“Soul Queen of New Orleans,” Irma Thomas, took the stage to end the 2nd annual Oyster Fest. Though it was cooler than Day 1, I sincerely hope that the organizers find their way to Armstrong Park or some other grassy field before next year. Even with cloudy skies and the sun setting, heat radiated from the blacktop. But, the large crowd (and DancingMan504) could have cared less – Irma was going to sing us off the surface of the sun and into the heavens and we couldn’t wait.
For those not in the know, Irma Thomas has been recording for 52 years, has been nominated for 4 Grammys and won in 2007 for After The Rain, her post-Katrina album. She’s won 9 Blues Music Awards and has been inducted both into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. She is a local grown treasure who’s earned her right to the blues.
Born in Ponchatoula and in New Orleans by 9, she was a mother at 14, a cocktail waitress at 16, and cut her first single, the classic You Can Have My Husband (But Don’t Mess with My Man) at 18. A mother of 4 and twice divorced by 19, she moved to L.A. to record and ended up working at the Montgomery Ward’s. Thank goodness, she came back to New Orleans in the 70’s to play Jazz Fest and has played the Fest at least once every year since 1974.
At 45, she started college and graduated from Delgado at the age of 60, having had to take significant time off to earn awards. In 2007, the Irma Thomas Center for W.I.S.E. Women (Women In Search of Excellence) opened on Delgado’s campus to provide counseling and encouragement for those seeking to further their educations.
Katrina washed away her home and nightclub. All her photos, awards and memorabilia “ain’t der no mo’.” But like she sings in the lyrics of her amazing song, Heart of Steel with Galactic, “I’ll take the pain, turn it into something real.” Her next blues album led to her first Grammy win.
So, when I say it was an honor to hear her sing once again – this time in a parking lot at the Oyster Fest, I mean it! She doesn’t use a playlist, opting instead for a more jukebox-like string of her classics as the audience requests them. Her band, The Professionals, earns their name by taking it all in stride and never missing a beat.
Though she’s started the show with the band playing and joined in to sing offstage, readying us for her entrance, her drama is very un-Diva, just good showmanship. She’s casually intimate with the crowd, engaging them in stories and questions without letting us forget that she’s the one on the stage.
She sang her self-empowered songs of love, including Let it Be Me, and turned the parking lot into a lover’s lane. By the time she got into her classic It’s Raining, recently featured in the movie Bridesmaids, I looked at all the couples dancing and wondered how many babies could be directly attributed to her music.
She owned Time is on My Side before the Rolling Stones and Simply the Best before Tina Turner and continues to keep them uniquely her own. During a set that was like a greatest hits record spanning a 52 year career, crowd favorite Hip Shakin’ MaMa got everyone’s backfield in motion.
She thanked her band, her husband and manager, Emile Jackson, and those who continue to rebuild New Orleans then turned the concert into a full-on parking lot party. She gave everyone a lesson in second line and got the crowd waving their handkerchiefs (and paper napkins and fans) as Jennifer Jones led the crowd in a line behind her pink-boa-adorned umbrella and the band played a medley of Iko Iko, Pockey Way and Done Got Over. It was an amazing concert in a city that is spoiled by amazing free concerts.