A journalist met a singer in 1982; he’s still telling his story

Leo Sacks knows the music business. The former Philipstown resident, who now lives in New York City, won a Grammy in 2013 for a box set he produced of Bill Withers’ albums and, in a similar fashion, helped preserve the music of Marvin Gaye; Earth, Wind & Fire; Luther Vandross and the Isley Brothers.

A one-time reporter and television news producer, he also knows a good story when he sees one.

When Billboard assigned Sacks to cover the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1982, he was unprepared for what awaited him. And he never imagined the assignment would play a significant role in his life for the next four decades. 

It was there, in the gospel tent, that Sacks heard Maestro Raymond Anthony Myles perform. “He had a voice of astounding amplitude and piano chops,” Sacks recalls. His stirring and soulful music was charged with a message of hope, compassion and tolerance.

Maestro Raymond Anthony Myles
Maestro Raymond Anthony Myles (Photo provided)

“I was a skeptical New Yorker and a lost soul myself,” Sacks says. “Raymond spoke to me in a way that other music never had.”

They connected immediately, and Sacks learned Myles was a schoolteacher and choir director who saw his faith as a tool for social progress. “His students saw him as a Pied Piper who believed they had the power to make their dreams come true,” Sacks says. “He kept them away from gangs, drugs and the streets.” 

Twelve years later, Sacks would produce an independent album with Myles called A Taste of Heaven. Twenty-three years later, after Myles had been shot dead in a carjacking, Sacks would begin work on an 85-minute documentary, also called A Taste of Heaven. It remains a work-in-progress but was screened at the New Orleans Film Festival and the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival in 2022, and the New Orleans Jazz Museum in November.

Leo Sacks
Leo Sacks (Photo by M. Turton)

While he lacked a national profile, Myles worked with many well-known musicians. He played Madison Square Garden with Harry Connick Jr. in 1992, and he and his group, the RAMS (Raymond Anthony Myles Singers), performed with Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle and Al Green. Elton John was among his fans. 

The 1994 album received rave reviews. Rolling Stone wrote: “Its glories runneth over.” The Philadelphia Inquirer said it contained “affirmations of what’s good in the world.” However, Myles was gay, which Sacks says record companies saw as an obstacle to marketing a gospel album. “Raymond faced intolerance and homophobia; he struggled in two unforgiving worlds — the church and the music business,” Sacks says. 

Myles was disconsolate when Sacks broke the news: There would be no record deal. A man of unwavering faith, Myles found it unfathomable that his private life could affect his destiny. “If I’m a Christian,” he said, “doesn’t that make me a child of God, too?”

Sacks says Myles grew defiant, hiding his pain by cruising the city “to fill the hole in his heart.” 

Maestro Raymond Anthony Myles with Aretha Franklin Photo by Gerard Mouton III
Maestro Raymond Anthony Myles with Aretha Franklin (Photo by Gerard Mouton III)

In late October 1998, Myles was shot and killed. His body was found on the outskirts of the French Quarter, at an intersection of Elysian Fields Avenue. In Greek mythology, Elysian Fields is the place in the afterlife where those who deserved happiness were welcomed as their reward for being good and heroic. 

Five thousand mourners packed the Greater St. Stephens Baptist Church for the funeral. “It was a spectacle,” says Sacks, who was among the speakers. “Raymond was sheathed in copper-colored snakeskin, dressed in death as he dressed for life.”

In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Sacks and a group of New Orleans musicians met in Austin, Texas, to record an album. As it happened, “everyone there knew Raymond,” Sacks says. “He should have been there.” 

Sacks decided then to make the film. In 2007, he shot the first scene outside the two-room house in New Orleans where Myles, his mother and 10 siblings had lived. 

Soon after, it was torn down.

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Turton, who has been a reporter for The Current since its founding in 2010, moved to Philipstown from his native Ontario in 1998. Location: Cold Spring. Languages: English. Area of expertise: Cold Spring government, features

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks to Michael Turton for his report on my documentary about the New Orleans gospel artist Raymond Myles, and for recognizing the challenges that face an independent filmmaker.

    While the serenity of Cold Spring is the antithesis of the grit and groove of New Orleans, the communities truly share artistic, familial and spiritual synergies. I wish I had better communicated how my relationships in Cold Spring, coupled with the faith of my family, have been instrumental in making the film.

  2. Leo introduced me to Raymond Myles a number of years ago, and while I enjoy gospel music based in the African-American community experience, I never expected the thrill I got from watching a few videos of Myles’ choir’s performances. Genuine chills raced down my neck and back!

    If you have a few minutes to spare, take a listen to his music and watch some of the YouTube videos. The excitement, spirit and love Myles creates through his music and choir arrangements is amazing. Thank you, Leo, for doing so much to preserve this amazing American artist’s work.

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