Veteran R&B singer shows time is on her side

"I tend to gyrate to songs that have good stories," notes R&B vocalist Irma Thomas in a phone conversation from her longtime home in New Orleans. "And Dan Penn's songs always convey great stories," says Ms. Thomas, explaining how her latest CD, "My Heart's in Memphis: The Songs of Dan Penn" (Rounder Records), was created.

"I met Dan Penn during a recording session I had in the 1960s at the Muscle Shoals Studio, where I knew him as the guitarist for my recording session. Only later would I discover him as a songwriter."

R&B singers have long appreciated Penn's songwriting skills. Aretha Franklin had a major hit with his "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man." Solomon Burke and Otis Redding also scored hits with Penn's tunes. Penn possesses an uncanny ability to succinctly tell stories about falling in and out of love with a flair for unexpected images and haunting phrases.

Thomas, no stranger to love's challenges, felt a strong connection to Penn's songs. As a single mom raising four children while still in her early 20s, she took menial jobs to support her family.

With divorce behind her, she poured her heart into her first recording in 1959, "(You Can Have Your Husband But Please) Don't Mess With My Man." Her dramatic soaring alto laced with forceful passion made the tune a chart-topping R&B hit. Her next single in 1964, "Time Is On My Side" was an even bigger hit. The Rolling Stones, featuring a young Mick Jagger, imitated Thomas's version quite closely a year later.

Despite a career seemingly poised on the brink of national recognition, Thomas moved from one small record label to another, never matching her early success.

Her career took a leap forward in the 1980s due to guidance from her husband and manager, Emile Jackson. Thomas signed with Rounder Records and began to perform in "The Lion's Den," a nightclub she and Jackson created in her hometown of New Orleans. She was a frequent performer at blues and jazz festivals internationally. Her producer at Rounder, Scott Billington, scoured the country for new songs that Thomas could fervently identify with, and found them: Several Grammy-nominated albums followed.

And Billington suggested that Thomas record songs by Penn, culminating in "My Heart's In Memphis." In the new autobiographical song "Irma's Song." She describes how the song materialized: "There's this big, beautiful, strong-looking magnolia tree in my neighbor's yard. I was looking at it, and the words came: 'I want a man like a tree, with arms like branches to wrap all around me.' And I ran it by Dan Penn and he ran with it. Some people just have that gift."

The album showcases four of Penn's old songs, but its high points are his recent compositions, particularly the gospel-flavored "Life at the End of the Road."

Thomas is no stranger to gospel music. She began singing in church as a child and continues to perform in the choir of the First African Baptist Church of New Orleans. She's recorded a much underrated gospel CD, "Walk Around Heaven: New Orleans Gospel Soul" (Rounder).

Penn has been a purely secular songwriter emphasizing love's vagaries. But in "Life at the End of the Road," he transcends all of his previous themes with a stirring anthem on the cusp of R&B and gospel. The song is a meditation about life's meaning. The "End of the Road" doesn't mean death, but rather the end of illusion. "It's a song to make you think," Thomas says.

The one-time teen star has never sounded as spellbinding as she sounds today. She's living proof, after all the ups and downs in her long career, that there truly is life at the end of the road.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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