Don’t Mess with Irma Thomas

Irma Thomas. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Irma Thomas, variously known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans” and “The Voice,” is truly one of the most beloved of New Orleans musicians, not only for her phenomenal vocal gifts, but for her gracious, down-to-earth manner and her commitment to the local community. She’s also our “Cover Girl” for this year’s Jazz Fest issue, the third time she’s graced our cover.


This year, you’re scheduled to appear right before Bon Jovi at Jazz Fest. Last time Bon Jovi played Jazz Fest, Dr. John opened and the audience booed him!

Yes, the Jazz Fest asked me to switch with Allen Toussaint, and everyone seems to find it interesting that I’m scheduled to go on right before Bon Jovi. I don’t have a problem with it. Last time, the crowd found it necessary to boo Dr. John. I hope they don’t make that mistake with Irma Thomas!

Have you ever had a bad experience with an audience before?

I’ve been in the business for 51 years, and I’ve never been disrespected in all those years. I’m not anticipating a bad situation, but I’m prepared respectfully to handle whatever this audience gives out. If I have to take five minutes of my time to tell them what I think, well, they’ll have to listen.

What would you do?

I’ll be very cool, but they’re going to wish they hadn’t done it. (laughs). I’m like the little devilish little girl; I wish they would go there with me! Booing is just stupid. You are obligated to respect the act that comes before the act you want to see. If they respect my performance and my time, I won’t have to tell them anything.

How do you feel about the way the Jazz Fest has changed, trying to appeal to a younger audience?

The Jazz Fest market may be getting older, but we’re the ones with the money! If you bring in acts to appeal to younger people, then you’d better teach them how to act. Jazz Fest has always brought in a somewhat sophisticated but a down-to-earth market, and if you’re coming to the fest, you’d better bring a good attitude with you.

How do you want an audience that hasn’t experienced you yet to respond?

These people that they’re coming to see—they’ve learned from people like myself. So if nothing else, respect the person who taught them how to do what they’re doing. You might learn something.

What are some Jazz Fest moments that stick in your mind?

The first Jazz Fest after Katrina, when I looked out over that audience and saw all those people and thought, not what I was going to sing, but “Where are they staying?” Because at that time, a lot of the hotels weren’t even open. But people still traveled all that way to come to the Jazz Fest. I felt extremely humbled by that experience. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy because there people cared enough to travel all this distance to come to Jazz Fest. It has stuck with me like it happened yesterday. These people cared enough to come back to a city that was broken at the time, and they were there to help us heal and carry on.

Have you had any special Jazz Fest performances that are really meaningful to you? The Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe is one that i remember. It was so moving.

Now that was really special, the tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I can remember Ed Bradley (now deceased) was on stage at the time. Often times when I do gospel, I shut my eyes, because I go into my own thing-a-ma-jig because I love gospel music. It spiritually revives me. I was singing “Beams of Heaven,” the only gospel song that was done in tribute to her. And after I finished the song, there was about a minute of this dead silence, and the first thing I thought was “What did I do wrong?” And everyone stood up at one time and started applauding, and Ed Bradley took me in his arms and told me, “You can sing gospel for me anytime.” “What did I do?” I said. And Ed said, “Look out there!” I just did the song the way I did it as a kid. It was just one of those special moments. When I’m doing a song that I really love, I sink my teeth into it, get into the moment and forget I have an audience I’m singing to.

What do you appreciate the most about Jazz Fest?

Jazz Fest has opened up the eyes of the world to people who were struggling for a long time making music. These are people who struggled for years before Jazz Fest made it possible for their careers to take off. We owe the festival a debt of gratitude.