For 31 years, Mother’s Day has meant Irma Thomas and The Professionals at Audubon Zoo. I’m not a mother so I wasn’t privy to this time-honored ritual until this year, when we accompanied 2 mother’s to Audubon Park for brunch at the Clubhouse Café followed by an afternoon at the zoo. The oak-shaded Clubhouse patio was filled with families, many with small children dressed to make their mothers proud. Indoors, there was an ample spread of all-you-can-eat breakfast delights from the design-your-own-omelet bar to bagels and lox as well as local favorites like a creamy mirliton soup and grits & grillades. The dessert table was crowded with festive cakes, mousses and pies.
After washing down our meals with mimosas, we headed across the park to the Audubon Zoo. Admission was free for mothers. All around us, women smiled while pushing strollers and holding tiny hands. It was actually a beautiful thing to see – all those women being made to feel special by their families and the zoo’s largess. It was mother’s choice so we dropped off our chairs near the stage and headed straight for the large primates. It rained off and on so we watched as gorillas and orangutans took cover under enclosures and inside plastic tubes. Watching us watch them, they must have thought we didn’t have the sense to get out of the rain.
Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns were the first to take the stage with their big-band/contemporary jazz sound. Children ran and danced on the large pavement area in front of the stage. We stepped away for a few songs to see giraffes, birds and gators (including the albino alligators), but were disappointed to find the elephant area under construction. Then, it was back to the stage for more Meschiya Lake who invited some of the dancing children to join her onstage.
The moms in our family clan couldn’t wait for the Soul Queen of New Orleans, Miss Irma Thomas. When they were kids, Miss Irma used to perform at their school dances. Like so many in the audience, they’d had crushes, first kisses and slow-dances set to her music. Miss Irma became a mother at 15 and has given life to 7 children, 15 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. But her real claim to procreative fame is how many other people’s children she’s responsible for – couples have been making love to her soulful songs for over 55 years.
I’m spoiled enough to have seen Irma Thomas and The Professionals many times including just a few weeks ago at French Quarter Fest, but the mothers with us hadn’t seen her perform live since they were schoolgirls. It was beautiful to see them transform into those same schoolgirls as the band took the stage. Because of the rain threat, the band played all their old favorites first. Everyone crowded the pavement area transforming it into a giant dance floor edged by Spanish moss laden live oaks.
As always, the show was fantastic. While many of our favorites from Elton John to Dr. John lose the range in their voices, Miss Irma still has all of her power and all of her range despite being in her 70’s. Her performance of one of my favorites, Hip Shakin’ Mama, was the best I’ve seen yet – strong, soulful and so damn sexy. Then, she explained that we were going to be joined by a young lady making her unplanned debut. The girl was a bundle of nerves but Miss Irma wrapped her arm around her and told us the only reason she had a career was because of the people who’d given her breaks. Out of nerves, the girl had to consult her phone for lyrics, but Miss Irma never loosened her grip and showed her she could do it.
I may not know what it is to be a mother, but I definitely know what it’s like to love one. I remember watching my mom dancing to Miss Irma at the Oyster Fest in 2012. I took out my camera and stole a shot of her joy (pictured below). It can’t have been easy for Irma Thomas to have raised all those children – especially when she was still a child herself.
Miss Irma may be the official Soul Queen of New Orleans, but for me she’s also the unofficial patron saint of motherhood. Not only has she been the soundtrack to this city’s fertility, she’s led by example – getting her AA degree from Delgado at age 60 while not just making a living in a rarified field, but being nominated for 4 Grammys, winning in 2007, winning 9 Blues Music Awards and being inducted to both the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2007, she even founded the Irma Thomas Center for W.I.S.E. Women (Women In Search of Excellence) on Delgado’s campus to provide counseling and encouragement for those seeking to further their educations.
Miss Irma is the gift that keeps on giving. Like my own mother, she doesn’t just give life, she inspires those around her to make the most of theirs. God bless Miss Irma and God bless mothers.