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Thomas is a contemporary of Aretha Franklin and Etta James, but never experienced their level of commercial success; still, she has a large cult following among soul aficionados. In 2007, she won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album for After the Rain, her first Grammy in an acclaimed career spanning over 45 years.
Born Irma Lee, as a teen she sang with a Baptist church choir, auditioning for Specialty Records as a 13-year old. By the age of 19 she had been married twice and had four children. Keeping her second ex-husband's surname, she worked as a waitress in New Orleans, occasionally singing with bandleader Tommy Ridgley, who helped her land a record deal with the local Ron label. Her first single, "(You Can Have My Husband but) Don't Mess with My Man," was released in spring 1960, and reached number 22 on the Billboard R&B chart.
She then began recording on the Minit label, working with songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint on songs including "It’s Raining" and "Ruler of my Heart", which was later reinterpreted by Otis Redding as "Pain In My Heart". Imperial Records acquired Minit in 1963, and a string of successful releases followed. These included "Wish Someone Would Care” (her biggest national hit), its B-side "Break-a-Way" (later covered by Tracey Ullman among others), "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is" (co-written by the young Randy Newman), and "Time Is on My Side" (a song previously recorded by Kai Winding, and later by the Rolling Stones).
Although her first four Imperial singles all charted on Billboard's pop chart, later releases were less successful, and, unlike her contemporaries Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick she never managed to cross over into mainstream commercial success. She recorded for Chess Records in 1967/68 with some success, the Otis Redding song "Good To Me" reaching the R&B chart. She then relocated to California, releasing records on various small labels, before returning to Louisiana, and in the early 1980s opened her own club, the Lion's Den.
After several years’ break from recording, she was signed by Rounder Records, and in 1991 earned her first-ever Grammy Award nomination for Live! Simply the Best, recorded in San Francisco. She subsequently released a number of traditional gospel albums, together with more secular recordings. The album Sing It! was nominated for a Grammy in 1999.
Thomas is still active as a performer, appearing annually at the New
Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. She reigned as Queen of the Krewe du
Vieux for the 1998 New Orleans Mardi Gras season. She often headlined at
her own club, which is now out of business due to the effects of
Hurricane Katrina. Thomas relocated to Gonzales, Louisiana, 60 miles (97
km) from New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, but, according to her web
site, she is now back in her home in New Orleans.
In August 2009, a compilation album with three new songs titled The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary Celebration was released from Rounder Records to commemorate Thomas' 50th year as a recording artist.
Irma Thomas is the subject of the 2008 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival poster. She was chosen as the subject before the painting was chosen for the poster. Artist Douglas Bourgeois painted the singer in 2006. His art was chosen to reflect her art.
In 2010, Irma Thomas rode in the New Orleans parade "Grela".