Lil Queenie Interview
New Orleans Royalty Reigns in Carolina
In New Orleans, she’s considered royalty. As Lil’ Queenie, she fronted the Percolators, a rowdy, raucous amalgamation of bluesy rockers with a jazzy side as well who rattled the Crescent City in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Today, under her commoner name of Leigh Harris, she makes her home in Rural Hall, North Carolina, not far from Andy Griffin’s hometown and Mayberry touchstone of Mt. Airy.
But just because Harris has chosen a quieter and drier setting to live in doesn’t mean that she’s not still percolatin’. Ex- Percolator partners and current Subdudes Tommy Malone and John Magnie may not be with her when she plays this far south, but she’ll still bring a rowdy, funky bunch of backers when she plays Papa Mojo’s Roadhouse this Friday night.
Harris started singing before she could walk, and by her late teens was standing shoulder to shoulder on stages with a who’s who of New Orleans musical royalty including Professor Longhair, Dr. John and the Nevilles. “It was just kind of neighborhood guys, and I was just too young and stupid to be intimidated,” she says with a throaty chuckle. “ I had too much hubris, or somethin’.”
Whatever you called it, the crowds who packed Tipitinas loved her work, as did the artists, especially Fess. “Johnny and I did this duet at Tipitinas every Monday night,” Harris recalls. “All the Nevilles would come in, because it was a really neighborhoody thing, and Fess would too, and George Landry, who was Art and them’s uncle, Big Chief Jolly. And Fess would say, (she drops down into a gravely croak) “sang that ’Ode To Billie Joe.’” Which I really didn’t do with Johnny, he had heard me do it when I was even younger, doing a solo act, playing guitar. He said one of his great lines ever, one of his great malaprops: ‘You sang that real nice, dahlin’- I likedted it.’ ”
The Percolators grew out of that duo, adding future Subdude Tommy Malone as well as a rotating cast of characters that included some of the city’s finest horn players and even slide guitar wizard Sonny Landreth for a time. The band name came from a quote in clarinetist/ saxman/viper Mezz Mezrow’s book, Really The Blues. “Mezz is describing this situation where all the musicians all one by one are all achieving collective satori, and someone in the house screams out, ‘percolate you fool, percolate!” But she says few people got the reference. “I’ve had people give me toy coffepots, with my face on these appliances for years,” she says. I tell her it seems obvious that anybody who heard the band and got caught up in the pulsating riddims would realize that it was not something as common as caffeine but an internal lava flow that was bubbling up to splash all over them. “No shit, man,” she says with a sigh.
The Queen got her title not by birth, but by boyfriend. She says it was a tense situation, because he would try to draw her into his anger. “I was just not having it, and I guess he thought I was just being uppitedy, so he started calling me that.” Harris says she didn’t really think much about it at the time, because she was too busy dodging his many emotional foibles. “But after a while, I dumped him and adopted it as part of a band name that really wasn’t supposed to be my name, I just thought Little Queenie and the Percolators sounded so hilarious together. I swear to God, I didn’t think I was branding myself for the whole rest of my life. It’s cool, but it’s not what I had in mind.”
Despite her title and royal following, the band was defunct by 1982. Some big time labels and producers had come sniffing around, but Harris says nothing ever came of it. “First of all, all these hot shots who were interested in the band, the first thing they wanted to do was take me away from the guys, which I was not having any part of. And the people who were interested in the band as an entity, didn’t really understand it at all,” she sighs. “We had horrible management, horrible attorneys and were young and stupid.”
Even though Doc Pomus and Dr John offered some help, it wasn’t the right kind, Harris says. “Doc Pomus could advise me all day long as a songwriter and he did. And Mac Rebennac was really in a different world, people like that that I might have turned to weren’t necessarily in a position to advise me. I could not have been any less equipped to deal with all that. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
That lack of business savvy has recently popped back up to whack her again. The only tune Lil’ Queenie and the Percolators recorded, “My Darlin’ New Orleans,” was chosen by the HBO series Treme to be on their first episode and on the soundtrack recording. Problem is, even though she sang lead on it, Harris has no rights to the song anymore. “I have no claim, no stake to that particular recording. And when people want to use that and they call me, I have to refer them to somebody else. I didn’t get a dime.”
She tells an all too common tale of the workings of the music biz that leaves the artist in the cold and the suits with all the benefits. It started with the sound man at the time, who put up the money to go into the studio and release some 45s of the record. But the trouble started when he sold his rights to a distribution company. That company was bought by another, which Harris says is run by “a total scumbag, the most unscrupulous, low-down, every cliche you can think of about the suits in the biz, the personification of all those ugly types.”
In addition to selling “My Darlin’ New Orleans” to HBO, the company head had also sold the rights to material by Bayou Beethoven Wardell Quezergue and Eddie Bo that Harris said wasn’t his to license. So while those antics ended his association with the show, Harris still didn’t get any compensation for her participation.
However, Treme Producer Blake Leyh had been in contact with Harris wanting to use some other material of hers when he found out that she had no rights to the song. “And I said, if you had just come to me first, because I re-recorded the song right after Katrina. You could have had my version. And this is close to the premiere. And oh God, he was mad! “Well,” she told him, “maybe next time you’ll remember to ASK ME,” she shouts.
Determined to bounce back, Harris had had been close to finishing a new album, Purple Heart, right before Katrina hit. “Nobody was even talking about it,” she says of the impending hurricane. “I was on my way to Austin to see Clifford Antone about doing a CD release gig there with a 2 mix in my backpack.” But before she could get back to mix and master the record, Katrina wrecked the studio. “The masters were destroyed in the flood. So what people get when they buy Purple Heart is the two mix that has been sweetened as much as I could possibly sweeten it in the studio without the masters,” she says. She calls it a bootleg due to lack of a distribution deal, and sells it at shows and through her website, www.littlequeenie.com.
Her last recording experience has left her a bit wary of choosing a studio. “I’m never recording another album that’s not in a studio on top of a big hill with the masters kept in waterproof locked room,” she says. She has her own label Deeva records, and plans to “release recordings of young artists from other countries who'd dig having something out on a New Orleans-based label.”
Harris belts out sweet sultry soul with a southern accent, rowdy r&b with orgasmic joy and a second line backbeat that’ll jar you down to your toenails. She‘s not shy about self-promotion either. She wants to be remembered as “just the best motha fuckin’ singer anybody ever heard,” she blurts out, laughing.
But after requesting a minute to think about her legacy a bit more, she comes back with a response more befitting a queen: “I would like to be remembered as an artist who did what she wanted to do, which was to make all kinds of music with all kinds of musicians all over everywhere.”