WRITTEN BY BILL DAHL
A great many soulful ladies have stood before a microphone in the Crescent City and belted the blues or wailed scintillating R&B. Only one holds the regal title of “The Soul Queen of New Orleans”: Irma Thomas.
She’s also a survivor of the highest order. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Lion’s Den, the popular nightspot that she and her husband, Emile Jackson owned, she regrouped in Gonzales, La., near Baton Rouge, before returning to New Orleans to clean up their damaged home and get back down to business. Irma’s steady stream of acclaimed albums for Rounder Records producer Scott Billington in recent years (she won a 2007 Grammy for her aptly titled CD “After the Rain”) has kept her a contemporary performer, though her longtime fans at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp are sure to request the classic oldies that originally made her a star.
Born Irma Lee on Feb. 18, 1941, in Ponchatoula, La. she moved to New Orleans with her parents when she was 3. Irma was exposed to the earthy sounds of R&B while living in a rooming house behind a local motel; the jukebox in the motel lounge spun Percy Mayfield, Joe Liggins, Cecil Gant, Lowell Fulson, and Annie Laurie, and the little girl dug them all. Local radio did its part too — there were plenty of R&B deejays spinning the latest hits — and Sunday usually brought a trip to the Home Mission Baptist Church, where Irma sang in the choir.
It didn’t take long for Irma’s vocal talent to gain notice. She won a talent contest at a local theater when she was only 11, singing Nat King Cole’s “Pretend.” Everything came to a screeching halt when she became pregnant at 14. She dutifully married the baby’s father, dropping out of school to care for the infant. That marriage didn’t endure for long. She was remarried by the time she started singing in public, so she used his surname of Thomas professionally and didn’t change it after they divorced.
Irma’s musical career began in earnest when she was working at the Pimlico Club. “I got fired while waiting tables because I got on stage and sung,” she said. “I sung ‘There Goes My Baby,’ and there went my job! It was Tommy Ridgley’s band that was playing at the time. I had sat in a couple of times with them, and the boss didn’t really like it, the fact that I was singing and the people was enjoying it and he had hired me to wait tables. So I guess his idea of my working was to wait on those tables, and he couldn’t care less whether the audience enjoyed my singing or not. He told me the next time I got up there, he was going to fire me. When I thought he wasn’t there, of course, the ham in me came out, and I got on stage and sung. And he fired me.
“A short time thereafter, I had a record out. I don’t know if he regretted firing me or not. I really didn’t ask!”
By then, she’d already unsuccessfully showcased her talent for Joe Banashak and Larry McKinley’s Minit Records. In attendance that early 1960 day was Minit’s A&R man, pianist Allen Toussaint. “Prior to my getting fired for singing, Allen and a group of investors — I’m assuming at that time they were investors — were doing some auditions at an old radio station,” she said. “At that time, it wasn’t called WYLD. At that time it was WMRY or something like that. Anyway, they had the auditions held there. I went to the audition, and at the audition I was singing a song that was popular here in New Orleans by Miss La-Vell called ‘Teen-Age Love.’ They said that I didn’t have it, that I was sounding too much like Miss La-Vell. Whenever I’m doing somebody’s song, I tend to sound a lot like them. It’s just the way I do things.”
There were plenty of other indie labels in the Crescent City. Ridgley took Irma to Joe Ruffino, who ran Ric and Ron Records. This time her audition was a resounding success. Ruffino had the perfect song for Irma’s debut: the sassy rocker “Don’t Mess With My Man,” penned by Dorothy LaBostrie, the same local songsmith who wrote “I Won’t Cry” for Johnny Adams on Ric and back in 1955 had cleaned up the lyrics to Little Richard’s bawdy “Tutti Frutti.”
“Dorothy LaBostrie was at the studio when I auditioned for Ron Records,” said Irma. “She said that she thought I could do that song. She taught it to me, and I did it.” Another LaBostrie composition, the smoky blues ballad “Set Me Free,” graced the flip. Naturally, a coterie of New Orleans’ top sessioneers assembled at Cosimo Matassa’s studio on Gov. Nicholls Street when Thomas cut the tune. Tenor saxist Robert Parker, then Irma’s labelmate, took a roaring solo midway through (Parker would later score his own 1966 smash, “Barefootin’,” on the NOLA logo; he performed it at the Stomp a few years back).
“I DIDN’T KNOW HOW BIG OF A HIT IT WAS”
“Don’t Mess With My Man” took off nationally, just missing the Top 20 on Billboard’s R&B hit parade during the spring of 1960. “I didn’t know how big of a hit it was. I was so naive I didn’t even know it was a hit,” Irma said. “It was years later I found out how big a hit it was. As far as I knew locally, they had banned it from the radio. They said it was too suggestive.”
Ron tried again later in the year with the storming “A Good Man,” coupled with the atmospheric ballad “I May Be Wrong” (co-writer Eddie Bo used the name of his wife, Dolores Johnson, as an alias on both). Lightning didn’t strike twice, but now Minit was interested.
“When I did ‘Don’t Mess With My Man’ and it became such a popular record, they were happy to have me when I got through at Ron,” said Thomas. “There was no ifs and buts about it. They decided that I was good enough then. Of course, Allen was the producer and writer for everyone, basically most of the artists who was on that label at that time. So that’s how we hooked up.”
Toussaint wrote both sides of Irma’s Minit debut in the spring of ‘61, his full-bodied organ underpinning the wistful ballad “Cry On,” which stirred up some regional action (the easygoing “Girl Needs Boy” was its flip). Toussaint reached back for a violin-enriched remake of the Orioles’ laidback 1948 R&B chart-topper “It’s Too Soon To Know” as Irma’s Minit followup that fall, backed with another lush ballad, “That’s All I Ask,” that was composed by Toussaint under his mother’s maiden name, Naomi Neville, as were most of his songs for Irma.
“Irma’s voice just lives somewhere in my spine bone,” said Toussaint. “She just has such a wonderful voice, and she can sing anything. Her voice is so pleasing.”
Labelmate Ernie K-Doe, red-hot because of his across-the-board ‘61 chart-topper “Mother-In-Law” (another Toussaint triumph), contributed the rollicking “I Done Got Over It” to Irma’s repertoire, Minit issuing it at the beginning of 1962 (the anthem served for decades as a guaranteed crowd pleaser in Thomas’ live shows). Allen was responsible for the yearning mid-tempo B-side, “Gone.”
Toussaint penned the magnificently atmospheric ballad “It’s Raining” for Irma’s next Minit offering, out that summer. “He wrote one verse and taught it to me at his house, which was on Earhart Boulevard at the time. He was living with his parents,” she said. “He wrote the first verse in the bathroom. He said that was the only place he could find privacy to think, so that’s where he did most of his writing at. He called it the library.
“When we got in the studio, he gave me the second verse in the studio while we were recording the first portion of the song. He set the second verse on the music stand, and I had to sing it.”
“She was sitting there when I wrote that for her,” confirmed Toussaint. “Well, most of the artists were sitting there when I wrote songs for them. And it was raining when I wrote that. I’m glad it was, ‘cause I don’t know if I would have come up with that one.”
“Back in those days we were doing what they called split sessions. I don’t know if a lot of studios, if that was the norm or not. But that’s the way it was done here for budget purposes,” said Irma. “I would be doing maybe two songs on the session, and some other artist would be doing two songs on the session. Plus we were background singers for each other on those types of sessions.” Among the background singers on “It’s Raining” was labelmate Benny Spellman, whose “Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette),” another of Allen’s clever productions, was a national hit the same year. “I (sang backgrounds) on his too,” noted Thomas. The backing vocalists and composer Allen’s punchy ivories were also prominent on the romping flip, “I Did My Part.”
OTIS’ TUNE WAS “EXACTLY LIKE ‘RULER OF MY HEART'”
Allen’s organ again to the fore, Thomas grabbed hold of the mid-tempo “Two Winters Long,” Toussaint deemphasizing the Crescent City vibe in favor of a gliding Northern groove. On the shelves in time for Christmas of 1962, it was paired with another Toussaint copyright, the forceful “Somebody Told You,” that left no question as to its horn-powered Big Easy roots.
There’s no doubt that the quirky, uptown soul-tinged “Ruler Of My Heart” was one of the most distinctive themes Toussaint ever wrote for Thomas. “If she wasn’t right in the room, it was when she was on the way over,” said Toussaint. “Because Irma, like others I was writing for, they inspired their songs because of who they were. Irma did a marvelous job, like she did on everything.” But the anguished ballad, coupled with Allen’s relentless guitar-dominated driver “Hittin’ On Nothing” during the spring of 1963, missed the charts entirely.
Enter a sharp-eared Otis Redding.
“I opened the show for Otis in Slidell, at a place called the Branch Inn,” said Irma. “When he heard it initially, he said he liked it. And he told me that night, he said, ‘You know, I like that song. I think I’m gonna do it!’ Well, I’m thinking he’s going to do it exactly or pretty much close to the way I did it. I didn’t realize he was going to change the words and call it ‘Pain In My Heart.’ But he did. And I think there was some litigation involved, where he had even tried to claim it as a writer. And he couldn’t, because it was exactly like ‘Ruler Of My Heart,’ so he had to give the writer’s to the proper writer, and that was Naomi Neville, which was Allen’s pseudonym that he wrote under at that time.”
Redding’s Memphis-cut Volt single “Pain In My Heart” made pop chart inroads late that year. “When Otis came out with ‘Pain In My Heart,’ which was the same song, just with some different lines, in the beginning of that, I didn’t pay much attention,” said Toussaint. “I was just honored that he had considered it. But the company knew better, that no, you don’t just take it like that. It is still your song. But I was just honored and gratified that Otis liked that song enough to do that.”
“ANGER” INSPIRES IRMA’S HIT IMPERIAL DEBUT
Banashak snuck a couple of leftover Thomas tracks (the fluffy, strings-enriched “For Goodness Sake” and “Whenever,” authorship on both credited to Naomi Neville) out on his brand-new Bandy logo during the summer of 1963, but Irma was soon on the move without Toussaint. Minit had been acquired by Los Angeles-based Imperial Records, and it assigned her to Imperial proper. Instead of recording in the Crescent City, Thomas would meet producer Eddie Ray and arranger H.B. Barnum at Hollywood’s United/Western Studios. They struck gold their first time out with the tormented ballad “Wish Someone Would Care,” which marked the first time Irma had recorded one of her own compositions. What inspired the song’s creation?
“Anger,” she replied. “I hope to never get that angry again in life. It was bad times, and an uncaring person in my life. All that kind of contributed to it.” With Thomas contributing a devastating performance, “Wish Someone Would Care” hit the streets in early 1964 and crashed the pop Top 20 that spring, Barnum’s lavish uptown soul backdrop adding to its classy style.
“There was a different approach to how recordings were done, but not strange,” said Irma. “I’m a gypsy at heart. I’m pretty much at home anywhere I park my butt. There were a lot of black artists who were stretching into the pop field. I had a very —in fact, I still do; it depends on what I’m singing — poppish-sounding voice. I guess they were reaching for areas they could sell. I mean, I was happy. The songs were very comfortable to me. It wasn’t like I was a fish out of water.”
The joyous “Break-A-Way,” scribed by L.A. songsmiths Jackie DeShannon (an Imperial hitmaker in her own right) and Sharon Sheeley, was the perfect counterpoint to its plattermate — a joyous, effervescent slice of girl-group goodness that should have been a hit in its own right.
Imperial pressed up Irma’s debut album in the wake of the hit, logically titling it “Wish Someone Would Care” and going heavy on well-chosen covers that likely offered insight into Thomas’ influences: Little Willie John’s “I Need Your Love So Bad” and “Sufferin’ With The Blues,” Clyde McPhatter’s “Without Love (There Is Nothing),” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Need You So,” Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone To Love”. Future pop star Randy Newman was represented by “While The City Sleeps,” and Norman and Barnum teamed to create the after-hours testifier “Another Woman’s Man.” Irma picked her pen up again to write another touching ballad, “Straight From The Heart.”
For her all-important followup 45, Ray and Barnum chose the majestic “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand),” the creation of a quartet that included Newman and country chanteuse Jeannie Seely. Despite a lip-synched bow on “American Bandstand,” it didn’t quite crack the pop Top 50. The opposite side of the single might have stood a better chance of hitting had unforeseen circumstances not prevented it.
ROLLING STONES “LAUGHED ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK”
The tangled history of “Time Is On My Side” merits a brief recounting. Written by Philly-bred producer Jerry Ragovoy under the alias of Norman Meade, it was first waxed in 1963 by a most unusual source: jazz trombonist Kai Winding, whose original uptown soul-styled version for Verve involved producer Creed Taylor, arranger Ragovoy, bandleader Garry Sherman, and a dream team of New Yorkers Cissy Houston, Dionne Warwick, and Dee Dee Warwick anonymously handling the soulful vocals in unison.
But something was missing: the bridge recitation, apparently added by L.A. vocalist Jimmy Norman, whose name was added to the writing credits by the time Ray handed “Time Is On My Side” to Thomas in late April of 1964 (Winding’s wailing bone covered the slot on the original rendition). Irma’s emotionally charged reading had hit written all over it, but the Rolling Stones killed her chances with a Top 10 pop cover. Thomas was understandably miffed.
“The only time I ever got angry about a cover was, and I knew then that it was the best form of flattery, but what really angered me more was the fact that the Rolling Stones did it,” said Irma. “At the time, the English Invasion was going on, and everything that was English, they didn’t care what color it was or who it was. If it was English, it was it! And they covered ‘Time Is On My Side,’ and they laughed all the way to the bank. And then after that, they started saying, ‘Oh, you’re doing the Rolling Stones song!’
“I wouldn’t do it for years. I think 20 years went by before I sung that song. It just angered me so.”
Ray yielded to Nick DeCaro in the producer’s chair at United/Western for Irma’s next Imperial release that autumn. No less a hit songsmith than Van McCoy wrote the gospel-tinged “Times Have Changed.” Despite DeCaro’s meaty arrangement and Thomas’ impassioned reading, it just squeaked into the Hot 100 (Barnum devised a Motownish arrangement for the ebullient Richard Berry-penned flip “Moments To Remember”). Before year’s end, Thomas tried again with another McCoy copyright, the mellow “He’s My Guy,” which made a stronger pop chart impression and came attached to a bouncier “(I Want A) True, True Love.”
Ragovoy was back in the driver’s seat for Irma’s first Imperial platter of 1965, the two collaborating on the uptown soul stunner “You Don’t Miss A Good Thing (Until It’s Gone),” reminiscent of one of Jerry’s biggest sellers, Garnet Mimms & the Enchanters’ “Cry Baby.” Jerry also supervised the opposite side, McCoy’s sophisticated “Some Things You Never Get Used To,” though Sherman did the arranging honors instead of its producer.
“In the early stages of my career, it had always been either the producers’ or arranger/conductors’ call on songs,” said Irma. “Because I was young and naive. I had no concept of what I thought I could sing well. To me, I could sing anything. It didn’t matter what it was or who it was. And I pretty much did sing anything. So it was pretty much left up to the producers at that time. They made strong suggestions, in other words. They would let me listen to them, and if I favored a particular song, it was a compromise where, ‘OK, you do this, but we think you ought to do these.’ That sort of thing.”
IRMA ON ALLEN: “I HAD FAITH IN WHAT HE SAID”
To its eternal credit, Imperial kept trying. Ragovoy remained in charge for Irma’s release that spring, “I’m Gonna Cry Till My Tears Run Dry” (gilt-edged composers Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman teamed with young singer Scott Fagan in the explosive ballad’s birth). Alvin Steward was behind its flip, the more overtly R&B-styled “Nobody Wants To Hear Nobody’s Troubles,” Sherman arranged both sides at a session held at New York’s Mirasound Studios. McCoy’s smooth “It’s Starting To Get To Me Now” was pressed up that summer, the same braintrust in charge (Sherman arranged the more forceful opposite side, “The Hurt’s All Gone”).
Irma came full circle for her last Imperial 45 of 1965, Toussaint writing both sides. Assuming he supervised the delicate ballad “Take A Look” (no producer was listed), he went uncommonly strong on the soaring violins; the slinky “What Are You Trying To Do” had more of the keyboardist’s signature flair. “With Allen, it was, ‘I wrote this for you. You will sing it!’ Which was cool. He was a good judge of vocal ability. I had faith in what he said. It worked.”
Although it didn’t chart, “Take A Look” was chosen as the title track of Thomas’ second Imperial LP. There were two more Toussaint compositions on board, the elegant “Wait, Wait, Wait” and “Teasing, But You’re Pleasing.” Newman was again represented, this time by a shuffling blues, “Baby Don’t Look Down,” complete with a rather rough-edged harmonica solo.
Thomas’ Imperial swan song was a truly strange affair. James Brown paced the R&B hit parade in June of 1966 with his unapologetically chauvinistic “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” for Cincinnati-based King Records, and that very same month Imperial released the two-part sequel that he produced for Irma, “It’s A Man’s – Woman’s World.” “Oh, please!’” she exclaimed. “I think he approached the company about doing an answer to ‘It’s A Man’s World.’ The company and I were under the impression that they wanted me to sing the version that he had, only instead of the gender of the male, it would be from the female point of view. Well, honey, it didn’t come out like that. That was not what he had in mind!
“I found out his method of recording was very unorthodox. He makes the songs up as he goes along. And I’m assuming that’s what he thought I was going to do in the studio. And it was awful. I think the whole fiasco was a fiasco. The song was horrible. It had no groove, per se. And as you can hear, my singing was, ‘Please, let me get through with this!’ I don’t know how many copies it sold, and I’m sure the ones that have ’em don’t play ’em very often. It’s out of sight, out of mind.”
ON TO CHESS AND MUSCLE SHOALS
After that ignominious finale, Irma and Imperial parted company. In 1967, she signed with Chess Records. That June, the Chicago label sent her to Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. The combination clicked musically, Irma sounding right at home with Hall’s cooking house band on her first single, coupling Dan Penn and keyboardist Spooner Oldham’s grooving “Cheater Man” and the shattering ballad “Somewhere Crying,” penned by St. Louis saxman Oliver Sain. A cover of Miami chanteuse Helene Smith’s Paul Kelly/Clarence Reid-scribed soul ballad “A Woman Will Do Wrong” (soon a Top 20 R&B seller on the Phil-L.A. of Soul imprint) from the same sessions was twinned with the tough upbeat entry “I Gave You Everything” by Shoals writers Terry Woodford and Larry Hamby for her Chess encore.
Thomas exacted a little revenge on Otis Redding by reviving his non-hit Volt platter “Good To Me,” another standout from her same bountiful June ’67 dates, and nailing her first chart entry in more than three years when it just missed the R&B Top 40 in early 1968 (Cash McCall’s happy “We Got Something Good” was its plattermate). “I was surprised at how well it did,” said Irma. “It was a very good session. There was only one song on there that I really didn’t have any great emotion for, and that was ‘Security.’ But they kept insisting, ‘Do this one! We think you can do it great!’ And they still thought it was great. I thought it was awful. But that’s their opinion, and I still held on to mine.
“But the total session was a good session. It had a lot of emotion and feeling with it, except for that one song. I thoroughly enjoyed working with those guys. It was amazing how these horn men would come in and they would listen to what you had put down track-wise, and they’d just go for it and would come up with these riffs out of the blue. Nothing was really written down. I guess they had worked together so much that they could kind of feed off of each other and come up with all of these horn riffs.” Covers of Joe Simon’s “Let’s Do It Over,” Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Yours Until Tomorrow,” and Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” were dispatched to the vaults, as was “Security,” which is actually pretty hot.
Gigs grew so scarce in her longtime Gulf Coast stomping grounds that Thomas took the bold step of relocating to Los Angeles at the dawn of the ’70s. There she hooked up with ex-Heartbeat Wally Roker’s new Canyon label. Irma initially worked with another recent émigré to the City of Angels, former Chicago saxist/pianist Monk Higgins (aka Milton Bland). With Roker producing and Higgins arranging, Thomas unfurled her transplanted pipes on the tough mid-tempo “Save A Little Bit For Me,” Monk collaborating on its birth with another former Windy City denizen, singer Mamie Galore, and former Pastels front man Big Dee Irwin. Writing under his wife’s name, Vee Pea (for Virginia P. Bland), Higgins and Galore were also in on penning the mellow ballad flip “That’s How I Feel About You.”
Then producer/composer Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams Jr., who dazzled an adoring throng at the 2013 Stomp, rolled into Irma’s life. Recently departed from a staff post at Atlantic Records (he’d previously made his mark as a singer with a ’66 hit for Calla, “Baby, You’re My Everything,” when he did business as Little Jerry Williams), he took over all aspects of Thomas’ output, writing, arranging, and producing her rowdy spring ’70 Canyon release “I’d Do It All Over You.” Williams and Troy Davis brainstormed the flip, the bitter divorce ditty “We Won’t Be In Your Way Anymore.” Canyon imploded by year’s end, so her next Williams-helmed single, pairing “These Four Walls” and her own saucy recitation “A Woman’s Viewpoint,” slipped out on the Roker logo.
Signing with Atlantic’s Cotillion logo should have been cause for rejoicing in 1971, but for Thomas it turned out to be a disaster. Things started out promisingly when Irma ventured down to Malaco Studios in Jackson, Miss., to work with New Orleans producer/arranger Wardell Quezergue, who had recently produced two R&B chart-toppers there on the same momentous day, King Floyd’s “Groove Me” and Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff.”
Irma waxed folk-blues singer Alice Stuart’s country-tinged ballad “Full Time Woman” for Wardell as her Cotillion debut. New Orleans singer Larry Hamilton was in on penning the funky flip, “She’s Taken My Part,” close to “Groove Me” rhythmically, but they bombed. Cotillion subsequently sent Irma to record in Detroit and Miami with former Motown singer Joe Hinton her producer (not the gent that hit in 1964 with the spectacular “Funny,” but an L.A. vet who recorded for Venture as Jay Lewis before surfacing as a member of Hitsville’s writing crew), and then Philly to work with LeBaron Taylor, Phil Hurtt, and Bunny Sigler, ultimately vaulting all of it. Real Gone Music recently rescued the lost masters as “Full Time Woman: The Lost Cotillion Album.”
Swamp Dogg put together a 1973 Thomas LP, “In Between Tears,” for his own Fungus label, which was affiliated with BASF, a tape manufacturer. Irma also had a couple of Fungus 45s, the first pairing Dogg’s vengeful “She’ll Never Be Your Wife” with a wry “You’re The Dog,” the work of Swamp, Gary (U.S.) Bonds, and Charlie “Raw Spitt” Whitehead. The album’s torrid title track, another Williams/Davis collaboration, served as her Fungus encore.
L.A. hadn’t proven a panacea for Thomas’ career. She paid the bills at one point by working at Montgomery Ward. Did she ever get discouraged? “Yes, for a brief moment,” she said. “But I enjoy what I do so well, till I just kind of hung in there and hoped something would break eventually.” She moved back home in 1974 and got lucky in love, marrying Emile the next year. He would serve as her manager and built her a terrific touring band, the Professionals.
There were a few scattered releases along the way, but it wasn’t until 1986, when Rounder released her Billington-produced album “The New Rules,” that Irma’s recording fortunes really took flight again. She revisited several of her deep catalog items on that set and revived Aretha’s “Baby I Love You” and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street” on her 1988 Rounder followup set “The Way I Feel,” radiating Big Easy warmth all the while.
1991’s “Live! Simply the Best” captured the excitement of Thomas in concert and was loaded with her beloved oldies, but the next year’s “True Believer” found Irma back in the studio, wrapping her honeyed voice around fresh material by Dr. John, Doc Pomus, and Dan Penn. “Walk Around Heaven: New Orleans Gospel Soul” saw Thomas investigating her enduring sanctified roots in 1993. “I was thankful that Rounder consented to put the budget up for it,” she said of the latter. “I’ve been singing gospel all my life. I just wasn’t earning a living doing it.”
1997’s “The Story of My Life” included more new Penn compositions and Irma’s treatment of Aretha’s “Dr. Feelgood,” and the dawn of the new millennium brought a full-length collaboration between Irma and Dan, “My Heart’s in Memphis: The Songs of Dan Penn.”
“After the Rain,” Irma’s Grammy-winning 2006 release, had her stretching artistically, tackling everything from the Drifters’ “I Count The Tears” and Arthur Alexander’s “In The Middle Of It All” to the ancient blues “Make Me A Pallet On The Floor” and pre-war Blind Willie Johnson (Billington was still in command). 2008’s “Simply Grand” took an intriguing tack, teaming Thomas with 13 different pianists that resembled an all-star team of the ivories, including Dr. John, Davell Crawford, Henry Butler, Randy Newman, Ellis Marsalis, Jon Cleary, David Egan, David Torkanowsky, and Tom McDermott.