Irma Thomas remembers turning on the TV in her Austin, Tex., hotel room to discover that she, along with Fats Domino, were among the missing — and feared dead — in the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina.
Ironically, it was that premature announcement of her demise that rekindled the singing career of the singer known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans.
“I like to think of it this way,” Thomas, 68, laughs in an interview from her home in east New Orleans. “I was a star in my own circles to some degree before Katrina. It just made the star a bit brighter.”
It’s understandable that Thomas was feared lost. Only the rooftop of her house could be seen above the water. The entire neighborhood had been lost, including the Lion’s Den, the night club Thomas owned with her husband Emile.
Fortunately, Thomas had a gig that weekend at Antoine’s in Austin. It was her only out of town booking for that entire month. If she had been home, Thomas admits, she probably would have drowned.
“I’m not a good swimmer,” declares Thomas, who performs with her band Sunday at Harbourfront.
Once she cleared things up with the media, the phone started ringing. Thomas reckons her bookings suddenly quadrupled. Which was good. She needed the money to rebuild her modest one-storey brick house. It had to be stripped down to the studs.
Thomas and her band had already booked recording time at a local studio before the flood. Interestingly enough, many of the songs they had chosen were about water. They added one more, Shelter in the Rain, and changed a verse in the traditional blues song, Another Man Done Gone, to “another storm has come.” The album, titled After the Rain, won instant critical acclaim and earned Thomas her first Grammy in almost 5o years of recording rhythm and blues music.
She’s since released two more well-received albums — Simply Grand, backed by some of the top piano players in New Orleans, and 50th Anniversary Celebration, a compilation from the eleven records she has recorded with the the respected roots label, Rounder.
Earlier Thomas was best known for a string of R&B hits in the early ’60s, including Don’t Mess With My Man, Somebody told You and Wish Someone Would Care.
She also released a song called Time Is On My Side in 1964, three years before the Rolling Stones had a smash hit with it.
“It didn’t bother me until people started saying that I was doing their song,” laughs Thomas. “I wasn’t angry with the Rolling Stones, I was angry with the people who had not done their homework.
“The people who didn’t realize the Rolling Stones got it from me.”
Need to know
• What: Irma Thomas in concert
• When: Sunday 9:30 p.m. (preceded by artist’s talk, 8 p.m.)
• Where: Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay West,
• Cost: Free