Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Cover Story: Irma Thomas - "I Needed Somebody"

Look past the star-spangled wrapper and you'll hear one of the best voices in soul.

Every time I hear Irma Thomas sing "I Needed Somebody," all I can do is howl "Irrrrmaaaa." It's because I love her so much. And I'm really dramatic. Maybe it’s because it’s a song about how, deep down, everybody needs somebody--even if it's just for a little bump and wiggle. Maybe it’s because she’s got the ability to rip your heart out through your chest with a wail. Or maybe I'm just being dramatic again.

This performance is a cover-tune, but it's not often that a cover is better than the original.

Still, whenever I’m feeling down and Irma sings, "Oh, it gets so lonely sometimes, in this great big ol' lonely town,” it makes me feel a little better.

I heard this song in 2006, almost accidentally, when a friend of mine (who happens to be a studio engineer in Nashville so toot-toot on that horn) and I watched New Orleans Music in Exile, a documentary about Hurricane Katrina's effect on the musicians of New Orleans. Interspersed with interviews with struggling musicians were filmed performances, and Irma was the best of the lot.

We re-wound and re-watched Irma sing this song (not this version, mind you. This Youtube clip was filmed much earilier) close to 10 times that night as we drank too much and turned the volume way up. Then our other roommate came downstairs and told us that it was 3 a.m. and we really needed to chill. Since then, this song has been a go-to whenever I feel like squirting a tear into my vodka--or if I ever need primal-scream therapy, I just sing along.

It wasn't until today that I realized that the original was sung by Ann Peebles.

Peebles is probably best known for “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” which millennials will recognize as the sample/hook in Missy Elliot’s "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)."

See how everybody needs somebody?

But “I Needed Somebody” is a lesser-known gem from Thomas, whose biggest credits include “It’s Raining,” and "Ruler of My Heart.” The latter, written by legendary blues/soul songwriter Allen Toussaint, served as the source material for Otis Redding’s "Pain in My Heart," which most critics can agree is one of the best songs in the history of humans.

Here's Thomas's original: 

And Redding's version, live from the Apollo in 1964

It’s obvious that Redding used Thomas's original as a jumping-off point for his tune, which is why I get so angry when people rag on so-and-so for "stealing" such-and-such’s melody, lyrics or whatever. The history of music is the history of plagiarism. Bob Dylan did it and admitted to it—stealing lyrics, writing new lyrics to existing songs—so who cares if “Born This Way” sounds like “Express Yourself.” It’s all been done before. (To wit: there’s a sample of A-Ha’s “Take On Me,” on the new Christina Aguilera and Pitbull song, and Flo Rida has cribbed from Etta James and these guys in recent years... so there's THAT.)

Anyway, back to “I Needed Somebody,” which was covered this January, in a trans-Atlantic send-up by Beatrice van der Poel, a Dutch singer/songwriter. She reached back into the archives to perform a stripped-down lounge-y version of Irma's tune for a live radio show. The introduction starts at :2.35. (The interview's in Dutch, van der Poel sings in English.). She speaks enough English to carry the song, and stripping it down brings an indie-girl-with-too-many-feelings vibe to a soul classic. I dig it.

See? Everything old is new again.

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