Monday, December 5, 2022
By Nina Bozak, curator of rare books

Singer-songwriter “Little Queenie” Harris (1954–2019) had a voice that defied categorization. Though she is best known as a blues-rock singer, she played with bands of many genres and helped shape New Orleans music for 40 years. Harris passed away in 2019 of complications from breast cancer. She was 65.

Black-and-white photo of Leigh "Little Queenie" Harris.

THNOC, gift of the estate of Leigh Harris, 2022.0147.15

Harris became a fixture on the New Orleans music scene in the 1970s, when she and keyboardist John Magnie, who later cofounded the Subdudes, formed a duo that performed weekly at the recently opened Tipitina’s. Harris took the moniker Little Queenie in 1975 and, two years later, formed her influential band Li’l Queenie and the Percolators, also with Magnie. The Percolators quickly became a local favorite and inaugurated Jimmy’s Music Club on Oak Street when it opened in 1978. The band’s reach—and Harris’s—also extended beyond New Orleans. New York Times music critic John Rockwell, who saw the Percolators play in New York City in 1980, gushed that Harris was “a short, dynamic Southern woman with a tough, earthy, bluesish voice that can rise ecstatically to gospel abandon.” The band, he said, was “wonderfully attuned to the catchy cross-rhythms of the New Orleans style.”

Concert flier for Lil Queenie and the Percolators, $1 cover charge.

THNOC, gift of the estate of Leigh Harris, 2022.0147.9

The Percolators lasted for only four years, but Harris’s career continued. Harris released four solo albums and contributed to many others. She was highly regarded as a musician and songwriter. The list of artists with whom she recorded and performed is a veritable who’s who of New Orleans music: Dr. John, James Booker, Irma Thomas, the Meters, the Neville Brothers, Allen Toussaint, and many others.

Unwilling to be limited to any single genre, Harris pursued a wide variety of musical types. She formed choir groups and bluegrass projects. She also contributed to film and TV soundtracks. Her song with the Percolators “My Dawlin’ New Orleans” closed out the first episode of the HBO series Treme. Still, all of her work had at least one thing in common. In all her musical pursuits, Harris demanded attention. “With her vocal range and dexterity, pixie-like appearance, commanding and sassy stage presence, bawdy sense of humor and hard-partying ways, Harris rarely failed to make an impression,” wrote Keith Spera in his obituary of Harris for the Advocate |

Three views of a colorful mini float depicting Leigh "Little Queenie" Harris.

This miniature float was made in Harris's memory by New Orleans artist Cree McCree for the Krewe of 'Tit Rex's 2020 Carnival parade. (THNOC, gift of the estate of Leigh Harris, 2022.0147.7)

Harris was also known for her openness and generosity, often acting as a mentor to younger vocalists. Harris’s husband, Rick Ledbetter, has expanded on that legacy by donating the Leigh Harris Collection to THNOC. The collection documents multiple aspects of Harris’s musical career. Press photos, posters, promotional material, stagewear, and other concert ephemera chronicle Harris’s public presence and persona. Instruments, chart books, lyrics, and audio recordings are a record of her musical skill and vast body of work. Notebooks and scrapbooks provide glimpses of Harris’s mind at work. Taken together, the materials demonstrate the breadth of her influence, and ensure that that it will live on.