Beloved by her "Dawlin' New Orleans," Leigh Harris was renowned for both her powerhouse talent and her life affirming spirit.
- by Dar Wolnik
- photos by Kerry Maloney, Tom Redfield and the estate of Leigh Harris
In the modern world, news of a beloved icon’s passing inevitably is shared on social media, with scores of weeping emoticons and RIP’s flung up as the day progresses, usually ending within one news cycle. In the case of New Orleans singer Leigh “Little Queenie” Harris’ death on Sept. 21, this year, the tributes continued to pour out days, even weeks later. Her memorial concert was held this past weekend (Nov. 22) at Chickie Wah Wah's and a second line sent her off in style the following day.
The memorial concert and second line were organized by Harris' husband and son, Rick Ledbetter and Alex Harris Macdonald, Lenny Zenith, Holley Bendtsen, Jimmy Robinson, Stephanie Shilleci Ray and NOMAF.
Two themes emerged in the tributes: the personal relationship hundreds had with her, sharing the gratitude they felt they owed her for a kindness she had done for them. Or, almost as profound, a deep and abiding admiration that all musicians and music-lovers had for her song list, personal style and life-affirming presence.
Harris fronted Li’L Queenie & the Percolators in the 1970s and early ‘80s, Mixed Knots, Little Queenie's Wahini Dakinis, and a few other bands with names that made it hard to keep track of her as the front person. Luckily, the local media loved her – great copy -- and wrote of her often.
She even made the New York Times in 1980, in an article predicting "big-time success," and adding that "Miss Harris has more voice, personality and stage presence than any other young performer this observer has encountered in a long, long time." You could almost always find her at Jazz Fest, usually performing with a dozen or more musicians and singers, getting as many talented friends as she could to share her spotlight. It was a party.
Her emergence with the Percolators coincided with my own teen-aged move to the French Quarter from the gritty, Midwestern garage-rock land where I had lived. A flyer on a telephone pole alerted me to this oddly-named group. I liked the name and the look of the flyer, so I went - and was hooked for life.
Even though physically tiny, Leigh ruled the stage with unflagging energy and a vocal style that could go from rocking to soulful to poignant in a flash. Her stage patter was hilarious, touching and - as they say for profane - “blue.” The musicians she played with were the best of their generation and of New Orleans and seemed to love to be on stage with her.
I noted her control of the direction and tempo of the performances that reminded me of the artful 1960s television work of Judy Garland performing at the top of her craft. Through a later email exchange with Leigh, I found out that she deeply admired Kay Thompson, the woman who helped fashion Garland’s stage work and had hoped to do an homage to Thompson at some point.
Two versions of "My Dawlin New Orleans"