After a long battle with cancer, Leigh “Little Queenie” Harris, the soulful singer of Li’l Queenie and the Percolators, died on Saturday, September 21 at the age of 65. Battling the disease since her diagnosis in 2016, Harris had recently been living in hospice care in North Carolina.
Though Harris moved to Greensboro, NC after losing her New Orleans home in Hurricane Katrina, her relationship with the city remained strong. In May, 2016, Debbie Davis, the local jazz singer, hosted Gawd Save the Queen, a benefit concert at Snug Harbor for the purpose of raising money to reduce Harris’s exorbitant medical bills. Along with Davis, the benefit included performances by Vicki Peterson, Susan Cowsill, Darcy Malone, Spencer Bohren, Josh Paxton, Jimmy Robinson, Matt Perrine and many others, wishing to show their gratitude for Harris’s career.
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 sponsored by Councilman Joe Giarrusso.
In 1970, Harris formed a duo with keyboardist John Magnie, performing weekly shows at Tipitina’s. This duo would later grow, becoming Li’l Queenie and the Percolators, a New Orleans based band that combined Harris’s 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.”
Harris recorded her last album, 2018’s Purple Heart, before Katrina, but as the storm interrupted the album’s release, Harris did not release Purple Heart until much later. The album features such recordings as the ballad “Come Inside,” the Alvin Robinson song “Down Home Girl,” a piano version of the Mardi Gras classic “If Ever I Cease to Love” and a re-recording of Harris’s most popular song, “My Dawlin’ New Orleans.” With these recordings serving as a testament to the power of Harris’s voice before her illness, Purple Heart serves as a fitting farewell.