Irma Thomas – Full Time Woman: The Lost Cotillion Album (2014)

Not yet recognized as the Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas had gone some time without a hit by the time she signed with Atlantic’s Cotillion subsidiary in the early 1970s. She’d last charted a pop hit in 1966, and had only gotten to No. 42 with her most recent R&B hit — back in 1968.

That was lifetime ago, back then. Atlantic impresario Jerry Wexler believed in Thomas, at a point when most had forgotten her early-1960s successes with “Don’t Mess with My Man” (No. 22 R&B) and the original version of “Time Is On My Side.” The problem was, few others did. She worked, over the course of a year or more and in sessions that went from Mississippi to Michigan and from Pennsylvania and Florida, to rekindle the chart magic. Nothing, it seemed, worked.

Funny how time changes perception. With the recent release of all of those lost sessions on Full Time Woman: The Lost Cotillion Album, we not only get a chance to experience Thomas at the peak of her powers all over again, we also get to marvel at the wrongheadedness that surrounded her short, unhappy tenure in the Atlantic family. Somehow, an astounding 13 of the 15 songs on this newly unearthed project from Real Gone Music and Rhino have never been released before.

And yet the title track, chosen especially for Thomas by Wexler and produced by Wardell Quezergue at Jackson, Mississippi’s Malaco Studios in 1971, is every bit the soulful embrace that her initial hits had been. Not even the presence of Quezergue — who had, after all, just helmed Jean Knight’s smash “Mr. Big Stuff” — could convince a fickle industry of Thomas’ enduring genius. She kept working, though alas to no avail. That same session also featured Thomas’ run through of “She’s Taken My Part,” which served as the b-side to a forgotten “Full Time Woman” single, as well as “All I Wanna Do Is Save You.”

An additional eight songs for this lost-album project were recorded in May of 1972 at Pac-Three Studios in Detroit — including “Fancy,” another solid song choice that had hit for Bobby “Ode to Billy Joe” Gentry in 1969; the songbook standard “Time After Time”; the country track “Tell Me Again,” previously recorded by Billy Walker; and “Turn Around and Love You,” which was also cut by Dee Dee Warwick. Arif Mardin was apparently involved with some of these recordings, perhaps overdubbing strings. The Lost Cotillion Album is rounded with tracks from June 1972 sessions in Miami (“It’s Eleven O’Clock” and “Could It Be Differently,” produced by Joe “Funny How Time Slips Away” Hinton), and September 1972 sessions in Philadelphia (“No Name” and “Adam and Eve”).

The results, as soul lifting and impactful as anything she has has done, are an object lesson in the profound vacuousness of the music business — which tried to throw Thomas away well before her time. Luckily for Thomas, and for us, she’d rebound into the 1980s after quickly leaving Atlantic, first on Charly and then on Rounder. Nobody questions the Queen anymore.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.