Raymond Myles is the Baddest Gospel Singer You Never Heard Of

Gospel is the embarrassing country cousin of the contemporary music business. Yes, it’s related–common paternity is clear; much of what we know of as rock and soul wouldn’t exist without gospel roots.  On the white side, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and other rockabilly pioneers got their start in little country churches; on the black side, there’s Lou Rawls, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke (The Soul Stirrers) and others too numerous to mention.


Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers

 

But why do they keep bringing up–religion?   And what’s worse, it’s . . . Christianity, that most unfashionable of creeds.  And the Southern po’ white or black kind to boot, which features glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and snake-handling?


Fun with snake-handling!

From a historical point of view, the answer is clear; without gospel, we’d all be listening to Pat Boone III and IV.  The comfortable middle and upper classes don’t create roots music, they only imitate it.  As man’s affluence increases he abandons the irrational; it’s not clear which is cause and which is effect, but upwards mobility accompanies the sloughing off of superstition like a salamander shedding its skin.


Salamander shedding skin: I saw it happen at the Lake of the Ozarks Aquarium!

But music taps into the irrational, as Nietzsche pointed out in The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music.  So if you want good music, you’re going to have to put up with the superstitious types who produce it, and the case can be made that even the most jaded, atheist-agnostic of music fans would benefit from modest intake of the crazy wine of religious music.  And I don’t mean a sappy encore of Amazing Grace by a bunch of White Punks on Dope.


Nietzsche, groovin’ to some Wagner.

 

A case in point is Raymond Myles, the protean New Orleans singer-pianist who died in 1998, shot down at the age of 40 as he walked to his Cadillac Escalade.  A review of his only studio album expressed the embarrassed misgivings the rock establishment has for its religious roots: “It is out-and-out religious material, be warned.”

Myles was a local New Orleans story about to go national.  A protegee of Mahalia Jackson who had recorded his first gospel song at the age of 12, he had opened for Harry Connick, Jr. at Madison Square Garden, and had signed with a major record label, although there had been some question about his wider commercial potential among record execs.  He was too “flamboyant,” as Leo Sacks, the producer of his first full-length studio album, A Taste of Heaven, recounts.  “Flamboyant” was code for gay.

One recalls Little Richard, another product of gospel who produced seminal secular music.  “There’s a lot of pretty girls here tonight,” he would say in between-song chatter at live performances, “and a LOT of pretty boys!”  The pansexual side of the black gospel community is at odds with the black ministers who denounce gay marriage, but–to go all Jesse Jackson on you for a moment–denunciation don’t mean refutation.

Myles was a big man with a big voice that he would slim down to a taunting whisper when appropriate.  His piano voicings were unusual, with jazz-like colorings.  He had a sense of humor that he didn’t turn off once he started playing, recalling another plus-size keyboardist with a jazz sensibility–Fats Waller–who loved a song with a laugh in it: Exhibit A: “Up in Harlem at a table for two, there were four of us; me, your big feets and you” (Your Feet’s Too Big).

Myles’ killer was never found so no motive was established, but those who knew him say he was known to cruise for gay sex in the trappings of his still-moderate success; big car, fancy clothes, a gold front tooth.

A documentary on Myles’ life produced by Leo Sacks, A Taste of Heaven: The Heartbreak Life of Raymond Myles, Gospel Genius of New Orleans, has been in the works for several years, but has yet to be completed as this is written. 

 

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To All the Sisters on My iPod

It was, as they say, a wake-up call, a shot across the bow.  A sign that I needed to stop and think twice about where I was headed, to ask if I was making wise and sensible life choices.


Worried stock photo guy half my age and twice as good-looking.

That’s right–last night my computer told me my iPod was full, and that I couldn’t add Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson’s “Pickin’ Wild Mountain Berries.”

So I had to cut back and take stock.  Were there too many oddities such as George “Bongo Joe” Coleman’s “I Wish I Could Sing,” a heartfelt plea to the gods and goddesses of song to please, please give a voice to a man who couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow.

I had copied my collection of Dizzy Gillespie’s entire oeuvre, but the song I listened to the most was–of course–”Hey Pete Let’s Eat More Meat.”  I could delete several of those CD’s and re-load them some other time.


Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson

But still, I had to cut back and watch my intake, so I resolved to go through my entire list of songs and delete those that I had added despite readily visible warning signs that they were harmful to my listening health.

Some choices were relatively easy: any spiritual–”Amazing Grace,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”–sung by godless, atheistic rock stars who, as soon as the applause dies down and they’re backstage, start snorting coke and schtupping groupies.  There’s always been a nagging voice in my head when I listen to such Songs of Cognitive Dissonance that something–wasn’t quite right.

I came up with a broad-brush rule of thumb–”all songs from Disney movies,” but quickly found it unworkable.  It would have meant doing without “Beauty and the Beast” by Roy Hargrove and “A Whole New World” by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle.  God–that one brought back memories!  Me, my wife and the kids at the old Boston Garden, sitting high up in the rafters, the rest of the family enchanted by “Alladin on Ice” and me looking down at the skin-tight top on Princess Jasmine.  Those Disney shows–there’s something for every member of the family, including dad!

So unfortunately I would have to scroll letter by letter through my collection, pulling weeds one at a time instead of using mass agricultural methods.  What a chore.  I took a quick turn around the alphabetical orchard looking for low-hanging fruit when I stopped suddenly at the letter “s.”  I’d never realized it, but I had nine songs by sisters!


Sister O.M. Terrell

Not my sisters, but sisters to everyone such as Sister O.M. Terrell, Sister Ernestine Washington, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.  Was I a victim of musical inbreeding?

I’d taken biology in both high school and college–B’s each time, thank you very much, even though the mark I received in 9th grade was easier; our teacher fell victim to amnesia in the fall, wandered off and was found in the spring 100 miles away.  By the time he was back in the classroom, he’d forgotten about the leaf collection assignment I never completed.  Dodged a bullet on that one!  So I understood that you can get a genetic deformity if you get too cozy with your sister.


Sister Rosetta Tharpe

My first sister was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who I stumbled upon–was it really forty years ago?  I guess so.  Her version of “Up Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air)” is a gospel classic–the real stuff, not the straight-backed, cold roast beef Protestant hymns I hear at my friends’ weddings and funerals.  You sit there, reading from the hymnal, instead of letting loose with some joyous noise.  I’d complain to my friends, but they’re either off on their honeymoons or six feet underground.  No–Rosetta gets to stick around.

Then there’s Sister O.M. (Ola Mae) Terrell, a country gospel singer who accompanied herself on slide guitar, and who recorded only six sides for Columbia.  Rumor has it that she also recorded “Life is a Problem” and “How Long for the Playboy?” for another label but, like Bigfoot, no one has ever tracked them down.  Sorry, rarity increases value–Ola Mae stays.

Finally, there’s Sister Ernestine Washington.  Sure, she’s a goody-goody, a trifle zaftig, and none of her decidedly minor hits made Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Songs.

But let me ask you something.

Do you really want to mess with a woman named “Ernestine”?

I Loves Me Some Jesus

For years I chased the almighty dollar,
sometimes two and sometimes five.
If I got one you’d hear me holler,
I thought that’s what kept folks alive.
But now I don’t wanna be rich as Croesus
I gots me religion and I loves me some Jesus.

For awhile I was in thrall to Austrian economics,
Back then I cared about monetary inflation.
Read Hayek so much I was hooked on his phonics
’til a gospel choir brought me pure elation.
Now I don’t care about Ludwig von Mieses,
I gots me religion and I loves me some Jesus.

Then I turned into a real estate whore
’cause as Will Rogers said, they don’t make it no more.
Bought lots and condos and I would hold ’em
’til the price was right and then I sold ’em.
Now I don’t care about easements or leases,
I gots me religion and I loves me some Jesus.

I used to eat ice cream, straight from the carton,
until I had man boobs that recalled Dolly Parton.
I’d scarf down Creamsicles and Eskimo Pies
’til the butter fat rose to the whites of my eyes.
Now I don’t care about nothin’ that’s freezes,
I gots me religion, and I loves me some Jesus.