Irma Finds Fame
"Cheater Man" (Spooner Oldham - Dan Penn)
Irma Thomas, Chess, 1967
Blame it on da cheater man
The drummer would have been the only thing different from New Orleans and that Muscle Shoals sound. New Orleans drummers have a way of syncopation that’s difficult to copy, kind of an inbred thing. As far as what we call the funky total sound, Muscle Shoals had all of that combination. The way we recorded it made it even better because everything was done live so you got to play off each other’s emotions and feelings.
--Irma Thomas, as quoted by Don Snowden in the CD notes to Something Good/The Muscle Shoals Sessions.
After signing Irma Thomas in 1966, Chess Records sent her to work with producer Rick Hall at his justly titled Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Backed by the seasoned in-house rhythm* and horn sections, plus Spooner Oldham on keyboards, she recorded just over a dozen sides. Of those, six were released on three 45’s; and only, “Good To Me”, an Otis Redding cover, briefly charted. Despite some fine material left in the can, Chess decided to cut its losses and scrapped plans to release an album on Thomas. She did one more session for the label in Chicago that I do not think was released; then, she and the label parted ways.
That none of Irma’s Muscle Shoals releases connected with the public is puzzling; that most of her work for the label went un-issued for over 20 years is a tragedy. The combination of her grown-up, soul-saturated delivery, edged with a particularly raw vocal grittiness that came from some demanding road work just prior to the sessions, and the real-deal, in-the pocket perfection of the uncluttered accompaniment made for some of Irma Thomas’ most satisfying performances. As she states above, the band may not have been from New Orleans, but it delivers its own funk quotient and earthy feel to the songs, allowing Irma to seriously connect with the material. Of course, it certainly helps that the songs were of high quality, from writers such as Penn-Oldham, Redding, Paul Kelly, Oliver Sain, and Goffin-King.
“Cheater Man” was on Thomas’ first Chess single, recorded June 6, 1967. What is featured here is an alternate mix of the song from the CD, Something Good/The Muscle Shoals Sessions that Chess/MCA put out in 1990, which is now regrettably out of print. As committed as I am to New Orleans session players and grooves, I don’t think Irma has done better pure soul than on the best of her Muscle Shoals tracks. She’s done plenty of exceptional, expressive singing, before and since; but her sessions at Fame were just something special. The deep, deep unreleased track, “Here I Am, Take Me” never fails to devastate me. If you can find the CD, buy it. Simple as that.
*Roger Hawkins, drums; Jimmy Johnson, guitar; David Hood or Tommy Cogbill, bass.
Note: Last February, I featured another track, “We Got Something Good”, from these sessions; and it can currently be heard at the Soul Club Jukebox.