Leigh “L’il Queenie” Harris, vocalist and frontwoman of 1970s and early ’80s rock band Li’l Queenie and the Percolators has passed away at age 65 from cancer.
Harris grew up in Old Metairie and experienced her first musical triumph at the age of 11 when she sang “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” at the Tulane University Folk Festival. Years later, in 1975, she secured her first professional gig performing at the long-gone Oak Street club, Jed’s. “I sang and played guitar; it was great, Lil’ Davey and Marva Wright sang there, that’s how I met all of those people,” Harris said in an OffBeat interview.
In the late ’70s she and keyboardist John Magnie formed a duo which evolved into Li’l Queenie & the Percolators. The band combined Harris’ powerful voice with funk, R&B and jazz.
In 1980, upon the band’s first performance in New York City, John Rockwell, a music critic for The New York Times, wrote, “Miss Harris has more voice, personality and stage presence than any other young performer this observer has encountered in a very long time.”
But even with positive reviews, Harris found it difficult to get signed since most record companies found her music too eclectic to classify. “I’ve never known what my direction was; I like so many kinds of music. Nobody could say fish or fowl,” she said, but Baton Rouge music manager Johnny Palazzotto did manage to get both Harris and Magnie a songwriting deal with Almo/Irving A&M Records’ publishing division.
The Percolators disbanded in 1982 (Magnie and Percolators’ guitarist Tommy Malone went on to form the subdudes). The band’s scant recorded legacy included a 45rpm release of poet Ron Cuccia’s “My Darlin’ New Orleans,” a paean to New Orleans. It’s a song that’s long been identified with Harris, who was then an integral part of the Cuccia’s Jazz Poetry Group.
“Anyone who hasn’t heard the original live recording of ‘My Darlin’ New Orleans’ at the CAC in July 1979 by Ron Cuccia & The Jazz Poetry Group—recorded by Cosimo Matassa—is missing one of Leigh’s all time-great performances,” said Palazzotto.
In her career, she shared stages and recorded with local and national artists, including Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, James Booker, the Meters, B.B. King, Elvis Costello, the Neville Brothers, Bryan Ferry and many more.
Harris moved to Greensboro, North Carolina after losing her New Orleans home in Hurricane Katrina. Her relationship with the city and its musicians remained strong though, and in May 2016, after Harris was diagnosed with breast cancer, local singer Debbie Davis hosted “Gawd Save the Queen,” a benefit concert at Snug Harbor to help raise funds to reduce Harris’s exorbitant medical bills. The benefit included performances by Susan Cowsill, Darcy Malone, Spencer Bohren, Josh Paxton, Jimmy Robinson, Matt Perrine and many others.
Harris’ last CD Purple Heart, released in early 2019, collects a dozen unreleased recordings Harris made from 2003 to 2005. The album opens with a version of “My Darlin’ New Orleans” and includes a cover of David Bowie’s “Stay.”
On July 25, 2019, the New Orleans City Council honored Harris for her contributions to New Orleans music. Harris’s son, Alex Harris McDonald, accepted the declaration.
The Percolators’ signature “My Darlin’ New Orleans” with Harris’s vocals is still considered a quintessential New Orleans song. Thirty years after its release, it closed the premiere episode of the HBO series “Treme.”
Leigh is survived by her son, daughter-in-law, husband Rick Ledbetter, and hundreds of friends and New Orleans music lovers.