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Irma Thomas

Musicians / Band

Music Note
  • Blues
  • Gospel
  • Jazz
  • R&B
  • Soul
  • Vocal

Grammy-winning singer Irma Thomas had her first hit in 1959, and over the course of a six-decade career has earned the title, “Soul Queen of New Orleans.”

Born in 1941 in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, Thomas was raised in New Orleans, singing in school and in church choirs, where she developed a love for gospel music that she carries still today. She grew up early: by age 19, she had been married twice and had three children. While working as a waitress she caught the ear of bandleader Tommy Ridgeley, who helped her secure a record contract.

In 1959, Thomas’s first single, “(You Can Have My Husband, But Please) Don’t Mess with My Man” caught fire and shot to #22 on Billboard’s R & B chart. She had a string of hit singles in the early 1960s, including “It’s Raining,” “Ruler of My Heart,” “Wish Someone Would Care,” “Breakaway,” and “Time is On My Side.” (“The latter was first recorded by Kai Winding, but Thomas’s version, note for note, was made famous by The Rolling Stones). Through much of this period, she collaborated closely with producer and composer Allen Toussaint; the two had a special bond which continued until his death in 2015.

Her music has endured: today her recording of “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)” can be heard on the television series “Black Mirror,” and “It’s Raining” is featured in the film, “Down By Law.”

Thomas’s career waned in the late 60s, and she moved to California after Hurricane Camille, gigging part-time. She returned to New Orleans in the early 1980s and opened the Lion’s Den, a nightclub where she often headlined. She re-kindled her recording efforts in 1986 and has continued to put out a string of secular and gospel records since then. She earned Grammy nominations for her 1991 “Live! Simply the Best!” and her 1998 collaboration with Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson, “Sing It.”

The Lion’s Den was destroyed by the flooding following Hurricane Katrina, but Thomas, unbowed, became a voice for recovery with her contributions to benefit projects. Her stellar 1996 album, “After the Rain,“ which channeled the emotions of New Orleans at its most fragile hour, won the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

In addition to her Grammy, Thomas has earned countless awards and honors over the span of her career. She was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2007, and was named by National Public Radio as one of the 50 Great Voices of all time. In 2018, Thomas received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance at the national Americana Music Honors and Awards ceremony.

Thomas has performed around the world, and with a Who’s Who of American music. She has played at every Jazzfest since 1974 – both secular and gospel sets - and was the featured artist on the 2008 collectible poster.

Thomas is a New Orleans cultural icon, much-loved for her engaging personality and commitment to the community. Her popular Mother’s Day concerts at Audubon Zoo have been a tradition since 1983. She continues to perform and record, and can be often be heard appearing on community radio station WWOZ. 

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