm].

TC: I think the lady worked at Harrah’s as a dealer. They let me sit with them once. So the Lion’s Den was flooded? What’s going on with it?

IT: It’s now Chocolate Bar! [Laughs] Well, we were in the process of trying to sell the club before the storm.

TC: No!

IT: A lot of folks were disappointed we didn’t reopen, but with the schedule I’d been keeping, I would not want to be in the bar business. It wouldn’t be operating at a profit because they’d steal us blind because we wouldn’t be home. We were getting tired.

TC: I guess you need a really trustworthy person to leave it with

IT: Everybody was trying to get their lives back together, and the other side was getting help. Since the storm, there hasn’t been affordable housing for people who did that kind of work—hotel workers, waitresses, and cooks and stuff—they can’t afford to live in New Orleans now; the rents are just ridiculous.

TC: Hurricane Camille [in ’69] also really changed your life. Was that when you moved to L.A.?

IT: Yeah, about six months after. Camille killed a lot of my work along the Mississippi coast area, so I decided to make a clean start and go to California.

TC: Is that when you worked in the department store?

IT: I got a job at Montgomery Ward. I had children to take care of.

TC: Did you ever think you’d go back to the music business when you were working there?

IT: I figured eventually I would, but at the time the priority was to have a job and take care of your family.

TC: Were you a general sales person, or—

IT: I started out in lingerie and wound up in automotives.

TC: Quite a progression.

IT: I was offered a position to sell sewing machines and vacuum cleaners, which was a commissioned department. I knew about sewing machines because I sewed, and what woman doesn’t know about vacuum cleaners? So I worked in that department about six months, and I used it to my advantage because I used to sew for my kids while I was at work. I’d cut out an outfit at home, bring it to work, and then demonstrate the machine by putting something together. And then from there, I went to furniture part-time, then to large appliances, which was refrigerators and stoves, that was commissioned too. I didn’t really like it; it was too cutthroat. So I think it was in ’71 that the federal government had a law passed or something, that if a female was qualified and wanted to work in a male-dominated section, then they had to hire them. So the store put out a bulletin, and automotive was one of them, and I signed up.

TC: Did they train you?

IT: I [already] knew a lot about cars. Traveling in the late ’50s and early ’60s in the South, you know, black folk couldn’t stop anywhere to get their cars fixed. And I’ve always been a curious person, so whenever we’d have a break-down, I’d stick my head under the hood.

TC: Could you make a decent living at that?

IT: It was commissioned again, and I always made over my draw. The first thirty days I was in that department, I sold five engines, and none of them were returned. Whenever I sold a new engine, I would sell everything: points, new spark plugs, carburetor, the whole nine yards.

TC: This was after you’d already had a few hits. Did anybody ever recognize you?

IT: This is really going to date me. It just happens that there was a bin of 8-track music, and one of my old albums was in there. One of the sales people was going through them and he said, “This looks like you,” and I said, “Well, that is me.” “Well, what are you doing at Montgomery Ward?” he asks, and I say, “Because California don’t believe in paying people what they’re worth, and I need a day job.” I had talked to some [club] managers about performing, and they told me what they were going to pay me, and I said, “No, this is what I want to make.” So I got a day job. And back then, $1.75 was minimum wage.

TC: And you were supporting four kids on that?

IT: Uh huh! [Laughs]

TC: The time before that when you went out to L.A. to do a session for Imperial Records, did you think, “I’m gonna be a star”?

IT: You know, in all honesty, I had no clue. They had big plans for me, but I didn’t have any managerial guidance, somebody saying, “Look, this is an opportunity you need to take advantage of.” My producer at that time, Eddie Ray, he wasn’t really explaining to me what was going on, and he was taking me around to all this stuff, the William Morris Agency, clubs. They even brought me to a party that Ike and Tina Turner gave up at their house in Baldwin Hills, and I stayed maybe fifteen minutes. I’m not a party person.

TC: You weren’t into the whole schmoozing thing.

IT: I wasn’t into the schmoozing—or anything else that was going on at that party either! I didn’t feel comfortable in that environment, and I had no clue as to what was happening. They say hindsight is 20/20; now I know what was going on, but nobody told me then. And I just look back as that not being my time. My records hit the charts—

TC: I know, that’s what’s so crazy, you’d think it’d have been up, up, up from there. What do you think it was? Did you not act or look or play the game the way they wanted?

IT: No, I was a seasoned performer by then. I knew how to dress, I knew how to act; that was not the problem. I was just naïve as hell.

TC: Any regrets?

IT: I realize I missed a nice opportunity, but I’m not sorry that I did, because I look at it this way: In 1964, I was twenty-three. And the influence of things going on in the world at that time—which is a hell of a lot worse now—I may have not been prepared for the magnitude of stardom that may have hit me. So I feel that I got mine when I was ready to deal with it.

III.

The phone rings, and Thomas points at the tape recorder, indicating that I should switch it off. She begins talking real estate with the person on the other end of the line, and they settle on a time to meet the next day. Thomas ends the conversation by asking, “You had that baby yet?” and then shares a hearty laugh with the applicant, who was answering an ad in hopes of renting one of the local properties owned by Thomas and her husband.

IT: I have to go show this apartment tomorrow.

TC: So you just roll up and you’re like, Irma Thomas, showing them property?

IT: I’m just me.

TC: Do they say, “Wait, aren’t you…?”

IT: Yeah, that happens all the time, because I don’t go under “Thomas,” I go under “Irma Jackson.” [Laughs] These are properties that were rented before the storm, but those folks didn’t come back. We had to redo them like we had to redo our house.

TC: So what’s up with the pink things in the Lower Ninth?

IT: Oh, that’s the thing Brad Pitt did. He’s going to start building some “green” houses, and according to him, set up families to where they can be in their homes and not have the overhead high expenses of electrical and everything.

TC: And the pink part of it?

IT: That’s his way of making a statement to draw attention to that area, to raise money. He’s looking at building a hundred and fifty homes, and they raised enough in one day to build seventy-fi ve of them.

TC: Seems like there’s a concentrated effort over there.

IT: That area is one of the lowest points in the city, but by the same token, it was a viable part of the city where a lot of the music came from.

TC: Didn’t they do the Musician’s Village near there, too? Do you know some folks who’ve taken advantage of that?

IT: Oh yeah, a couple musicians I know very well. Smokey Johnson, who’s a well-known drummer, he’s in the Musician’s Village. Michael Harris, a young man who plays bass. It’s open for musicians who qualify, but the sad part is that a lot of musicians don’t have a paper trail. I mean, they’re helping them create one, but a lot of musicians from that old school, they didn’t want to get a check, just wanted to be paid cash.

TC: People don’t understand how New Orleans works.

IT: [Laughs] Oh yeah…

TC: So do you feel optimistic about your city? You feel like things are moving in a positive direction?

IT: I have to. I live here, I love this city. As far as I know, I’m the most optimistic person to come back from wherever, in terms of wanting to be here. I had a lot of options, I mean, I could’ve gone back to my hometown, Ponchatoula; the door was open there. Hammond opened their doors to me. Amite, all the way up along Highway 51. But I don’t want to live in the country! I got my start here, my roots are planted here, so I don’t want to be anywhere else.

TC: Yeah, you can’t be the Soul Queen of, like, Amite.

IT: I don’t want to be the Soul Queen of anywhere. I mean, I just happen to be the Soul Queen of here! [Laughs] Officially.

TC: How’d that happen?

IT: When I came back from California and I started working around the area, they didn’t really know how to introduce me. Then I got my own backup group together, and the drummer Wilbert Widow—he’s deceased now, God rest his soul—he was with me for twenty-seven years. He was the one who did the introductions, and first he was calling me “the singing grandmother,” since I’ve been a grandmother since 1975. But he said, “Naw, that doesn’t fi t. I’m gonna call you the Soul Queen of New Orleans.” I said, “Whatever you want to call me, just get me up on stage!” [Laughs] And it stuck. And in 1989, the mayor at the time was Sidney Barthelemy, and they wanted to do a fundraiser and officially crown me the Soul Queen. So I did a performance and it became official on February 17, 1989. I remember because that’s the day my dad died.

TC: And you went on with it?

IT: I was in a fog, but my canceling any of it was not going to bring my dad back, and he had been ill with lung cancer for a long time. On top of that, CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt was filming me for an episode, they’d been filming on and off for over eight weeks. I was totally out of it that day.

TC: Was your dad a smoker?

IT: He was a smoker who waited too long to quit, smoked all my life.

TC: When you drive around the city, I mean, there must be blocks and blocks and buildings and haunts that bring back so much of your family legacy.

IT: We were like gypsies, we lived all over this place.

TC: How did you meet Emile?

IT: We met at a club in 1975; he brought to my attention that I had a ravel hanging on my zipper on my skirt or pants, whatever I was wearing. And being a women’s libber, I said, “Since you saw it, you take it off.” [Laughs]

TC: Did he?

IT: He did, and he offered to buy me a drink, which I don’t drink, so I think I got a lemonade or something. I was sitting at the bar, and he started talking to me, then some old ladies came in and he left me to go talk to the other ladies. And while he was talking to the ladies, I left. [Laughs] I went to say hello to Tommy Ridgley, who was playing at another club. Emile showed up at the same place and we had drinks again. We’ve been legally married thirty years now, but we’ve been together thirty-two.

TC: And he’s your manager, too?

IT: Yeah, I gave him that job. The reason I did is because the manager I had was, for lack of a better word, screwing me royally. And Emile brought it to my attention in a quiet way, no big to-do, he said, “Pay attention,” and he was right. And he says, “What you gonna do for a manager now?” and I said, “Well you’re gonna be my manager.”

TC: So he just naturally picked it up.

IT: I told him what he needed to do. And I said, “What you and I don’t know, we’re gonna ask and find out.” And it’s been working ever since. I married my fifteen percent. [Laughs]

TC: Do you get to throw fits, or does he just say, “Irma, stop”?

IT: When I do a show he doesn’t think was up to par, he’ll say, “That show was shitty.” [Laughs] And he goes on sometimes: You should’ve done this or that, or, Do an encore. And I just sit there and look at him, because I’m going to do what I’m going to do anyway.

III.

From her home, Thomas and I take separate cars to Piety Street Recording in the Bywater neighborhood. The studio is housed in a 1927 structure which had been a U.S. Post Office, and after that, the Louisiana Center for Retarded Citizens. The good ol’ “Streetcar named Desire” rolled right by the front door; now it’s the less poetic Bus named Desire. It’s a steadily gentrifying neighborhood, one largely spared by the post-Katrina flooding. But there’s still a dose of old New Orleans tucked into the sundry hidden corners of the Bywater. As I park in front of the studio, I see Thomas in her pink sweatsuit, crossing Piety in front of me. She’s headed to Frady’s on the corner of Dauphine, where she picks up what seems to be a standing Po’ Boy order (“I got shrimp; my husband likes spicy sausage”). While awaiting her sandwiches, Thomas shoots the breeze with a jocular middle-aged gentleman sipping a forty ounce bottle of Bud. He gives her the phone number of a mutual friend named Eddie, whom she apparently lost track of after the storm. Inside the studio across the street, three backup vocalists practice the chorus of a haunting John Fogerty tune called “River Is Waiting” while Thomas fields a quick call on her cell phone. “Sail on, sail on. Sail on, sail on,” they are harmonizing perfectly next to me on a comfortably worn plush couch. The featured pianist for this track is the legendary Henry Butler, blind since birth, and during the session clearly displaying a mind of his own on the keys; when he plays the same part a few different ways on a couple takes, Thomas hollers into the microphone from her booth, “You’ve got a menopausal woman in here singing. Stay the course!” There’s a drummer, another on congas, and probably the best upright bassist in town, James Singleton. Thomas is sealed away in her booth, swaying back and forth—and nailing her vocals on most every take. “They don’t do sessions like this anymore, do they?” the producer Billington says to me over his shoulder after one particularly good run-through. He’s completely correct; I literally get chills a few times during the recording. Tears well up in my eyes and I have to look up at the rusty, pressed-tin ceiling to encourage them back into my head—it’s simply the sight and sound of so many beautifully talented people doing what they do, all together at once, the way music’s supposed to be made and experienced. After a couple hours of recording, we listen to a final playback. Thomas claps along while the other musicians bob their heads. “See you at the Grammys,” she says as the song fades out. “Only this time, we gonna perform.”

TC: OK, tell me about Grammy night last year.

IT: Well, I don’t know if you’ve had the pleasure of going, but it’s interesting just to look at all the people walking around with, you know, this air about them. I guess I’m not your typical entertainer. I’ve never been full of myself, thank you Lord! [Laughs] So when I go to these events, I just sit back and watch people. There’s a lot of tension, everybody hoping they’re going to get, well, that’s the brass ring for us—though it’s the early session.

TC: The Shmammys.

IT: Yeah, and they broadcast the winners on the show. So I’m sitting there when they got to [my] category, and I’ve got my head down: “Lord, let me lose graciously, let me, you know, not act stupid or say anything that I’ll live to regret. If it’s your will, I’d love to win the Grammy.” I was literally praying that I wouldn’t have that mean look on my face if I didn’t win, because this is my third nomination.

TC: Emile was next to you?

IT: He was on the end, and I was second seat off the aisle. And I’m sitting there, and they’re running down the names, and when they said, “And the Grammy goes to…” it’s like this wall of silence builds up around your ears, and in the midst of this I hear [whispering] “And the Grammy goes to Irma Thomas,” and I said, “Lord, did I hear what I thought I heard?” By this time Emile is on his feet and grabs me by the arm and says, “Honey, you do have to go up to get it.” [Laughs] I didn’t realize I wasn’t up. I heard this scream, and I didn’t realize it was me. I had nothing prepared whatsoever, but I rattled off something.

TC: What happened afterward?

IT: I took five minutes to get myself together backstage, and then you go through a series of interviews. One of them decided to ask me, Did I feel that I had received the Grammy because of what had happened to New Orleans?

TC: No he didn’t.

IT: Oh yeah. So I counted to ten, swallowed real hard, and I said to myself [singing] “Put your brain in motion before you put your mouth in gear,” and I said, “Well, if that’s the reason they gave it to me, then I take it back to the city of New Orleans and hope that it brings hope to all of my people.”

TC: I don’t know how you managed that. You’re the quintessential professional.

IT: I almost—as we call it, “go ghetto”—but like I said, I counted to ten and took my time.

TC: Has the Grammy changed everything?

IT: Not really, to be honest with you. The first nomination I received, back in ’91, the bottom actually dropped out, and I got less gigs. They thought my prices were going to skyrocket, but I don’t think we raised it more than two hundred dollars. But I was working profusely before the Grammy, and I got a little boost afterwards.

TC: Are people sending you a better selection of songs now, though?

IT: I am getting a better selection [for the new album]. It’s been a good thing for me career-wise, and I’m happy. You know, I wish that it would’ve happened sooner, but it wasn’t meant to be.

TC: Can I see it? Where do you keep it?

IT: I had a mantle built for it.

TC: Will you promise me you’ll get some sort of emergency evacuation system with a satellite-controlled crane, or something that will suspend it the next time there’s a storm?

IT: [Laughs] It’s going to go with me.

More Reads
Interviews

An Interview with Sandor Ellix Katz

Liz Crain
Interviews

An Interview with Tehching Hsieh

Lisa Chen, Eugene Lim, and Anelise Chen
Interviews

An Interview Natasha Trethewey

Vogue Robinson
more