“The Soul Queen of New Orleans” has had plenty of setbacks in her 76 years. She has endured multiple devastating hurricanes, one of which (Katrina, in 2005) destroyed her home and nightclub. She has been the victim of racism, and she is twice divorced. And despite her proven pipes, she never achieved the commercial success of her contemporaries Diana Ross or Aretha Franklin.
Yet celebrated R&B singer Irma Thomas has no regrets. Looking back at what could have or should have been, she says, is unproductive and runs counter to her hopeful nature. Every mistake, every disappointment is and has been an opportunity for growth. As she puts it, employing a Southern adage, “Bought sense is taught sense.” If you pay a price for something, you’re bound to remember it.
“I look at the glass as being half full and not half empty,” says Thomas from her home in New Orleans, one day before embarking with the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet on a national tour, which stops Oct. 27 for an SCP Jazz concert at Symphony Center. “For every bad thing that happened in my life, I looked for the lessons within it to be learned rather than be a woe-is-me pity party person. I am not one of those. I am a person who looks at [the situation] and says, ‘This is what it is, let’s deal with it; where do I go from here to move on?’ And I raised my family the same way. I have lost some true friends, because every time you see them, they have a pity party going on. It’s depressing, and I don’t like depression. In fact, I can’t even remember when I was depressed.”
A “great sense of humor — thank you, Lord” helps immensely, as does the fact that her personal and professional lives have long been on an upswing. Having learned long ago “how to be a wife,” Thomas and her third husband, Emile Jackson, will soon mark their 40th wedding anniversary. In 2006, after three nominations, Thomas won a Grammy for her album “After the Rain.” In reviewing it, music critic Don McLeese described Thomas as an “anti-diva, a stylist of exquisite understatement whose every note rings true and hits home.” Oh, and thanks to the moist, skin-friendly air in New Orleans, she’s “still looking for crow’s feet.”
Most important from a musical standpoint, her voice remains strong. Thomas attributes that to decades of clean living and never abusing her instrument. Well, except for that scary stretch decades ago when she was rendered mute for several months. But bought sense is taught sense, and she’s been fine ever since.
“I never burned my candle at both ends, and I was never into that situation with drugs and alcohol and all that stuff,” she says. “I’ve always been family-oriented. I had children to raise, and I [told myself], ‘When I look in that mirror, I want to be able to appreciate and respect what I see.’ So I don’t do anything that’s going to create a problem or any kind of embarrassment for my family or me. Aside from being blessed, I think that has contributed a lot to my longevity.”
Someday she’ll take a final bow. Right now, though, Thomas has no idea when that day will be and thinks about it very little.
“I love what I do,” she says. “I love what I do. My husband keeps saying, ‘When are you going to retire?’ Retire for what? This is enjoyment. It ain’t costing me nothing but a little time. I’m going to have aches and pains, anyway, so what’s the point? May as well enjoy the pain while I’m having it.”
Mike Thomas, a Chicago-based writer, is the author of the books You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman and Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.