Way back in 1972, Irma Thomas, who’d given the world “Time Is on My Side” before the Stones got a hold of it, was already well into the second decade of her checkered, label-hopping career. Newly signed to Atlantic Records’ Cotillion subsidiary, the New Orleans soul singer went into the studio with Wardell Quezergue, a punchy producer and baroque arranger to cut Full Time Woman. The album was comprised of material chosen written and recorded by Bay Area folkie Alice Stuart, and had been specifically chosen for Thomas by Atlantic boss Jerry Wexler. It was a perfect pairing: Thomas — whose voice is full of tenderness even when she’s screaming — gave the songs a deeply doleful reading and Quezergue provided an understated backing, at least until the strings kick in.
Released as a single, “Full Time Woman” was a prototype for what was soon called MOR (for middle-of-the-road) Soul, and it bombed. (“Adult soul” might have been a better term for it, anyhow.) Over the next couple years, the label sent her to the happening soul towns of Miami, Detroit and Philadelphia to record with producers from Joe Hinton to Bunny Sigler, and that material never even got released. Then, to add insult to injury, the album was lost somewhere in the Atlantic vaults.
But anyone who believes in happy endings (including, despite all the bruising she’s gotten from the record biz, Thomas herself) can count their blessings that it was eventually discovered in an L.A. warehouse by British soul enthusiast David Nathan. Because on these 15 sides, which fall somewhere between the swinging, NOLA-syncopated tunes of her early career like “You Can Have My Husband (But Don’t Mess with My Man)” and the kind of adult soul she’s been singing since signing with Rounder in 1986, Thomas personifies innocence and experience, vulnerability and durability. And even when the arrangements are thick with strings and background choruses, they remain somehow lean, allowing her voice to put across her disappointment (“Waiting for Someone”), desperation (“Turn Around and Love You”) and, yes, optimism (“Adam and Eve”). She’s equally at home with bluesy stuff like “Time After Time” and with Bobbie Gentry’s country-tinged, sassy and triumphant “Fancy,” a tale of two women who did what they had to and don’t have the luxury of being able to regret it. How could music this powerful have missed on its first time around?