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There are plenty of reasons why Leigh (Little Queenie) Harris is beloved in New Orleans, but here’s why she’s beloved by me: Back in 1999, I happened into Levon Helm’s short-lived Decatur Street club, where she was doing happy hour. With just piano accompaniment, she launched into a version of the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross standard “Cloudburst” that was astounding—it’s a tough song to master in the best of times, and she made each of its rapid-fire syllables ring with joy and sensuality. From there it was a short jump to the more mysterious, gospel-infused material on House of Secrets, the album she was promoting at the time. Overall it was as fine a vocal performance as I’d seen in years, and there were maybe 20 people in the room.
Harris has released frustratingly little music in the years since then, and this is only the third album since House of Secrets (you can hear “Cloudburst” on the middle one, Polychrome Junction). Purple Heart was set for release back in 2004 when Katrina got in the way; she left town and only came back to play once (at a Percolators reunion after the storm, where an early version of this CD was available). At this writing she is in hospice after braving a long cancer battle; the CD is finally getting a proper release to offset her medical expenses.
Don’t get it just for that reason, though; the music is reason enough. The disc opens with her best-known song, “My Dawlin’ New Orleans,” a faithful recreation (with Bonerama) of the original Percolators single. Like everything else here it’s essentially a love song, and her voice is in the most familiar mode—brassy and exuberant. Yet the other tracks show how wide a range of material she could inhabit, and how mysteries of the heart were her natural territory: “Come Inside” is an inviting ballad, while “Down Home Girl” outdoes the Alvin Robinson and Stones versions for raunch (and does so without any lyric changes).
The real showpiece here is “Stay,” the Station to Station Bowie song. During his Thin White Duke phase Bowie was keeping a safe distance from the pull of love and desire; Harris gives it just the opposite interpretation, and the spell is enhanced by the band’s turning the song’s groove from disco to voodoo. “If Ever I Cease to Love”—a solo-piano version of the Mardi Gras standard—seems like an intentionally teary end for the album, but it was still there on the 2004 version. It will probably make you tear up anyway.