Winter Of Her Discontent
"Two Winters Long" (Naomi Neville)
Irma Thomas, Minit 660, 1962
Hang in there, Irma
So, I think I’ve mentioned that I am crazy about Irma Thomas. I played at least one song by her, and often more, every week on my radio show for 16 years. I’ve heard her perform live as much as I could, and have most of what she ever recorded. Although Irma’s voice doesn’t have an expansive range, it has always had a quality to it that is just. . . real. . .to me: a certain rough edged, back o’town, often 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, dark contralto age has blessed her with, she never sounded overly sweet or superficial. She could dig down into a song like “Ruler Of My Heart” and make it gut-wrenching.
During the early 1960’s, Irma worked with producer/arranger/songwriter Allen Toussaint at Minit Records on a string of seven singles (the last of which came out on the subsidiary Bandy), many of which are justly considered her classic recordings, sides such as “Cry On”, “I Don Got Over It”, “It’s Raining”, and “Ruler Of My Heat”. Today’s feature, “Two Winters Long”, may not quite be up with those; but it is a personal favorite of mine, especially around winter solstice time. It’s got more of a pop feel to it, but with an unusually patterned latin beat, probably featuring John Boudreaux on drums, and an effectively spare arrangement. Irma sets just the right tone of hurt and longing to it; but, note that her vocal sounds a bit distorted on the recording. I initially thought this was just an artifact of the 45; maybe a bad mastering or pressing. So, I never played my 45 on the air. But I hear the same thing on CD comps, which tells me that it was likely a flaw in the recording process, probably from recording her voice too hot (loud) and over-saturating the tape, or some other technical problem. Aside from that, other notable aspects to dig on this track are Toussaint’s use of an organ rather than his usual piano, and the very cool bass line on the verses.
The arrangement of “Two Winters Long” has always reminded me of some other song of the era that I couldn’t quite place. The other day, it came to me that it was kind of a cross between two Mary Wells hits from 1962, “The One Who Really Loves You” and “You Beat Me To The Punch”, both of which have a latin feel going on under the 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 the tune and its B-side, “Somebody Told You” under the maiden name of his mother, Naomi Neville, could have been influenced by Wells’ singles; but, if he was, it didn’t help sales.
You can’t fault Toussaint for wanting hits for a singer as talented as Irma Thomas; but their recording relationship was soon to end. In the next few years, as she moved on to Imperial, she would be pushed more into the pop arena by various producers with little success. 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.
Note - The Number One Songs In Heaven has two choice Irma cuts currently posted, both produced by Toussaint.