So the Queen of England is coming to our 400th birthday party. Yay.
But can she bust out a sizzling torch song that mesmerizes the crowd or whoop it up like a funky Indian from Mardi Gras? Not likely.
There is one queen already living in Williamsburg who can do this and more singer Leigh Harris, better known as New Orleans' own Little Queenie.
A few decades ago, Harris made a name for herself as the fiery, red-headed singer from Little Queenie & The Percolators, a rollicking club band once as popular in the Crescent City as The Neville Brothers and The Radiators. The Percolators played regular gigs at legendary club Tipitina's during its early days, but never made it outside the city and eventually drifted apart in the mid-'80s. They released only one single, but it was a doozy: the sought-after 45 nugget, "My Darlin' New Orleans," included on the 2004 box set "Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens: The Big Ol' Box of New Orleans."
Since then, Harris has performed for a few tribute albums, played a smattering of live dates and occasionally released on her label (Deeva Records) solo albums that draw from numerous genres. Influenced by everything from Motown and Bessie Smith to the street music of her hometown, Harris' gritty voice is a remarkable instrument. A reviewer once called her a "Delta version of Edith Piaf." She's been a staple performer at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival since she was a teen.
"Leigh is one of the funkiest vocalists alive," says Tony Garcia, director of jazz studies at VCU and a veteran trombonist. "I heard her perform on countless occasions while I lived in New Orleans and probably backed her up a time or two. Her rendition of 'My Darlin' New Orleans' remains one of the anthems of the city and is my personal favorite. She brings the spirit of the streets of New Orleans into her voice and her music. She's not mild; she won't hold back. She's 100 percent original, and she's always surrounded herself with great musicians."
The Katrina disaster wrecked the house she was renting, destroying photos and personal effects. Her records, stored higher up, were spared. Nevertheless, Harris began hopping around different states to stay with friends, eventually purchasing a home in a small North Carolina town. One fortunate repercussion was hooking up with an old friend living in Williamsburg, a man she married during that whirlwind of change.
"It's one of the better Katrina stories I've heard so many bad ones," Harris says via phone from her husband's house in what she likes to call "Vacuumsburg."
Fans of authentic New Orleans music will be pleased to know that Little Queenie is performing a local gig with her "badass mid-Atlantic quartet" at funky Carytown dive Babes on April 6.
"Hopefully, we'll be ducking flying lesbian underpants," she says, laughing.
Talking with the delightfully honest singer, one can tell she's been around the block a few times and kept her sassy, streetwise humor intact. She's got a wealth of music-related stories, many of which are hard to recall until something jogs her memory. There was the time Tom Waits came to see her play and they wound up sharing flasks. Or the time she opened for Elvis Costello at his first New Orleans gig, when fans put cherry bombs in the toilets that made the whole place smell like a sewage lagoon. Or when her band opened for B.B. King, and his beloved guitar, Lucille, was stolen, only to be recovered after her bandmate spotted the thief outside.
One story she recounts involved a day when she was locked into an L.A. studio to write a song with fellow New Orleans songwriter Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John. Both were staff writers for Almo/Irving Music.
"So he plays me his demo of the baddest motherf er ["You Always Knew Me (Better Than I Knew Myself)"] that made me roll off the couch. I begged him to let me have it, and eventually he did. Three months later, I was in a bar in New York with Doc Pomus. He starts laughing his ass off, saying, 'Well, I wrote those lyrics and we wrote it for you. But he didn't tell you that, did he?'"
Onstage, Harris makes such an impression that renowned film director John Sayles once caught her act in New York and immediately befriended the singer, casting her in two of his films, "Eight Men Out" (as a jazz singer) and "Passion Fish."
For now, Harris is just happy to be out playing again, and she says she is open to working with new musicians in the area. She is helping put together a full-length Percolators CD with studio and live tracks, and that band will be performing another reunion gig during this year's Jazz Fest at the end of April.
"All I've ever wanted to do since I was a kid on the jungle gym is make music with as many different people as possible," she says. Later, she offhandedly makes a telling admission in her sultry, world-weary voice: "My life is just pain, pain, pain, pain! That's why I sing so well." S
Little Queenie performs at Babes of Carytown Friday, April 6, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5. 355-9330.