Time Is On My Side: Irma Thomas, the Rolling Stones, Patti Smith

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Time Is On My Side. This is a great R&B song from the mid-60s. We will start with a version by Irma Thomas, and then discuss covers of that song by the Rolling Stones and also by Patti Smith.

Irma Thomas and Time Is On My Side:

Irma Thomas is a soul singer from New Orleans, whose life got off to a rather rough start. By the age of 19 she had been married and divorced twice, and had four children (!).

In the early 60s, Irma began working with legendary NOLA producer Allen Toussaint. She had some success with soul records that she issued in the mid-60s.  Ms. Thomas has now been performing for over 50 years, and is well known in New Orleans where for a long time she and her husband ran a nightclub, The Lion’s Den.

Below is a photo of Irma Thomas from about 1970.

Irma Thomas has a devoted following in New Orleans. She
is still active as a performer, appearing annually at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. She reigned as Queen of the Krewe du Vieux for the 1998 New Orleans Mardi Gras season.

Ms. Thomas’ New Orleans nightclub was destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, which caused her to move temporarily from that city, although she has now moved back following the cleanup after that disaster.

The song Time Is On My Side has a fascinating history. It was initially written by Jerry Ragovoy, using the pseudonym Norman Meade. We have come across Ragovoy before, as he co-wrote the song Piece of My Heart with Bert Berns, a song that was originally recorded by Erma Franklin.

Initially, Time Is On My Side was an instrumental piece; the only lyrics Ragovoy could come up with were the song’s title. The song was recorded in 1963 by jazz trombonist Kai Winding and his orchestra.

Songwriter Jimmy Norman was then brought in to provide the song with lyrics. The tune was then given to Irma Thomas, who recorded it early in 1964. The song was issued as the B-side of a single record by Thomas.

The song’s lyrics describe a jilted suitor who insists that the tables will turn on his or her former lover, and that eventually they will “come running back.”

Time is on my side, yes it is
Time is on my side, yes it is

Now you all would say, that you wanna be free
But you’ll come running back (Like I said you would, baby)
You’ll come running back (Like I told ya so many times before)
You’ll come running back to me, yeah

Here is a live performance of Time Is On My Side by Irma Thomas.

This is a fairly recent performance from Ms. Thomas, which took place in 2014 at the T-Club in Madrid. However, she can still belt out the music, which presumably accounts for her nickname as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans.”

It’s hard to see why this song wasn’t a bigger hit. It has a slow rhythm that really packs a punch, a catchy melody, and dynamite lyrics. The song provides a great opportunity to a singer like Ms. Thomas with exceptional vocal power.

The record itself made it to #52 on the Billboard R&B charts, but Time Is On My Side was the B-side of that record, so presumably it didn’t get much exposure on the radio. It’s also interesting that despite her terrific voice, Irma Thomas never had the commercial success achieved by several of her R&B contemporaries.

Note that Irma includes a spoken section in the middle of this song. This feature was copied by both the Rolling Stones and Patti Smith in their covers of this song.

Many black artists saw their songs copied by white musicians, whose covers often achieved great success. Some of these artists remain aggrieved that their contributions were unjustly overlooked, while others are more sanguine that another group hit the jackpot by copying their tune.

Apparently Irma Thomas is in the “pissed-off” category. My sister saw Irma Thomas perform a few years ago, and apparently Ms. Thomas is still making sarcastic comments about the Stones stealing her song.

We will check out the Rolling Stones’ version next. In my opinion, there is a lot to like about both versions of this great song.

The Rolling Stones and Time Is On My Side:

The Rolling Stones are one of our favorite rock bands. We have discussed them already in several of our blog posts, including early covers of other songs such as It’s All Over Now, Sweet Little Sixteen and Ain’t Too Proud To Beg. We have also looked at original Stones songs such as Under My Thumb.

So we will give a brief summary of the history of the Rolling Stones here.

The Stones first formed in the early 60’s when Brian Jones and pianist Ian Stewart joined forces with singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards. They began their career as leaders of a British blues revival that covered legendary American blues artists. After a short period they added bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts.

Below is a photo of the Rolling Stones from 1967. Clockwise from upper L: Mick Jagger; Keith Richards; Charlie Watts; Bill Wyman; Brian Jones.

Early in their career, the Stones were performing covers of songs by other groups. In some cases, these were classic blues songs; however they were also on the lookout for either suitable R&B tunes, or else songs by their rock and roll idols such as Chuck Berry.

In 1964, the Stones issued a cover of the song It’s All Over Now, which had originally been released by The Valentinos’. The Stones’ version went to #1 in the UK, but peaked at 26 on the US Billboard pop charts.

So, at this time the Stones were looking for R&B songs that would be a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. They struck paydirt with Time Is On My Side. An interesting fact is that the Stones actually recorded two different versions of this song.
The first version (a looser arrangement featuring a briefer, organ-only intro), recorded in London in June 1964, was released in the U.S. in 1964 … The second version (more tightly arranged and featuring guitar in the intro), was released in the UK on January 15, 1965 on The Rolling Stones No. 2.

So here is the audio of the second Stones’ arrangement of Time Is On My Side, which starts out with a distinctive guitar intro. This second version is the one that has stood the test of time, and that everyone will probably remember.

And here is a live performance of Time Is On My Side by the Rolling Stones from a concert in 1981. This is a fine performance of one of the Stones’ ‘oldies.’ As it is a music video, it contains visual flashbacks to several moments from the Stones past — early live performances; press clippings of drug busts involving Stones members; the live concert from Hyde Park following Brian Jones’ death; and various Stones fans going bananas for their favorite ‘bad boys.’

Once the Stones gained fame, Jagger and Richards began an amazing song-writing partnership. Over the years they have produced an astonishing body of work, including a number of rock and blues classics.

Despite more than 50 years of hard rocking and fast living, the Rolling Stones are still going strong even today. They have been a remarkably stable group, with Jagger, Richards and Watts still together from the earliest incarnation of the band. And guitarist Ronnie Wood has now been with the Stones for 40 years.

When the Stones go out on the road, they are still one of the highest-grossing acts on tour, and they can still produce some exceptional music. To borrow a line from the 1989 movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, “Party on, dudes!”

Patti Smith and Time Is On My Side:

Patti Smith is a singer-songwriter, poet and author. She was a major figure in the New York punk-rock scene in the 1970s, and was probably best known at the time for her 1975 debut album, Horses.

Below is a photo of Patti Smith from about 1975. Photo by Richard Aaron.

Smith grew up on the East Coast, initially in the Germantown area of Philadelphia and later in New Jersey. After graduating from high school, she moved to New York, where she met photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Smith and Mapplethorpe
had an intense romantic relationship, which was tumultuous as the pair struggled with times of poverty, and Mapplethorpe with his own sexuality. Mapplethorpe’s photographs of her became the covers for the Patti Smith Group LPs, and they remained friends until Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989.

At the time, Patti Smith was mainly involved with poetry and the theatre. However, she was also involved in performance art, and by 1974 she had assembled a band. Her live performances often featured both songs and spoken-word pieces.

Smith’s big breakthrough came with her first album, Horses, in 1975. The album essentially consisted of a marriage of punk rock with beat poetry. Although the album had only modest commercial success and virtually zero airplay on the radio, it received tremendous critical acclaim.
At the end of 1975, Horses was voted the second best album of the year, behind Bob Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes, in the Pazz & Jop, an annual poll of American critics nationwide, published in The Village Voice.

Cover of the 1975 Arista Records album Horses, by the Patti Smith group. Photo by Robert Mapplethorpe.

Cover of the 1975 Arista Records album Horses, by the Patti Smith group. Photo by Robert Mapplethorpe.

At left is the Arista Records album cover from Horses, which features Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous cover photo of Patti. Although the cover appears rather plain, the photo was highly unusual – neither the black and white image, nor Smith’s unisex look, were typical for albums featuring “girl singers” at that time.

Apparently Smith had to fight hard to overrule her producers, who requested significant changes in the cover art.

Patti Smith also had a significant impact on both punk-rockers and pop singers who followed her. Musicians from Courtney Love of Hole, to REM’s Michael Stipe, to Madonna, all cite Patti Smith as one of the major influences on their careers.

Here is Patti Smith performing Time Is On My Side live at a concert in Stockholm in 1976.

Note that Patti Smith begins with a spoken-word piece before launching into the song. The instrumental accompaniment here is very similar to the Stones’ version.

Patti Smith’s vocal delivery is pure punk-rock – raw, somewhat ragged, with a visceral power. The spoken section in the middle of the song fits perfectly with Smith’s penchant for inserting performance-art statements into her appearances.

I never paid much attention to punk rock back in the 70s. The genre had little appeal for me, in fact the few punk bands I listened to such as the Sex Pistols seemed crude, even repulsive. However, my colleague Glenn Gass has convinced me that punk played an important role at the time, in returning rock music to its early roots.

Patti Smith has had a number of notable achievements. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, won the Polar Music Prize in 2011, and in 2012 her memoir Just Kids, about her life in the 1970s and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction. That is a damn impressive list of achievements.

Let me finish with some “bonus video.” In the 1970s, Saturday Night Live’s stunning ensemble cast produced many parodies of modern culture. In particular, the brilliant comedienne Gilda Radner developed a number of unforgettable characters.

gilda-radner-candy-slice

Among those characters was girl rocker “Candy Slice.” It will be obvious from the photo at left that Radner’s ‘Slice’ character was patterned after Patti Smith. Here is part of an SNL segment lampooning over-hyped rock benefit concerts, from 1979. This one imagines an all-star benefit concert “Rock Against Yeast” (rockers united to eliminate the scourge of yeast infections).

One of the rockers at this benefit is Candy Slice, who performs the song “Gimme Mick,” despite appearing to be nearly totally incapacitated.  You can access the video here (click on the link.  Candy Slice appears at about the 3:30 mark in this video).

As always, Radner’s characterization cuts very close to home. Her vocals sound just like typical punk-rock fare. You should also be able to spot SNL cast members such as Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin and John Belushi, as well as guest host Rick Nelson. Enjoy!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Time Is On My Side
Wikipedia, Irma Thomas
Wikipedia, The Rolling Stones
Wikipedia, Patti Smith

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This entry was posted in Pop Music, Punk Rock, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Time Is On My Side: Irma Thomas, the Rolling Stones, Patti Smith

  1. Pingback: Brown Sugar: The Rolling Stones (original and re-recording), and Phil Lesh & Friends | Tim's Cover Story

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  3. Pingback: Sympathy For The Devil: The Rolling Stones; Guns ‘N Roses; Rickie Lee Jones | Tim's Cover Story

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