The great untold story of the New Orleans gospel genius Raymond Myles
Raymond Myles was like a comet shooting across the sky. He was here one minute: brilliant, incandescent and unmistakably unique. And then, just as quickly, he was gone. A TASTE OF HEAVEN: The Heartbreak Life of Raymond Myles, Gospel Genius of New Orleans takes us on Raymond’s dramatic journey as a childhood protégé of Mahalia Jackson’s to the brink of international music stardom before his murder in the projects he could not leave behind.
As Raymond’s music producer and confidant, I witnessed firsthand the trials of this overlooked American master. His short, turbulent life was a complex and colorful journey, propelled by outsized talent and fierce ambition, burdened by prejudice and guilt, and deeply rooted in the community that shaped him. His tireless efforts to shape and influence young lives as a dedicated and devoted music teacher in the city’s public schools represented the best in the human spirit. As A TASTE OF HEAVEN reveals, that spirit is still alive in those he touched.
Some of Raymond’s biggest fans were Harry Connick, Jr., Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Davell Crawford and the Neville Brothers. But Raymond was much more than a maverick musician. By exploring his faith-based musical and social activism, A TASTE OF HEAVEN deals frankly with Raymond’s conflicted sexual identity, and his poignant battle against prejudice and hypocrisy in the church. The film addresses the tensions between the established cultural norms of the black and religious communities in New Orleans, and its coexisting gay subculture. And it poses some universal questions, such as: “What makes a person good or bad or spiritual? Who decides what’s moral and what’s not?”
As hard as he tried, Raymond never felt that his community embraced him with what he considered to be God’s unconditional love. These feelings of isolation and disconnection reflected a lifetime of struggle with his elders in the church, a struggle that boiled down to their refusal to fully accept gay worshipers. At the same time, Raymond was also a victim of his own human nature. Time after time, he went back to those dangerous streets he grew up on, to show off his cars and clothes, to show everyone he’d made it. He could not stop cruising for sex — a substitute for the love he never seemed to find.
In 1982, I was covering the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for Billboard. I heard the voice of Raymond Myles — a singular voice that I believed could touch the world. That spring, and again in 1983, I wrote in Billboard about the masterful gifts of this musical genius. I wanted to share my discovery with the world, to testify about what I’d heard in Raymond: a powerful, inspirational message of love.
Ten years later, when no one else would, I offered Raymond the opportunity to make A Taste of Heaven, his first full-length studio album of original material. The reviews were gratifying. David Fricke of Rolling Stone said, “Its glories runneth over… R&B stars always thank God for their blessings and bling-bling. Myles simply did His work with devout cheer.” “Instant chills…earth-moving power…devastating calls to faith…affirmations of what’s good in the world,” raved The Philadelphia Inquirer. There was also high praise from my former colleagues at Billboard. “The masses should be made aware of what New Orleans has known for years: Raymond Anthony Myles is a major talent worthy of a national stage.”
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 Raymond’s producer, to break this heartbreaking news.
“They say you’re too ‘flamboyant,'” I told him regretfully in Zabar’s café on the Upper West Side before a showcase for Sony Music executives 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.
“But 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?”
So much of the cultural heritage of New Orleans was destroyed when the levees failed in 2005. The story of Raymond Myles is a part of the preservation — and resurrection — of the city’s cultural legacy. Raymond viewed education as a way out of poverty, and he viewed faith as a tool for social progress. Driven by that faith, Raymond extended his mission beyond the stage and the recording studio and into the rough-and-tumble streets of New Orleans where he waged a long, hard personal war on the city’s drug culture and sang at countless funerals for its casualties.
Raymond’s personal legacy as the Gospel Genius of New Orleans also lives on in the tens of thousands of people who remain displaced by Katrina. These were Raymond’s people. He shared their streets and embodied their values and their struggles. Raymond inspired a generation of young people to believe in themselves. “Mister Myles” was the kid from the projects who loved fast cars and flashy clothes — his students saw his class as their way out of the projects, too. Seen through the larger prism of complex issues affecting the rebuilding of New Orleans, Raymond’s uplifting life story stands as an inspiration for those in the diaspora of the forgotten.
In his transcendent gospel music career, Raymond personified the spiritually focused artist struggling for career traction in an entertainment culture firmly rooted in the secular. A TASTE OF HEAVEN evokes the ecstatic, intimate world of gospel in New Orleans. It also explores Raymond’s roots in New Orleans’ deep inner city soul music. The film is animated by the story of Raymond’s struggle to reconcile his love of both of those native musical genres — a struggle which cast him as the city’s musical Prodigal Son.
Raymond knew where he wanted to go in his life. But Raymond also knew that he might not get there. Call it the intuition of 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.
A TASTE OF HEAVEN will carry Raymond’s message to places it never reached in his all too brief lifetime.