“Somebody tell ’em, Jesus … is the baddest man in town,” calls the hulking choir director at the helm of two synthesizers in a New Orleans church.
“He’s the baddest man in town!,” the choir agrees in unison, as their formidable leader launches into a soulful, R&B-tinged intro so provocative that it could almost be a lost James Brown track. As beads of sweat drip onto a white, crushed-velvet zip-up, mock turtleneck-topped suit, Raymond Myles proceeds to lead the choir into one of his original compositions, his buttery voice reverberating like a plucked electric guitar string, his smile wide, his congregational audience swaying and testifying.
In the ’80s and ’90s, scenes like this one, which was captured on video and posted to YouTube, were common in churches across New Orleans, where Myles reigned as both the city’s most popular gospel entertainer and a beloved teacher known for encouraging students to avoid drugs and gang life. That reign ended on Oct. 11, 1998, with news that Myles had been murdered in an apparent carjacking.
The story of Myles’ career is back in the spotlight, thanks to veteran producer and music writer Leo Sacks, who is working on a documentary titled “A Taste Of Heaven: The Heartbreak Life Of Raymond Myles.”
Still a work in progress, the film seeks to illuminate Myles’ artistic message, and the obstacles he battled to communicate that message.
“He was celebrated for his career and ostracized for his lifestyle,” says Sacks, who first heard Myles in the Gospel Tent at the 1982 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and went on to produce and press Myles’ celebrated album “A Taste of Heaven” in 1995.
The ninth of ten children, Myles grew up in New Orleans’ St. Bernard Projects, where he gained recognition by singing with his mother, Christine Myles. Even at a young age, his voice was so uniquely moving that he was invited to perform at Mahalia Jackson’s funeral when he was in eighth grade. The young singer’s first entanglement with controversy came early: He cut a record with “Prayer From A 12-Year-Old Boy” on one side and “You Made A Man Out Of Me, Baby,” on the other. (The sexual overtones on the B-side reportedly caused his mother to become an outcast from her church, according to a 1996 article in Offbeat magazine.)
As a teen, the increasingly flamboyant performer struggled to be accepted by his brothers and by the society at large, according to Sacks. And as an adult, Myles never openly said that he was gay, although it seemed obvious to his friends, family and fans, who had dubbed him “The Little Richard of Gospel.”
“He struggled his whole life for artistic acceptance and spiritual fulfillment,” says Sacks. “He was victimized by those in the church who were intolerant, homophobic, ignorant.”
The conflict between Myles’ onstage persona and the gospel music he sang presented problems for him—even as glowing reviews for “A Taste of Heaven” appeared in Rolling Stone and other music publications and the singer appeared to be on the brink of a promising international career.
An early fan and proponent of Myles’ talent, Harry Connick, Jr., invited the Raymond A. Myles singer to open a number of shows for him in New York. “He was one of the most powerful and talented artists I’ve ever known,” Connick later told Sacks. The film’s teaser features interviews with Irma Thomas and other New Orleans-based musicians and activists, all of whom echo a similar sentiment.
“The next goal [in the filmmaking process] will be to talk to Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and the Nevilles about Raymond as an artist who could have only come from New Orleans,” says Sacks, noting that the film is only halfway finished due to financing.
As part of that effort, Sacks has set up a Kickstarter campaign devoted to raising $63,000 by March 22, to complete the project.
“There was such hope and healing and majesty and pain and passion in his voice,” Sacks muses. “As sad as his story is, that’s how uplifting the music is.”