Leigh Harris, a legendary New Orleans singer who relocated to Rural Hall after Hurricane Katrina, died of cancer Saturday at the age of 65.
Performing as Little Queenie, Harris and her band, The Percolators, were a rollicking, good-time band that mixed jazz, funk, and soul, reflecting the city’s musical melting pot. Its best known song, “My Darlin’ New Orleans,” has become a Mardi Gras anthem.
Short, but mighty in stature, with close-cropped hair that was typically dyed flaming red or pink, Harris was a fireball of sass and spunk gifted with a powerful set of bluesy pipes. Writing in The New York Times in 1985, critic John Rockwell compared her to Janis Joplin, writing “Miss Harris has more voice, personality and stage presence than any other young performer this observer has encountered in a long, long time.”
National fame eluded Harris, but in New Orleans she remained a beloved fixture in some of its most famous clubs, including Tipitina’s. She shared stages and recorded with the likes of Professor Longhair, Elvis Costello, Sun Ra and The Meters.
Beth McKee, who is based in Orlando, Fla., but lives in Winston-Salem a few months each year, met Harris in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1980s. Their lives intertwined through the years, with McKee later moving about a mile away from Harris in New Orleans, and Harris moving to Rural Hall after Hurricane Katrina. Harris played a memorably raucous set at McKee’s first Swamp Sistas LaLa in Lewisville in 2012.
Harris’ last album, 2018’s “Purple Heart,” included a cover of McKee’s song “Shoulda Kept on Walkin’.”
“We loved singing together and did so often,” McKee said. “Leigh was one of the most gifted artists I have known, a dear friend and confidante, and I am very sad that she is gone.”
Winston-Salem native Peter Holsapple, who gained fame with The dB’s, played guitar in Harris’ band, the Mixed Knots. Holsapple described the Mixed Knots as a “modern string band that had Queenie purring Prince’s ‘Kiss’ over furious acoustic guitars and mandolins.”
In an email, Holsapple said Harris had a giving spirit. She acted as a tour guide for him and his bandmates in The dB’s and later, the Continental Drifters, taking them around to the city’s clubs and stages.
“Leigh was a force of nature, but never blowing right on by you, always reaching down to pull you along to come with her,” Holsapple wrote.
Harris left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. On the weekend of the storm, she was en route to Texas to talk to a promoter about her coming album, “Purple Heart.” That album was set aside until last year.
Needing a place to stay as the city cleaned up, Harris accepted an invitation from a friend to live in a house in Rural Hall for a few weeks. She loved the area and eventually bought a house.
A few months after Katrina, she returned to New Orleans to visit.
“I couldn’t do anything but put my head down and go forward,” she told the Journal in 2009.
Harris mostly stayed in her Rural Hall home and worked through depression. Eventually, she began to perform gigs in the Triad and played a bit part in the HBO series about New Orleans, “Treme.”
Earlier this year, she was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the New Orleans City Council also recognized her in a proclamation.
Though Harris was a resident of Rural Hall for several years, she never lost her love for New Orleans and its people. She told the Journal in 2009: “I miss them so much my fingertips ache because I want to grab them and hug them.”
Harris is survived by her husband, Rick Ledbetter of Rural Hall, and a son, Alex MacDonald. She is also survived by her sisters Sally and Ellen.