There is something a little sad about this set. On the evidence here, Raymond Myles had a gospel voice to match any of the great names in the field. If he sounds like any other singer, it is the awesome Rance Allen, but Myles’s style was subtler and had an additional ache in it that called to mind various ’70s soul giants. The remarkable vocal prowess, though, was in the end absolutely his own. If he had not been gunned down at the age of 40, or if he’d had a more commercial and less spiritual approach to life, we would have more chances to appreciate someone who might just be about the best soul singer to have emerged since whichever golden age of black male vocals you currently pledge allegiance to.
Yes, he was that good. The album though, was recorded for a local New Orleans label in 1994 and suffers from some variable production and less than convincing instrumentation. If you can get past that — and any one who has put up with post-synthesizer southern soul should be able to quite easily — then you are in for a revelation. Not that plenty of people don’t already know how exceptional a talent he was. He was a legend in New Orleans, flamboyant and expansive, a cross between Little Richard and Donny Hathaway in the pulpit. Moreover, he performed at Bill Clinton’s inauguration and also in the presence of the Pope. However, apart from a live album, he left only this collection of standards, from the soul and gospel canons, for the rest of us to judge him by.
It is out-and-out religious material, be warned. Even the secular numbers, Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” and the Bluenotes’ “Wake Up Everybody”, are chosen for their spiritual message. There is also a fair chunk of spoken preaching, on the autobiographical “Learning to Love” in particular. None of this should trouble any but the most insecure atheist, because the human passion, dignity and conviction in the singing should be enough to move the most world-weary listener. This is the soul of “soul” music, make no mistake.
Myles did not make nu-gospel, rhythm ‘n’ praise, or any other updated variant. His style belonged to post-war gospel music in its classic incarnation. “Elijah’s Rock” (twice) and “Precious Lord” are the most familiar and typical examples of his repertoire. The first gives ample demonstration of Myles’ vocal pyrotechnics, while “Precious Lord” has all the power and gravitas that pivotal African-American work demands. “Be on Fire”, I don’t know, but the Al Green touches with which Myles embellishes this mid-tempo number would be the highlight of many another set. The singer manages to extemporise and tease while never sacrificing the directness of the lyrics throughout these songs. Faith and technique combine in a quite overwhelming expression of the Spirit.
Myles’ take on “Someday We’ll All Be Free” is, I venture to suggest, second only to Hathaway’s incomparable version. With a resonant chorus and some beautiful organ and piano touches, he even invests the song with the quiet confidence that Hathaway intended but never quite achieved. Fine as they are, “Wake Up Everybody” struggles rather in comparison and “Border Song” just isn’t worthy of the care that goes into its performance. The one truly weak track is a countrified “Put a Little Love in Your Heart”, which I’m sure was a real crowd-pleaser live, but which is just a little too clumsily wrought here. “What A Fellowship” and “He’s Right There” are dogged by inferior arrangements but still work admirably, both in their own right and as showcases for Myles’s range, from out-and-out testifying to deep, Southern balladry. After that comes the aforementioned “Precious Lord”. Strong, deceptively simple, sincere — on such songs a movement was built
Congratulations to Sony for rescuing this project from small label oblivion. The music is a little dated and one-dimensional at times but the compensations, in the form of a vocal genius in full flight, are worth any fleeting discomfiture. Raymond Myles was a larger than life figure; his funeral, in a city of famously lavish funerals, was one of New Orleans’s biggest ever. He left, for a man of his talents, a small and by no means ideal, recorded legacy. Nonetheless, anybody with a love of the African-American vocal tradition will find many of its most appealing and exciting qualities captured in these few tracks. Remember the name and add him to your pantheon of soul heroes.