The epic struggle of a gay gospel icon from New Orleans who was murdered, on the cusp of stardom, in the projects he could not escape.
HE WAS THE GOSPEL GENIUS OF NEW ORLEANS
Raymond Myles may have been the greatest gospel singer of his generation. He was a colorful, complex, and conflicted character, a man of outsized personality and emotion who could have only come from New Orleans.
If you heard Raymond once, you remembered him forever. People compared him to giants like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder. He had a showman's personality to rival Liberace's. He was blessed with a voice of astonishing power, and he was a brilliant pianist and choir director, too.
Some looked at his wild stagecraft and saw the second coming of Little Richard -- a hopeless sinner. Others saw a messenger, a prophet and a healer. But everyone agreed that Raymond was a man of compelling musical talent.
SPIRIT IN THE DARK
He was about to take his place in the pantheon of America’s most inspired devotional artists. But Raymond was murdered in 1998, with a bullet to the heart. He was 41 years old. His body was found just outside the French Quarter, on a street corner named Elysian Fields -- "paradise of the heroes" in Greek mythology.
Raymond was more than a maverick musician. He was also a dedicated and devoted music teacher in the New Orleans public schools. His tireless efforts to shape and influence so many young lives represented the best in the human spirit. He was an inspiration to anyone with a voice, a vision and a determination to sing. And he used his talent as a weapon to wage a personal war on the drug culture in New Orleans.
Raymond had comforted so many grieving families touched by violence. Now New Orleans was in mourning for Raymond Myles. The ambassadors of New Orleans music already knew what the world was about to find out. "There's no telling what he would have achieved," the seminal New Orleans composer Allen Toussaint says. "That was a very bright light that went out."
Raymond knew where he wanted to go on this Earth, and that he might not get there. Call it the intuition of man whose musical genius was always in touch with a higher spirit. "He opened the gates of heaven," Aaron Neville says. "He gave us a glimpse of paradise."
"We were good friends for years," recalls Harry Connick, Jr. "He opened my concerts in New York with his full choir and band. He was one of the most powerful and talented artists I’ve ever known."
A GREAT UNTOLD STORY
As this music-driven documentary reveals, Raymond's spirit is still alive in those he touched.
The film takes us on Raymond's journey from a childhood of grinding poverty in the projects of New Orleans to his teenaged years as a musical prodigy and protégé of Mahalia Jackson.
It takes us to the inner city public schools where Raymond taught music and steered countless young people away from a life of ruin.
It takes us to the churches where Raymond mesmerized the faithful, and the concert stages where he made wonderstruck fans.
It takes us to the brink of music stardom -- until Raymond was murdered in the projects he could not leave behind.
Like a comet shooting across the sky, Raymond Myles was here one minute -- brilliant, incandescent and unmistakably unique. And then, just as quickly, he was gone.
KEEP YOUR HAND ON THE PLOW
We've assembled all the ingredients to make a great documentary gumbo -- and we're so close to serving it up piping hot.
We've shot about 30 hours of original HD footage so far. But we still have MORE THAN HALF a film to shoot.
We've self-financed everything since 2008 -- and now we need your support.
We've budgeted 16 more days of principal photography in New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York before we can start on a rough cut.
The promotional teaser at www.raymondmylesmovie.com reflects what we've been able to shoot on a tight budget and an even tighter shooting schedule.
The teaser was shown as one of five films at a prestigious competition -- the Paley Center for the Media's annual Documentary Pitch competition -- at the Museum of Broadcasting in New York.
This film about the Gospel Genius of New Orleans received a 2009 Community Partnership Grant from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation -- a beautiful blessing from the city's preeminent cultural institution.
We've already filmed the mean streets where Raymond was born. Where his mother raised ten children in two rooms in the St. Bernard projects. Raymond's older brother Warren told us that many nights the family went to bed hungry. Raymond sang gospel songs for his neighbors to raise money for chicken, rice and beans.
We've filmed intimate interviews with Raymond's friends and musical collaborators, and members of the New Orleans clergy who told us about Raymond's struggle for acceptance and fulfillment.
We have uplifting sequences of Raymond putting his students through the rigors of a veritable vocal boot camp, pushing them as hard as he pushed himself. Our dear friend Willie Tee also gave us amazing footage of Raymond's audition for Columbia Records in 1995, an audition which could have changed the course of his life.
ADD SOME FILÉ, SMELL THE ROUX
But we still have many more interviews to film: with Raymond's brothers and sisters about the poverty that shaped his self-image and worldview, and with colleagues and confidants who shared his faith-based music and social activism.
We want to hear from Raymond's musical collaborators about the challenges of working with this colorful character, just as we want to hear from the musical ambassadors of New Orleans -- including Harry Connick, Jr., Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Davell Crawford and the Neville Brothers -- about Raymond's pioneering artistry.
Music scholars will establish Raymond’s place in the pantheon of gospel greats like Marion Williams, Professor Alex Bradford and the Rev. James Cleveland, and also his connection to pop icons such as Elton John, David Bowie, and Queen's Freddie Mercury.
Comic satirist Harry Shearer has offered to share his insight into Raymond's mischievous personality. We also need to film poet Nikki Giovanni reciting "The Son of The Sun," a beautiful piece she wrote for Raymond which you can read here: www.raymondmylesmovie.com
We also want to ask the man who pleaded guilty to being an accessory to Raymond's murder: Do you think Raymond Myles has forgiven you?
BE ON FIRE
Raymond’s climb out of poverty wasn't the only story arc in his life. Just as significant was the conflict between his religion and his sexuality.
Raymond loved God and he expressed that love in song. Yet he never fully reconciled his faith with his sexuality. His faith burdened him with remorse and guilt because he was gay. That remorse and guilt was made worse by prejudice and homophobia in his own community during the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. Raymond's best friend died of AIDS, and yet he could not grieve openly. As hard as he tried, Raymond never felt that his community embraced him with God's unconditional love.
His battle against for acceptance as a gay man in the church poses some universal questions: What makes a person good or bad or spiritual? Who decides what's moral and what's not?
At the same time, Raymond was also a victim of his own human nature. In a city of secrets, everyone in New Orleans knew, or at least suspected, the truth about Raymond Myles: that he regularly returned to the streets he’d worked so hard to escape to seek the love he craved but could never seem to find.
DIDN'T IT RAIN
In 1982 I walked into the Gospel Tent at Jazzfest in New Orleans. Magnolias in bloom mixed with the salty scent of fried oysters, and I heard a voice that changed my life. I heard the voice of Raymond Myles, a singular voice that I believed could touch the world.
Years later, when no one else would, I offered Raymond the opportunity to make his first full-length studio album of original material. Over time I would come to understand why he chose to call it A Taste of Heaven.
Raymond poured his heart and soul into our project. Yet the gatekeepers in the mainstream gospel music industry refused to acknowledge Raymond as a marketable artist. In their view, the perception that he was gay was a liability too great to overcome with fans of evangelical gospel. The burden fell upon my shoulders as his producer to break this heartbreaking news.
“They say you’re too 'flamboyant,'" I told him regretfully in 1995. Raymond knew that I was speaking in code. But the notion that his private lifestyle might actually alter his dreams and affect his destiny? Unthinkable. Unfathomable.
“Don’t they know...” His voice trailed off in protest. “Don’t they know that I’m talented?”
In the moment of this crushing disappointment, Raymond grew defiant. “If I’m a Christian," he demanded, "doesn’t that make me a child of God, too?”
EYE ON THE SPARROW
So much heritage was destroyed when New Orleans was devastated in 2005. Raymond represents a part of that heritage that needs to be preserved. Seen through the larger prism of complex issues affecting the rebuilding of New Orleans in 2012, this film can also be seen as a part of the preservation and resurrection of the cultural legacy of New Orleans.
Raymond was the embodiment of a community -- the same hard-pressed community that was decimated by Hurricane Katrina.
This film will reflect how deeply Raymond was shaped by the values of those who scattered after Katrina. These were Raymond’s people. He shared their streets and embodied their values and their struggles. Raymond's uplifting life story is an inspiration for the displaced and forgotten.
THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE
Raymond’s tragic and untimely end came just as he was on the verge of winning the acceptance he so deeply craved as an artist and a man. Had he lived, who knows where Raymond's journey might have taken him. This film will take us down those untraveled roads.
Raymond's message of compassion and tolerance, charged with the most stirring and soulful music I had ever heard, spoke to me in a way that music never had. I want this film to leave you feeling exhilarated by his music and moved by the power and emotion of his short, turbulent life.
Ultimately, Raymond's story is a universal story -- about our everyday struggle for acceptance and fulfillment. With your support, I can tell, and do full justice to, the great untold story of Maestro Raymond Anthony Myles.
Sweet tea time in May 2008 with some of Raymond's favorite singers at Two Sisters restaurant on North Derbigny in New Orleans. Raymond would feast there on Doris Finister's 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.
Raymond's mother Christine was a gospel singer who taught him the living language of spiritual song. They electrified church-goers around New Orleans as "Christine Myles And Son." Chris understood better than anyone the feminine aspect that Raymond was born with, a natural energy that shaped his creativity. Rather than suppress those qualities, Chris nurtured them. Photo by Syndey Byrd.
On the hardscrabble streets of the St. Bernard project, Raymond literally sang for the family's supper. "One time," his brother Warren recalls, "Raymond collected nine dollars in pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. Mama bought rice, beans and chicken. She said, 'Here come the good days now. Raymond is our warrior for the Word.'" Photo by Syndey Byrd.
At the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1998. Photo by David Gahr.
Photo by Syndey Byrd.
A life-size likeness of Raymond -- one of many "ancestors" created by the artist Wright McFarland on display at the Fairgrounds Racetrack during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Backstage at the Newport Folk Festival, August 9, 1998.Photo by David Gahr.
Rocking the Ray-Ban stage at Jazzfest in April 1994. "If God is for you," Raymond told the crowd, "can't nothing be against you." Photo by Syndey Byrd.
In the Gospel Tent at Jazzfest in 1998. Photo by David Gahr.
Raymond adored "Queen of Soul Aunt Ree Ree." Oil on wood painting by Sharon Green, 1998.
A queen in waiting. Photo by Vernon L. Smith. Courtesy of Sony Music Archives.
The tender, the moving, the swinging Aretha Franklin at home in D-Town, 1962. Photo by Don Hunstein. Courtesy of Sony Music Archives.
They said you could feel the Holy Ghost when Mama Chris gave little Raymond the microphone. And when she introduced him to the Queen Mother of Gospel, New Orleans' own Mahalia Jackson, the faithful compared it to an anointing. They said that after listening to little Raymond sing the gospel, 'Haley could feel the Holy Spirit, too. Photo of Mahalia by Benny Joseph. Taken from "The Early Years of Rhythm and Blues: Focus on Houston" (Rice University Press, 1990).
Publicity photo for "A Taste of Heaven." The CD was briefly released by Sony Music in 2003. Photo by David Gahr.
Six weeks after the levees failed in New Orleans in 2005, The New Orleans Social Club made "Sing Me Back Home" at Wire Recording studios in Austin, Tx. The core band featured, from left: Leo Nocentelli, Henry Butler, Raymond Weber, George Porter, Jr. and Ivan Neville. Photo by Michael Crook.
The cover of "Sing Me Back Home" by The New Orleans Social Club. The Boston Globe said it was "a treatise in great American music." Cover design by Cindy Goldstein.
A reissue of Raymond's first single, recorded in 1969 for the local Pee-A-Boo Records. "Prayer From A 12-Year-Old Boy" spoke to the wounds and scars of the countless families from the New Orleans projects who were sacrificing their sons to fight in Vietnam. But the controversy surrounding the flip side, "You Made A Man Out of Me, Baby," affected not only the course of Raymond's heartbreak life but also the very arc of his artistic career. Picture sleeve courtesy of Kent Records.
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