When Miss Mahalia died he performed solo at the Queen’s funeral at the Rivergate auditorium in New Orleans. As an 8th grade-school kid singing in front of a funerary crowd of thousands he had a career epiphany. Although he was already a seasoned live performer he would refer to this moment as a turning point in his life.
Holding sway over a massive room of congregants was heady stuff for a young boy.
Raymond Myles lived and thrived in southern gay culture but first and foremost he had been reared in the church, and the church was where he made his fame and fortune
His mother, gospel singer Christine Myles, developed a circuit of New Orleans area churches where he launched his career as a singer in the sixties but Miles questioned the hypocrisy of church elders who looked askance at him because he was gay.
“If I’m a Christian,” he would say, “doesn’t that make me a child of God, too?”
Myles grew up in the St Bernard Housing Projects where his brothers routinely tried to ‘beat the gay’ out of him. There were 10 siblings in all, and that translated to a lot of beatings as his eight brothers tried to rid him of the ‘gay devils’ that had gone home to roost in his head.
“…my mother struggled with us. She was on welfare and my father was not around. The typical ‘growing up in the ghetto story,’ but I never had a ghetto mentality. Because I lived in the projects did not mean that I could not conquer all the things that I saw other people achieve.”
To that end the young Myles would stand on a bench overlooking the project’s courtyard, and envision a sea of people fairly genuflecting in front of him as he performed.
Christine Myles continued taking her young charge to area churches where he would wow the congregations. At the tender age of 12 he recorded his first single, the Wardell Quezergue-arranged Prayer From A 12 Year Old Boy but it was the flipside that got all the Christians hot and bothered. You Made a Man Out of Me, Baby was racy for the time and Miss Christine found herself on the outs with the devout Christians of the community.
Queen Mahalia suffered the same indignities as a young woman singing powerfully in New Orleans churches. She even found herself barred from some sanctuaries for supposedly mixing the devilish with the divine. Her comeback? “That’s the way we sing it in New Orleans.
Even if certain Christian communities looked sideways at Raymond’s flamboyant trappings, success from the secular world came easily to the budding superstar. He stacked major festival appearances on his concert tours appearing at his hometown Jazz Fest as well as Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and the Newport Folk Festival. He also made multiple trips to Europe.
Myles would form his RAMS (Raymond Anthony Miles Singers) band in the seventies, and after building their name as a gospel powerhouse that could chop heads off with their choir’s powerful voices, they would make a stunning debut at Jazz Fest in 1982. After playing in the Gospel tent in front of hundreds they slowly made their way to the main stage over the next few years where crowds of thousands would swoon before them.
Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis:
First of all Raymond himself was a monster artist, piano-player, arranger, singer, one of the greatest ever from New Orleans. His whole sense of moving gospel music forward was really brilliant
Myles’ ascent seemed assured. In 1992 he took his RAMS act to New York City where they opened for Harry Connick Jr on a 15 night stand at Madison Square Garden.
After releasing two regional albums, Raymond signed a recording contract with Allen Toussaint’s NYNO record label. With Toussaint in the producer’s chair a breakout success was virtually assured.
Heaven Is The Place, a live recording, was the result of their collaboration and it shook the local gospel community. Cries of it being too over the top for a gospel album were met by Toussaint taking the masters back into the editing studio and issuing a separate, more tame version.
When your gospel act leads off their LP with Jesus Is The Baddest Man In Town you can expect a few feathers to be ruffled.
Meanwhile, Myles continued in his role as choir director at Marion Abramson High School in New Orleans East.
Deacon John Moore:
He preached to these children….he gave them a conscience…he instilled moral values in them that would enable them to succeed in life.
But even in one of the most liberal cities in the US, being a Black, gay man was a tough row to hoe if you were living a sanctified life. Myles would sing “I’ve been ostracized / I’ve been criticized / The things I’ve had to suffer brought tears to my eyes.”
Myles pain came naturally. He was a father but was not involved in the raising of his children in spite of his desire to be. In a video interview Raymond’s daughter Carmen explained that her daddy once came to her grandfather’s house to attempt to take his daughter home and the old man lashed out,
That’s my baby, and ain’t no effin sissy gonna raise my baby.
The glory-filled life of Raymond Anthony Myles came to an inglorious end when he was found shot to death on the edge of the French Quarter in the fall of 1998. His Lincoln Navigator was found abandoned at Bruxelles and Industry in the 7th Ward, just blocks from the old projects where he was raised.
New Orleans Police developed a suspected triggerman but he was killed in a shootout before he could be brought to justice. Rodrick Natteel, an accomplice to the shooter, is sitting behind the walls at Angola Prison Farm in West Feliciana Parish. He took a 20 year plea deal after pleading to being an “accessory after the fact to first-degree murder.”
New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial filed a federal lawsuit against gun manufacturers in the wake of Myles being killed. The singer had been shot down with his own gun, and Morial would accuse the gunmakers of negligence in his, and other citizens of New Orleans deaths. The suit was squashed.
Raymond ‘The Maestro’ Myles funeral was fit for a king with 7,000 people in attendance.
Whatever makes you happy, do it. Damn what somebody thinks about it. I have spent years of my life trying to make people like me, trying to make people accept me. And no matter what I did, somebody found fault. So I’m at the point in my life where I don’t give a damn. Life is too valuable to live it in pain and agony.
— Raymond A. Myles
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b. July 14, 1958
d. October 11th, 1998
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