Guardian. Second mother. Friend. Total badass. The queen.
A singalong at tonight's benefit for Leigh "Little Queenie" Harris.
These are the words used tonight to describe singer and songwriter Leigh Harris, who since the 1970s has been better known in New Orleans’ music circles by her stage name, “Little Queenie.”
Earlier this year, the beloved artist was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer that had invaded her brain, her liver, her lymph system and her bones. Although she now lives in North Carolina, her friends and loved ones responded the best way they knew how – with a big fundraising party complete with plenty of live music, booze, laughter and tears.
Held May 26 at Snug Harbor, the sold-out fundraiser featured two shows, complete with a roster of locally and nationally known names, including Peter Holsapple, Vicki Peterson and Susan Cowsill, three former members of the Continental Drifters.
The show also featured Suzy Malone and her daughter Darcy Malone, as well as guitarists Spencer Bohren, Jimmy Robinson and Cranston Clements.
The event was organized by local musician Debbie Davis, who quickly became friends and next-door neighbors with Harris after first moving to the city in 1997.
On Thursday, Davis described Harris as an “older sister” of sorts, and as someone who’s longstanding friendship can only be described as “immeasurable.”
“When I first came to New Orleans, I was a good singer, but I was afraid,” Davis said. “But Leigh let me know that I didn’t need permission from anybody to do what I wanted musically.”
Spencer Bohren at the tribute/fundraiser for Leigh "Little Queenie" Harris.
Harris, who grew up in New Orleans, became known as “Little Queenie” after a boyfriend bestowed the name. She lived up to the description with a big personality and even bigger onstage style.
She formed a band called Little Queenie and the Percolators in the 1970s, with keyboardist John Magnie. The band was well-known and played the usual New Orleans circuits, including Jimmy’s, Snug Harbor, Tipitina’s and later on, The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
The hit song from that band became the R&B anthem “My Darling New Orleans,” co-written by Charles Neville, along with Ron Cuccia and Ramsey McLean.
After the Percolators disbanded in the early 1980s, Magnie and Tommy Malone went on to form the subdudes. The group played a 2007 reunion concert in New Orleans.
Harris ended up in Greensboro, North Carolina, after floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home. Soon after, she married to another musician, Rick Ledbetter.
Thursday’s benefit was put on by musicians Harris used to play with, and featured songs she had become known for performing. The set list included covers like “Kiss” by Prince, “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It” by Rod Stewart and “Back Street Girl” by the Rolling Stones.
Those in attendance also represented friends from all walks of her life, from her older mentors to the children she helped raise, who are now known for mastering the stage in their own right.
“She used to babysit me,” Darcy Malone, daughter of the Radiators' Dave Malone, recalled before the first show Thursday. “She was like another mom to me.”
Like many others, Malone also said Harris had been a “huge influence” for her musically, especially as a woman who was well known for her fearless presence, on and off the stage. “She just doesn’t give a shit, and she’s a powerful force in the middle of New Orleans’ musical world,” Malone said. “She’s a total badass.”
As for Alex MacDonald, Harris’ washboard-playing son, the benefit brought a flood of memories.
Leigh Harris' son Alex MacDonald, left, performed with many of his mother's friends.
As he listened to familiar voices belting out some classic favorites, he recalled his mom rehearsing all of Thursday’s songs in his living room. He was also “blown away,” he said, by the turnout of friends old and new who had come to help support the family in a time of need.
“It just moves the soul,” MacDonald said.
The funds raised from Thursday’s concert will join those raised by a gofundme account to help defray the cost of Harris’ medical treatment. As of Thursday, the account had raised more than $23,700 of the $50,000 goal.