Irma Thomas, Soul Queen of New Orleans

As a nineteen-year-old, Irma Thomas recorded her first hit, “You Can Have My Husband, But Don't Mess with My Man." Shortly after this release, a steady stream of singles and albums would appear, continuing until the present. Yet because she was a mother of four children, because she worked at other jobs to support these children, her career is often considered to have been sporadic. Nevertheless she has achieved a remarkable body of work. In addition, her generosity to the city, her place as a New Orleanian has been reinforced by such recurring gigs as the Audubon Zoo’s Mother’s Day Event, her performances with local choirs, her family’s ownership of the Lion’s Den (shuttered since the 2005 levee failure), her references in interviews to the city even when she is living away, and, more recently, her fondness for being a grandmother and great grandmother. People today love that she calls herself a typical Maw-Maw.

Thomas was born in Ponchatoula and has lived in California, and rural towns in Louisiana, as well as in New Orleans. She speaks of Mahalia Jackson as one of her inspirations. As Thomas noted in [a 2000 interview with John Sinclair]: “I came up in a good time, I think, for music. It was a growing time. I didn't have a lot of female vocalists to style myself after, but I took from those I did learn from, which was Mahalia [Jackson], she was the gospel side of me, and Pearl Bailey was my showmanship side.”

Like Jackson, Thomas began singing in a choir. Thus, we can also link her to the traditions of other women musicians explored in these chapters. More so than these other women’s archival record, however, her career has been closely linked to popular culture, to the presence of a huge music industry, and to the wider distribution of music via radio. The transmission of her sounds and the collections of recordings by her fans, their interviews with her have an immediacy not only then based on the proximity of her work to the present but also the immediacy provided by technology. For example, the interviews referred to here resemble the oral histories completed and archived in traditional archives by William Russell. Yet, since they are accessible to wide audiences on the web, they change the uniqueness of the material, its accessibility, and thus the definition of archives, themselves.