Ex-Billboard Writer Undertakes Labor of Love for New Orleans' Gay Gospel Legend Raymond Myles
Grammy-winning producer Leo Sacks self-finances an unfinished music documentary on the late singer, who was murdered in 1998.
Back in 1982 on his first visit to New Orleans when Leo Sacks was a 25-year-old Billboard correspondent covering the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, he wrote about a vibrant performer and powerful gospel singer named Raymond Myles, who led a spirited choir called The RAMS (the Raymond Anthony Myles Singers).
It was a moment that irrevocably changed Sacks’ personal and professional life, leading to what became a fascination with the music, heritage and culture of New Orleans that continues to this day.
“Raymond was like Little Richard, Liberace, Michael Jackson, Donny Hathaway and James Cleveland, all rolled into one,” says Sacks about seeing Myles.
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“Watching Raymond prowl the stage of the Gospel Tent, leading dozens of RAMS in their silken, Sunday best, I imagined what Jon Landau must have felt like watching Bruce for the first time," Sacks says ruefully.
"I was glimpsing the future, too, only it didn't quite turn out that way for me and Raymond."
In his day job, Myles was a music teacher in the New Orleans public schools who steered countless young people away from drugs, gangs and ruin during a murderous crack epidemic in New Orleans in the ’90s.
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Sacks went on to produce his only full-length studio CD, the 1995 album A Taste of Heaven, which he released independently on his own Honey Darling imprint. The finished album received glowing reviews in Billboard, Rolling Stone, Mojo and many major dailies. Sadly, every major gospel label rejected the album for distribution.
"The code word was that Raymond was 'too flamboyant,'” Sacks says. "They felt he was unmarketable because of the perception that he was gay. The tastemakers decided that his lifestyle was too much for their evangelical fans to accept."
Sacks can still recall the heartbreaking moment he broke the news to Myles.
“If I’m a Christian man, doesn’t that make me a child of God, too?” Sacks recalls Myles asking him, defiantly.
“It was unfathomable to Raymond that this musical dynamo, this volcanic force of nature, this messenger of hope and healing, could be rejected because he was gay," Sacks says. "It was unthinkable to him."
Myles was shot in his own car in October, 1998, his body dumped outside the French Quarter, the killing characterized by the police as a carjacking, though apparently the victim knew his murderer. The funeral was the biggest that New Orleans had ever seen outside of those for Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
Sony/Legacy briefly re-released A Taste of Heaven in 2003 and Sacks has subsequently reacquired the rights.
But the legend and musical legacy of Raymond Myles is still much alive, thanks to such fervent fans as Harry Connick, Jr., Dr. John, Davell Crawford, Harry Shearer, Aaron Neville and Allen Toussaint (Myles was signed to his indie label at the time of his murder) and this year's appearance at Jazz Fest of The Raymond Myles Singers.
In the first weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the now-57-year-old Sacks formed The New Orleans Social Club (featuring members of the Neville Brothers and The Meters) and produced "Sing Me Back Home," which The Boston Globe called "a treatise in great American music."
"Everyone at the sessions knew Raymond, and he should have been there, and yet he was," Sacks says, "in spirit and in memory." It was then that Sacks decided to create A Taste of Heaven: The Heartbreak Life of Raymond Myles, Gospel Genius of New Orleans, by sinking $75,000 of his own savings into the film.
Propelled by Myles’ own joyous performances, the movie follows the singer's rise from grinding poverty in the projects of New Orleans as a protege of Mahalia Jackson to wider acceptance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and the Newport Folk Festival during the last two years of his life. "Raymond was a boundary-buster," Sacks says.
"But Raymond was more than a maverick musician, and the film also lifts the veil on the taboo subject of gays in gospel and the church’s struggle to embrace homosexuality.
"Raymond's story is emblematic of the universal struggle for acceptance and fulfillment. He was a victim of prejudice and intolerance, but as a man who cruised for dangerous liaisons to fill the hole in his heart, he was also the victim of his own human nature. He was the father of two who loved his children, but he struggled to love himself."
With two dozen hours of HD footage in the can shot by acclaimed director of photography John Pirozzi, Sacks has met with encouragement from principals at HBO and Sony Pictures Classics, and counts influential supporters such as Richard Parsons (former Time Warner, Citigroup and interim Los Angeles Clippers CEO) and NBC News anchor Brian Williams. But Sacks is still seeking funds to complete principal photography, license footage and start on a rough cut. We think he has a great, untold story that is very much in keeping with the spirit of the Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man.
Sacks has set up a website, www.raymondmylesmovie.com, with a 10-minute teaser and the first pages of a graphic novel based on Myles’ life as an inspirational music teacher in the New Orleans public schools.
The music biz vet, who won a 2014 Grammy Award for producing Bill Withers: The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums, has spent years as a freelance producer for Sony Music preserving the legacies of Aretha Franklin, Earth, Wind & Fire and the Philly soul producer-songwriters Gamble and Huff.
"Raymond touched and changed my life," says Sacks, who credits Myles with helping him begin a transformative spiritual journey. “Raymond knew where he wanted to go in his life, but he also knew that he might not get there. Call it the intuition of a man whose genius was always in touch with the higher spirit. His triumph and tragedy lay in his failure to grasp his goal just when it was within his reach, and just before he might have won the acceptance he so deeply craved as an artist and a man.”
Leo Sacks is seeking that same vindication with this documentary.