Winter Of Her Discontent
"Two Winters Long" (Naomi Neville)
Irma Thomas, Minit 660, 1962/1963
I admit I am crazy about Irma Thomas. I played at least one song by her, and often more, every week on my radio show in Memphis for 16 years, and have heard her perform live as much as possible, not to mention acquired most of what she ever recorded in one format or the other. While Irma’s voice doesn’t have an expansive range, it has always possessed a quality that is just. . . real. . .to me: a certain rough edged, back o’town, sensual tone that can deliver the goods with strength, conviction and feeling. Even in her youth, when her voice was much higher and lighter than the rich, deep contralto age has blessed her with, she never sounded overly sweet or superficial and could dig down into a song like “Ruler Of My Heart” and make it gut-wrenching.
Between 1961 and 1963, Irma worked with producer/arranger/songwriter Allen Toussaint at Minit Records on a string of seven singles (one of which came out on the Bandy subsidiary). Most of them , including "Ruler" are justly considered her classic recordings, the other choice sides being “Cry On”, “I Don Got Over It”, “It’s Raining”, and "Hittin' On Nothing".
While “Two Winters Long”, from her fifth Minit 45, may not quite measure up to those; it is a personal favorite of mine, and especially good to hear around this time of year. Like "It's Raining", this song has more of a pop feel to it, but the effectively spare arrangement features an unusually patterned latin beat, probably featuring John Boudreaux on drums, that sets it apart. Other notable aspects are Toussaint’s use of organ rather than his usual piano, and the very cool bass line on the verses (likely by "Chuck" Badie). Irma summons just the right tone of hurt and longing in her delivery; but, unfortunately, her vocal sounds a bit distorted on the recording. I initially thought this was just an artifact of my particular 45, maybe a bad pressing or unseen groove wear. But I hear the same thing on vinyl LP and CD comps, which indicates a flaw in the initial recording process itself.
The arrangement and feel always reminded me of another song of the era that I couldn’t quite place. The other day, it came to me that it's kind of a cross between two Mary Wells Motown hits from 1962, “The One Who Really Loves You” and “You Beat Me To The Punch”, both of which have that kind of latin groove going on under her smoothly sung vocals. Irma’s single was recorded late in 1962 (either November 30th or December 4th) and released shortly thereafter; so, Toussaint, who wrote this tune and the B-side, “Somebody Told You”, under the maiden name of his mother, Naomi Neville, could have been influenced by those Wells singles and wanting to move Irma in the direction of their success.
After all, seeking hits for a singer as talented as Irma Thomas was his job; but their work together never achieved mainstream popularity, due mainly to distribution problems, and was soon to end with Toussaint's induction into the Army and Minit's sell-off. In the next few years, as she moved on to Imperial Records, Irma would be pushed farther into the pop arena by various producers with little success. Allen even wrote and produced another one for her ("What Are You Trying To Do") at the end of her run with the label that though promising failed to score. Her timing and luck were always off when it came to having major hits; but that has not kept Irma from having a long career in music that, in spite of numerous setbacks, continues to this day, with fans like me from around the world wishing her well as she and her city work to rise again.