Irma Thomas is a Mother’s Day tradition at the zoo

RIGHT AT HOME

The Audubon Zoo staged its first Mother’s Day celebration 30 years ago, starring one of New Orleans’ musical heroines, Irma Thomas.

L. Ronald Forman, president and CEO of the Audubon Nature Institute, was director of the Audubon Zoo when he got the idea of staging a Mother’s Day event there. He hoped it would draw families to the zoo.

There was no stage at that inaugural Mother’s Day’s concert, Thomas recalled last week.

“We did the show from a flatbed truck,” she said. “But it was such a big hit that they decided to keep doing it. I’ve been doing it now for 30 years. It’s gotten bigger and bigger each year.”

In addition to singing this Sunday for the 30th anniversary of the zoo’s Mother’s Day Celebration, last month Thomas performed for the 30th anniversary of the French Quarter Festival and the 15th anniversary of Nick Spitzer’s New Orleans-based radio show, “American Routes.”

Special occasions and Thomas go together. Last week at Harrah’s Casino, she joined Dr. John, Cyril Neville, Deacon John Moore and Jon Cleary as well as Elvis Costello, Joe Stampley and producer-musician Joe Henry for a 75th birthday tribute to producer, songwriter and pianist Allen Toussaint.

Thomas and Toussaint’s early 1960s collaborations include the New Orleans rhythm-and-blues classics “It’s Raining” and “Ruler of My Heart.”

“Our careers just happened to come together,” she said. “He was a prolific writer and I was a vehicle for his songs.”

Rounder Records, the Cambridge, Mass.-based label that has released 10 studio albums by Thomas since 1986, including 2008’s Grammy-winning “Simply Grand,” issued the retrospective, “The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary,” in 2009.

Rather than fret about time flying by, Thomas is grateful for the many anniversaries.

“I’m thankful I’m still around to enjoy them,” the 72-year-old singer said with a characteristic chuckle.

Thomas feels at home on a stage and can’t wait to do her gigs.

“That’s like sitting in my living room,” she said. “I’m very comfortable on stage. I don’t have that thing they call ‘stagefright.’ I’ve never been afraid to be in front of an audience.”

Born Feb. 18, 1941, in Ponchatoula, Thomas grew up in New Orleans, singing at the Home Mission Baptist Church in Zion City.

Gospel music, which received frequent play on multiple radio stations in New Orleans during her formative years, was a big part of her early musical life. When Thomas was a teenager, she even shook hands with the Chicago-based, New Orleans-born gospel great Mahalia Jackson.

“I didn’t introduce myself to her as an entertainer,” Thomas remembered. “I was just happy to shake her hand.”

Thomas’ two appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival last weekend included a tribute to Jackson in the Gospel Tent.

The singer still has the stamina to sing two gigs in one weekend, in part because she didn’t indulge in the vices that musicians are known to partake of — drugs and alcohol.

“When you beat up your body, it retaliates!” Thomas said. “I chose not to. I was never that curious about it and it was never something that I wanted to try. And I’m not one who burned her candles on both ends and in the middle. I still have a pretty decent voice and my health is pretty decent for a person my age.” For Thomas, performing has always been a natural high.

“I never saw the reasoning behind people who have to get high or get drunk to do a performance. If you love what you do, that should be all you need to motivate you to do what you have to do.”