Though The Rolling Stones landed their first U.K. No. 1 in July ’64, the band was still looking for its breakthrough single in America. That August, when “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)” peaked at No. 24, the Stones began seeing the success other “British Invasion” acts had before them.
The Stones continued building momentum into December ’64, when the band’s version of “Time Is on My Side” reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. To this day, the Stones’ take on the song remains the best-known interpretation — so much so that many believe it’s a Stones composition.
Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, has been dealing with that since ’64. (Thomas turned 80 in February ’21.) When the Stones put down their version on record, they were following the lead of Thomas, who’d already recorded the Jerry Ragovoy-penned track for Imperial Records.
The Rolling Stones closely followed Irma Thomas’ version of ‘Time Is on My Side’
Thomas wasn’t the first to record “Time Is on My Side.” In October ’63, trombonist Kai Winding laid down the Ragovoy composition for Verve. A group of soulful backing singers, which included Dionne Warwick, spiced up a song that had instrumental verses. No lyrics outside of the chorus and “You’ll come running back” existed then.
When Thomas recorded the song for Imperial (in late ’63 or the first half of ’64), arranger H.B. Barnum had a lyricist add verses for Thomas to sing. As Thomas told Dutch TV’s Top 2000 in ’19, the monologue fell to her at the session.
“[The monologue] was not a part of the song originally,” Thomas said. “[Barnum], he was the producer and arranger, he made a suggestion. I said, ‘OK, I’ll come up with something.'” The Stones version followed Thomas’ recording quite closely in the two versions the band recorded in ’64.
In both recordings, Mick Jagger follows Thomas’ lyrics (even the ad-libs) mostly word for word. The Stones also match the tempo and arrangement of the Thomas recording (both end just shy of 3:00); the guitar part in the monologue section also comes very close to the one behind Thomas.
The Stones told Thomas they were recording her ‘Time Is on My Side’
Thomas wasn’t surprised when she heard the Stones’ version of “Time Is on My Side.” (The Stones recorded a second version of the track in late ’64 that is better known than the single.) In her Top 2000 interview, Thomas recalled a visit the Stones paid her following a ’64 U.K. show.
“Mick and Keith [Richards] came to catch my show,” Thomas said. “While they were there, they [said] they loved ‘Time Is on My Side’ and were gonna do it.” Thomas didn’t think there was much to compare when it came to the vocal performances on the respective tracks.
“Vocally, you have to be able to carry a note for more than a couple of seconds [raises eyebrows],” Thomas told Top 2000. “Melodically, [Mick’s] there. But… […] There’s an interpretation of singing. I tell people, ‘Mick can’t sing, but he’s laughing all the way to the bank.’ [laughs]”
Thomas said she got so tired of explaining to people “Time Is on My Side” was not a Stones’ song that she stopped singing it for nearly three decades. When she was playing with Bonnie Raitt in the ’90s, Thomas reclaimed her signature song.