By Alison Fensterstock, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune The Times-Picayune Follow on Twitter
In 1982, rising gospel star Raymond Myles brought his newly formed RAMS - the Raymond A. Myles Singers - to the Gospel Tent at the New Orleans Jazz Fest for the first time. Record producer and documentarian Leo Sacks was there, covering his own first Jazz Fest for Billboard magazine. "It changed my life," he said. "That's what started my relationship with New Orleans."
Myles was murdered in 1998, shortly after the release of his final album, "Heaven Is The Place." Recorded live at Fairview Baptist Church for Allen Toussaint's NYNO label, many believed it would have been the performer's decisive breakthrough to stardom. The group had traveled to Europe, and played three weeks of shows at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden, arranged by Harry Connick Jr. Sacks expected only bigger and better things for Myles.
"But I think he sensed his time was short," Sacks, who is currently working on a documentary film about Myles' life, said Thursday in the gospel tent. Sacks produced Myles' only full-length studio release, "A Taste Of Heaven," in 1992.
"And that's why he wanted to name the album 'A Taste of Heaven.'"
The reunion was the brainchild of singer Vanessa Thomas, an original RAMS singer. When the group, which does not perform together regularly, took the stage, fans got a taste of Ray - the flamboyant energy and ecstatic emotion of his sets, combining the virtue and sincerity of praise music with the electrifying stage presence of a soul revue. An organ and two keyboards filled the air with a dense, shimmering wall of sound; a six-string bassist thumped out a funky low end. One powerful soloist after another shattered the air with wild praise - a version of the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There" had the packed tent in the aisles stomping and battering the air with paper fans.
One in particular, Anthony Bailey, had been Myles' protege and his godson. A former backup singer for Diana Ross and Mariah Carey, Bailey took on Myles' signature "I Go To The Rock," channeling the late performer with many of his familiar moves and vocal tricks, shouting, vocalizing through his nose and punching the air for a punctuating drumbeat.
Myles, in life, was a conflicted man who struggled with his sexuality, a rough childhood, and perhaps, toward the end of his life, the desire to break out of the stiffly structured gospel-music world. Onstage was the place where the tension and struggle inside him were channeled into a climactic fireworks display of music, passion and talent. In the Gospel Tent on Thursday, the RAMS - who had only rehearsed together once since Myles' death - delivered up his spirit in fervent song.
"They blew the roof off the trailer, before the show," Sacks said to Patricia Hill McElveen after the show. McElveen taught Myles in her English class at John McDonogh High School, and remained a close friend of the performer until his death, working and traveling with him.
"It reminded me of the way Raymond used to blow up his rehearsal hall on Lapeyrouse Street," said Sacks. McElveen's eyes welled up.
"It says a lot, after 30 years, to have these players come back," she said.
"It brings me back to seeing him here, in this very tent."
Later Thursday evening, Sacks sent an email relating a conversation he'd had with organist Craig Adams who played with RAMS and will himself close the Gospel Tent Sunday with his Higher Dimensions of Praise.
"Ray knew how to get the most from people," Adams told Sacks. "Good singers never forget that kind of instruction." Thursday, Adams felt, Myles was clearly there in the tent.
"I just wasn't sure whether he'd enter from stage left, or stage right."
Sweet tea time with some of Raymond's favorite singers at Doris Finister's Two Sisters restaurant on North Derbigny in New Orleans. Raymond liked to feast on her red beans and rice with turkey wings and neck bones. "And he always took home an extra plate for Mama," Doris says. From left: Cedric Scott, Karen Hogans, Leo Sacks, Eunice Love, Cory Wallace and Aretha Franklin.
Photo by Drew Carolan.