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Soul Queen Of New Orleans Has Been Performing On Mother's Day For 35 Years


Well, Happy Mother's Day to all you moms and grand-moms out there. Today tends to be a day of traditions - breakfast in bed, maybe a nice brunch. In New Orleans, there's another long-standing and beloved Mother's Day tradition 35 years in the making.


IRMA THOMAS: (Singing) Said your love was true, that I'd always have that love.

KELLY: That's Grammy award-winning soul and jazz singer Irma Thomas onstage at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans today. She is known as the Soul Queen of that city. She first stepped on to stage at the zoo back on Mother's Day 1983 as a publicity stunt to get folks in to see the newly renovated facility.

THOMAS: Thirty-four years ago, it was done on a flatbed truck (laughter). They didn't even have what they would consider a legal stage at Audubon Zoo at that time. I think the gentleman's name is Mr. Forman. When he took over, he said, well, in order to get people out, they thought it would be a good idea to let moms come in free. It went over so well that he kept it going. He said it wasn't broken. He wasn't fixing it.

KELLY: Since then, the Audubon Nature Institute - that's the nonprofit organization that manages the zoo - it has renewed her contract to perform every Mother's Day since.


THOMAS: (Singing) Do you promise to be mine, oh, mine?

KELLY: Irma Thomas has decades of hits and albums under her belt. She says the Mother's Day concert is dear to her though because it creates a special connection with her fans.


THOMAS: Yeah. Don't forget to yell out what you want to hear, OK? If I can get to it, I will.

I have an opportunity to give back to my fans. I don't look at it for the paycheck as much as I look at it with the camaraderie I have with my fans. I'm going to be facetious in saying that I think I have a special relationship with my fans because in so many instances, people will pay a large price to go see a concert and never hear their favorite song.

This way, I have the relationship with my audience that whatever song they feel they want to hear that day, if time allots me to do it, I try to accommodate because they're the ones I'm there to entertain and bring joy to. And in return, I get the joy out of the fact that I try to give them what they wanted.

KELLY: Irma Thomas says come rain or shine, those fans of hers show up.


THOMAS: (Singing) It's raining so hard. Looks like it's going to rain all night.

I mean, there have been occasions where the weather was somewhat wet, but that's a normal, typical day in New Orleans. But it didn't dampen the spirit of the folks for that Mother's Day they came out in spite of.

KELLY: Thomas is herself a mother and a grandmother and a great-grandmother. So they come along to hear her sing.

THOMAS: And my kids come and join me, those that are able and financially able to be out there with me. They come and join me, and then afterwards, I come home and then they cater to me. So what else can you ask for? (Laughter).

KELLY: And, of course, when she is up on that stage, she has her own mother on her mind.

THOMAS: I always think of my mother daily. My mother passed away in 2011. In fact, I - up until she passed away, I used to wear a red flower. I grew up - what the tradition was on Mother's Day you wore a red flower if your mom was alive. You wore a white one if she was deceased. And so since that time, I've managed to wear something white or wear a white flower.


THOMAS: (Singing) I can hear her heart beat from a thousand miles.

KELLY: Here's a bit more of Irma Thomas today, Mother's Day, singing at the New Orleans Audubon Zoo.


THOMAS: (Singing) She smiles. When I come to her, that's where I belong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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