What's the best New Orleans single of all time?
"Big Chief" by Professor Longhair?
"Fire on the Bayou" by The Meters?
"Iko Iko" by the Dixie Cups?
"The Fat Man" by Fats Domino?
I hope I won't be considered too much of a heretic if I say that I think the greatest New Orleans single is not one of those iconic records, but one by a relatively obscure artist: "My Darlin' New Orleans" by L'il Queenie and the Percolators. I'm basing this in part on my inevitable response when I spin this record; I can never play it just once. My usual pattern is to play "My Darlin' New Orleans" twice, flip the record over, play "Wild Natives," then flip again and play "My Darlin' New Orleans" once more.
What makes this record so great? Well, the song itself is pretty good. Written by Cyrille Neville, guitarist Ramsey McLean, and R. Cuccia (I don't know who that is, to be honest), it's melodic and catchy, with lyrics that celebrate the city while also not overlooking the negative side of that complex place. But it's the performance that makes this a special record. It opens with a tough second-line drum groove by Kenneth Blevins. The presence of veteran tenor saxophonist Fred Kemp and Dirty Dozen Brass Band trombonist Charles Joseph give the side more than a touch of brass band flavor. But of course, the vocals of Leigh Harris, aka L'il Queenie, really make the record. Harris' singing is simultaneously strong and girlish, and she sounds totally in love with her city. My favorite moment comes during her litany of New Orleans pleasures, when she pronounces "oyster kiss" something like "esrter kiss."
"My Darlin' New Orleans" was originally released in 1981 on Thang Records. My copy is the second issue, on the Great Southern label - and thankfully, they retained the original sleeve art. The record was a local favorite, but gained a boost outside of New Orleans when it was featured in the HBO series Treme.
I heard L'il Queenie, accompanied only by Josh Paxton's piano, in a small Uptown bar in the middle of the 1990s. She sang mostly standards and jazz tunes - I remember Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." Hurricane Katrina left her depressed and homeless, and after some wandering, she ended up in North Carlolina. At the time I'm writing, Leigh Harris is, sadly, very ill and undergoing cancer treatments in Wake Forest. Listen to the best New Orleans single ever and send her good thoughts.