Irma Thomas: “Ruler of My Heart” (Minit 666, 1963)

The brutal truth of music—any art, really—is that being great guarantees nothing. Large-scale success comes only at the confluence of quality and other factors. Connections, work ethic, timing, promotion, dumb luck—they’re all just as important to making it as being able to do your thing as well as or better than anyone else.

Irma Thomas had all those things going for her when she began her recording career in the early 60s, except luck. Falling neatly between Etta James and Aretha Franklin in terms of her singing style, Thomas by all rights could have easily joined them at the top of the r&b heap if things had simply gone her way. It could have been as simple as the right radio station picking up the right single. As it was, she only managed a couple of minor national hits, and she instead became a fixture and figurehead of the music scene in her hometown, New Orleans.

That’s no small feat in itself—New Orleans is not wanting for prominent musical figures, after all. Apart from a short break in the early 80s, Thomas has recorded and performed steadily since her teens in the very late 50s, and she stayed true to New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina forced her out by driving her club out of business. After a few years away from the city, though, she’s now moved back, and she’s remained a major performer at the city’s music festivals all along, even at age 71.

Large scale success may have eluded Thomas, but in some ways that’s what’s allowed her to build a small-scale legacy that’s just as pleasing. Her old discography is still great, too. “Ruler of My heart” is my favorite recording of hers.

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