Soul Queen Irma Thomas Becomes A Doctor Thomas earned the title of the Soul Queen of New Orleans three decades ago. Earlier this month, she added the title of doctor to her name thanks to Tulane University.
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Soul Queen Irma Thomas Becomes A Doctor

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Soul Queen Irma Thomas Becomes A Doctor

Soul Queen Irma Thomas Becomes A Doctor

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Singer Irma Thomas is beloved in New Orleans and known to R&B fans around the world.


IRMA THOMAS: (Singing) Sitting home alone thinking about my past.

MARTIN: Thomas has been recording and performing for over half a century. Along the way, she's won a Grammy, raised four kids and all the while worked to get a college degree. This month, Thomas got an honorary doctorate from Tulane University. Eve Abrams has the story.

EVE ABRAMS, BYLINE: At the risk of slipping into a cliche, Irma Thomas is an icon. And it's a word she's not entirely at home with.

THOMAS: That takes some getting used to. (Laughter). It's very humbling. Bad enough they call you a living legend. It's like, OK. (Laughter).


ABRAMS: Everyone in New Orleans calls her Irma, and everyone knows her songs, like this 1962 R&B classic...


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

ABRAMS: Which Irma sang at Tulane University's commencement ceremony.

THOMAS: Well, why not? I'm there. A few extra minutes won't hurt anything. I mean, it'll bring some more joy to some more people. Why not?


THOMAS: (Singing) Counting every drop. About to blow my top. I wish this rain would hurry up and stop.

ABRAMS: Irma is well-known for giving her fans what they want. She always sings requests.

THOMAS: When you think here I am at 77 years old and I have fans who've been fans of mine for the better part of my entire career, and they have brainwashed their children with my music that they have become fans.

ABRAMS: The song she always dedicates to them is "Forever Young."


THOMAS: (Singing) May the good Lord bless and keep you. May your wishes all come true.

So when I sing "Forever Young," I'm thinking about these people have been with me all these years with this youthfulness about them, and it always makes me well up when I sing it.

(Singing) May you stay forever young.

ABRAMS: Irma has outlived most of her New Orleans musical contemporaries, including songwriter and arranger extraordinaire Allen Toussaint, who died less than three years ago and wrote many of Thomas's early hits.


THOMAS: (Singer) Ruler of my heart, driver of my soul, where can you be? I wait patiently.

ABRAMS: Toussaint often referred to Irma Thomas as his muse.


ALLEN TOUSSAINT: When I wrote every song that I have written for Irma, she was sitting there at the time. So I had instant gratification.

ABRAMS: Allen Toussaint, in a 1998 interview outtake with public radio program "American Roots."


TOUSSAINT: It made it hard on judgment because I couldn't judge whether the song was good or bad. She just sounds good on everything.


THOMAS: (Singing) It's so good listening to old records and thinking 'bout you.

ABRAMS: Irma's record producer for the past 30 years is Scott Billington.

SCOTT BILLINGTON: Her voice, that kind of molasses quality, it just envelops you. It's like putting a warm blanket on when you hear Irma sing.

ABRAMS: That voice was recognized early on. She won first place in a talent show when she was in the sixth grade. But by the time she was 14, Irma was married and pregnant. After Hurricane Camille devastated New Orleans in 1969, Thomas moved to California. By then she was a single mother of four children, singing at night and working at Montgomery Ward by day selling sewing machines.

THOMAS: I would cut out dresses I was making for my kids, and I would sew them at work as demos for the sewing machine. And I sold quite a few sewing machines that way. (Laughter). They say work smart, and that's what I was doing, working smart.

ABRAMS: She was also getting smart earning her GED. When she moved back to New Orleans, Irma enrolled in Delgado Community College. Between her kids and her career, it took her 15 years to get an associate degree in business.

THOMAS: I started at 45, and I didn't graduate till I was 61 'cause I was stopping and starting, I was touring and I was doing homework on the plane or wherever I was, but I didn't stop. I wanted to graduate. (Laughter). And yes, it is a wonderful feeling. (Laughter). Fact, I would put it above receiving the Grammy, really.

ABRAMS: She won that Grammy in 2006 for her album "After The Rain."

THOMAS: I feel you earn Grammys, but then you have to depend on your peers to vote for you. And when you go get your education, you've earned that. You don't have to depend on nobody but you.

ABRAMS: That's one reason why Irma returns to Delgado every semester.

MELANIE DEFFENDALL: That's her picture, of Irma with her Grammy.

ABRAMS: Melanie Deffendall is a professor at Delgado and also the director of the Irma Thomas Center for WISE Women. WISE stands for women in search of excellence. Deffendall says Irma understands their struggles.

DEFFENDALL: She was them, working, going to school and raising children.

ABRAMS: Her children are grown now, and at the Tulane commencement where she sang "After The Rain," Irma also added another degree to her resume, honorary doctorate of letters. But, chances are, Dr. Thomas will never replace the title officially conferred upon her in 1989 by New Orleans' then-mayor. It's what she said when I asked her to introduce herself.

THOMAS: I'm Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans.

ABRAMS: For NPR News, I'm Eve Abrams in New Orleans.


THOMAS: (Singing) Success has come to lots of them, and failure's always there.

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