Irma Thomas and the mother of all Mother’s Day traditions
On May 8, 1983, Irma Thomas, arguably New Orleans’ most beloved singer ever, made her Mother’s Day debut at Audubon Zoo. It was, she said in a 2013 interview, a gimmick to entice families to the zoo on the family-friendly weekend, with free admission to all mothers. It wasn’t a fancy affair — the stage was a makeshift one, on the back of a flatbed truck — but it was a hit, prompting zoo officials to make it an annual event.
Thomas is scheduled to perform her 35th Mother’s Day concert on May 14. The music will start at 10 a.m. and go on until 5 p.m., and, yes, mothers will get in free. In discussing the concert series, Thomas said, “I look forward to them because I’ve been doing them for so many years. It’s a way to share my life with my fans.”
- Thomas, 76, herself is a mother many times over. She had her first child when she was 15, and she had three more by the time she was 20. She also has three stepchildren, 15 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
- Thomas has been performing for more than a half-century.
- Thomas’ Mother’s Day gigs are “one of our signature events,” attracting about 15,000 people, said Ron Forman, president and CEO of the Audubon Nature Institute.
- Thomas won a Grammy in the post-Katrina year of 2007, and she had a mantle built so she could display the award in her home, which she and her husband rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina. In what might be viewed as quirky timing, or fate, she won the Grammy for her album “After the Rain.”
- Thomas has had a series of five-year contracts with Audubon Nature Institute to do these concerts. This year is the last of the current five-year period. Would she sign a renewal? “If it’s offered, sure,” she said. When asked, Forman said another five-year contract would, indeed, be offered.
- Thomas’ Mother’s Day concerts at the zoo represent her second-longest-standing gig. The longest? The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, at which she has been performing annually since 1974.
- Thomas grew up loving to sing. When she was in eighth grade, she won a singing contest at the Carver Theater. Her prize: $5 in movie passes.
- Thomas’ singing career got started in earnest when she was fired from her waitressing job at the Pimlico Club — where she was known as “the singing waitress” — and hired to sing with the band. “I got fired for singing on the job, and the rest is history,” she said.
Just like red beans and rice on Mondays and snowballs in summertime, Irma Thomas’ Mother’s Day gigs at the zoo have become a New Orleans tradition. “She’s iconic; she is Mother’s Day,” Forman said. “Without Irma, it wouldn’t be the success we have right now. … People love Irma.” She blends new songs and such hardy perennials as “Done Got Over,” “It’s Raining,” “Breakaway” and “I Did My Part.” The concerts seem likely to go on as long as she feels like it. “It’s all about being a mom and being able to share my memories with other mothers,” she said in a 2011 interview. “That’s what makes it special.”