John Magnie had been living in New Orleans for a little more than a year when he began working in early 1977 with Leigh Harris , a vocalist who has since become better known as Lil Queenie.
Leigh at the age of 18 already had a whole batch of just great original songs, Magnie says. That was the basis of our duo that and her love of Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith songs, and then some songs that I had written and some wed written together.
We played every night at Monday at Tipitinas for a year or two, Harris says. And for awhile we also played another weeknight with the Backdoor Blues Review, which also included John Mooney, plus Spencer Bohren sometimes.
The Percolators kind of evolved out of the Backdoor Blues Review. (John and I) decided, We should have our own band f--- this! Harris says.
Magnie and Harris recruited some like-minded musicians, and one of New Orleans best-loved bands was born: Lil Queenie and the Percolators. In the era of disco and funk, the Percolators stood out for their brand of bluesy, jazzy rock and roll.
In the early 80s in New Orleans, no band was bigger. Lil Queenie and Percolators might notve been a household name outside of the city, but in their prime, they would headline and sell out clubs like Jeds and Tipitinas. Harris was a charismatic performer who could belt the blues like Bessie Smith and wail the next minute like jazz singer Phoebe Snow. The crowds absolutely loved her.
I actually do think that we had a good musical thing going we had a good run there, Magnie says.
The bands first stable lineup featured Harris blues- and jazz-inspired singing, Magnie on keyboards and vocals, John Meunier on bass, Allen Pecora on drums and Greg Mazell on sax. In fact, a number of horn players including Fred Kemp, Charles Joseph, Eric Traub, Butch Gomez, Sed Sedlack, Earl Turbinton, Reggie Houston and Eric Langstaff would play with Percolators over the years. Initially, the band had no need for a guitar player.
We had some wonderful horn players, because we were a little bit jazzy. We always tried to get the best players they looked down on our rhythm and blues music, but we were creative enough that they liked it. … We didnt have guitar and we wanted to stay away from having a guitar, because we wanted to be different. More of a jazz thing, Magnie says.
Earl Turbinton and all those guys loved playing with us, Harris says. It was never strictly a jazz band, never strictly an R&B band. It was a hybrid, intrinsic thing of its own.
There was nobody else like them.
When the band did turn to a guitar player around 1979, Magnie and Harris recruited Emily Remler , a jazz player who went on to national acclaim a couple of years later as a solo artist. Sonny Landreth later played for a time with the Percolators, but it was their next guitarist who really had the most impact, at least as far as creating a blueprint for the subdudes: Tommy Malone .
John called me, and I went and auditioned at the Dream Palace, Malone recalls. Got the gig and ended up in the Percolators for about three or four years. … He had heard me sometime, probably with Becky Kury (and the Cartoons), and I believe that audition was the first time we hooked up.
Magnie recalls the first time: I think he was about 17 at the time. Im like eight years older than he is. First time he played, I liked everything he played, and I thought, Thats the guitar player I want to play with. I was playing with his older brother at the time.
With Malone in place, the Percolators not only gained a versatile lead guitarist but also a burgeoning songwriter and vocalist.
We were opening for people like Taj Mahal one week, the Mahavishnu Orchestra the next, Harris says.
The club owners liked that they could stick us in front of anybody. Because, what we were doing was so difficult to pigeonhole, we could warm up for almost anybody.
They mightve been the hottest thing in town, but they never quite managed to break out of New Orleans.
As it seems happens with a lot of New Orleans bands, … (we missed) getting the right opportunity to get out. We just had this feeling that if we were … in L.A., that we would have had a really good record deal, Magnie says.
There was certainly interest in the band, but for a variety of reasons a major-label release was not to be.
We were being courted pretty heavily by some heavy hitters management-wise and producer-wise and record-label-wise, Harris says. But the band become mired in a dispute with forces outside the band.
We disbanded because of legal problems not with each other, she clarifies. There was no bad blood between any of us, for sure. It was all from the outside.
Magnie agrees that the Percolators left on good terms.
New Orleans seems to be its own little island of music: you see bands reach their peak, and if nothing happens, then they kind of fall apart, Magnie says. So it really wasnt any kind of bad blood, because me and Leigh went ahead and played as a trio (with her then-husband) … for a few years.
The Percs, though captured on tape occasionally by fans, initially left little in the way of a recorded legacy. During their original run, they released only one 45, My Darlin New Orleans, a classic that is still played on New Orleans radio. The flip side, Wild Natives, features Magnie on lead vocals.
The Percolators drifted apart, but they continued to play together in different permutations. Eventually, three ex-members Magnie, Malone and Blevins resurfaced as The Works and then later as the Continental Drifters .
Harris, meanwhile, today is a successful musician who continues to perform regularly. Since Hurricane Katrina, she has been splitting her time between North Carolina and Virginia. Shes released four CDs since the mid-90s, including House of Secrets that saw her reuniting on a number of songs with Magnie. Purple Heart, which was nearing completion when the hurricane struck, is available from Harris via ebay as a so-called limited-edition bootleg.
Though its been about 25 years since the Percolators broke up, the band is still fondly remembered by pretty much everyone who saw and heard them.
It was a real happening group, Harris says. I would love to just put those same people together on a stage again. I think people would just be dropping dead in the aisle.
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In the spring of 2007, the band did indeed reunite for the first time since roughly 1984 with original members Harris, Magnie, Malone, Charles Joseph and John Meunier (plus newcomers Andre Bohren and Tom Fitzpatrick) performing an evening show during Jazzfest in New Orleans.
But the bigger news was that finally, after 25 years, the band released a CD filled with unreleased, vintage recordings. Home represents nearly all of the unreleased studio recordings of the Percolators. It includes the two songs that had been released on 45, plus several demos from circa 1981-1982 that had been languishing in the vault. (The sole remaining studio demo, Black-Haired Girl, was actually featured on the subdudes podcast in January 2006.)
The CD was fleshed out with six songs recorded live from 1978-1984 at Jazzfest and venues around New Orleans. Magnie wrote or co-wrote about half the songs, and he sings lead on many of them.
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(Click here to read about the band that Tommy Malone and John Magnie formed a couple of years after the Percolators and which led directly to the birth of the subdudes: the Continental Drifters .)
Article by Richard Russell; © 2004 and 2007 Richard E. Russell.
Top photo, second-to-last photo and the first poster image are courtesy of Leigh Harris.
Second poster image source is not known. Original source of remaining items not known.
The Lil Queenie live recordings are courtesy of Richard Russell, Tommy Stevenson and Ben Windham.