Irma Thomas recordings from 1972 are now available on "Full Time Woman."

full time woman cover art

Sunday, Irma Thomas will play her annual Mother’s Day show at the zoo, and the odds are that she’ll play a familiar show of crowd-pleasing favorites. Fans of her catalog hope year after year that she’ll revisit deep cuts that are on par with - or better than - some of the songs in her set, and they usually are disappointed. The recently released Full Time Woman: The Lost Cotillion Album, presents 15 more potential sources of frustration as it presents three songs from a 1971 session at Malaco Studios in Jackson, Mississippi produced by Wardell Quezergue, and a tracks cut at Criterion Studios in Miami in 1972, and two recorded in Philadelphia at Sigma Sound - most of which have never been released before now. 

In Dave Nathan’s liner notes, he quotes Thomas remembering:

It was really strange with Atlantic, because after they signed me, we cut material in Detroit and New York - with Arif Mardin and Joe Hinton producing some of the sides - and they didn’t release any of it. They had an album’s worth of product but they said I didn’t have ‘it’ anymore - whatever it was that was needed - so they let me go. The problem with so many of those sessions was that they simply didn’t give me time to learn the material.

Thomas is not the issue on the good-not-great Full Time Woman. Throughout, she gives songs that are honest B-sides and good album cuts all any producer could ask of her. As is the case throughout her career, Thomas commits 100 percent to each vocal, and she frequently found nuances and details that made her performances credible as storytelling as well as music. “Time After Time” is one note as the song asks her to be in floor-pound, hair-pulling pain, but more common are the mixed emotions that she conveys line by contradictory line in “Turn Around and Love You.” The album sounds more like producers putting Thomas in a number of musical contexts in an effort to figure out what they could do with her as she sang Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy,” the torchy “Tell Me Again,” and the orchestrated, Dionne Warwick-like “Shadow of the Sun” in addition to a number of R&B songs that were very much of their day. On the pre-disco “Adam and Eve,” Thomas is almost unrecognizable.

That said, Full Time Woman is well worth your time. The songs are generally good and represent a classic period in R&B, and Thomas is compelling throughout. These vocal performances have the additional value of bringing into focus how she has matured as a singer and vocal storyteller. Today, she often signals when she sings that she’s wiser now, and she embraces the journey that led to her wisdom. On these songs, she’s very much a young woman on an emotional rollercoaster, experiencing a broad gamut of relationship-induced emotions with an intensity that Irma 2014 would find bemusing.

It would be easy to overvalue Full Time Woman because it’s exciting to have a new album of Irma Thomas material from this era. But the album’s not great, and some of what is interesting about it is the glimpse it offers into the record business. But there are five or six tracks I’m genuinely glad I have and will return to regularly, and there’s nothing so underdone or egregious that I don’t want to hear it again. For Thomas fans, it’s a welcome addition to her musical library.