You will never meet Raymond Myles in the flesh because, in 1998 during a carjacking, some fool shot him.
Had the singer-musician lived, he would have turned 45 on Monday. And had he the time and the opportunity, there's no doubt that Raymond would have matched or surpassed the success of such gospel acts as Yolanda Adams and Donnie McClurkin.
On his only full-length album, the posthumously released A Taste of Heaven, the artist's musical vision unfurls brilliantly throughout. His sound knew no bounds as he folded in traditional Southern gospel with contemporary flourishes and an ounce of New Orleans funk bounce. Raymond -- who, like most gifted artists, was open-minded about music -- covered songs from pop-rock and R&B; catalogs, scorching them with gospel fire. A Taste of Heaven includes an emotional version of Elton John's "Border Song (Holy Moses)" that easily rivals Aretha Franklin's 1972 version. Though it doesn't displace the original, Raymond's take on Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free" smolders with white-hot energy and tightly honed harmonies from the choir.
Acclaimed author David Ritz, who penned the biographies of Aretha, Etta James, Marvin Gaye and, most recently, Jimmy Scott, wrote the liner notes to A Taste of Heaven.
"It's not straight-ahead gospel," Ritz says of the album. "It's not straight-ahead R&B.; Raymond knew how to mix the two and make it organic. He never made a big deal of blurring the lines."
A popular performer around his native New Orleans, Raymond was a big man who could be hellishly pompous at times. He was macho, too, but had a strong effeminate streak. He wore a stringy Jheri Curl, had a shiny gold tooth in the front of his mouth. And Raymond dug flashy clothes: leopard prints, zebra prints, rhinestone-studded suits, snakeskin boots.
His smile, like his spirit, was generous and bright. He taught music in the roughest public schools around his hometown. And he directed his choir (the Raymond Anthony Myles Singers, or RAMS) with the merciless drive of a football coach. He fathered two children by two different women, but the man was gay. Of course, folks in the community as well as the church knew about it, gossiped about it. But no one could deny Raymond's talent or that voice as he sat down at the piano -- his sweet, pure tenor warming the air.
The fact that Raymond was gay and that his stage show mingled the Southern fried holiness of James Cleveland with the opulent flash of Liberace turned some folks off. If you weren't listening closely to the lyrics, you could have easily mistaken his show (as well as his CD) for a secular set.
"In its joyfulness and humor, Raymond's music praises God and lifts us up," Ritz says. "But I think it takes courage to be who you are. The whole issue of the gay African-American gospel tradition will be written about one day."
Indeed, this tradition may warrant a full documentary. And in the program, the director should highlight the early contributions of such gay black gospel artists as Little Richard, James Cleveland and Carl Bean. There has always been an unspoken but powerful presence of homosexuals in black churches. Although for years they have been "encouraged" to keep their sexuality on the hush, these men have always brought a soulfully theatrical flair to gospel. Many choirs in black churches today would be flat or nonexistent if it weren't for guys like Raymond.
But after all the shoutin' in Sunday service has been done, after the collection plates have been put away, and everybody goes home, who cares about what these artists do (or the grown men they do it to) behind the shade? Their music penetrates the heart and the soul as it celebrates God. And isn't that what gospel music is supposed to do? Spread the "good news"?
"It's about the spirit of the music," Ritz says. "Raymond's music celebrated that holy spirit in a way that incorporated different styles of black music."
Nikki Giovanni wrote a poem about Raymond titled The Son of the Sun, which is included in her latest collection, Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea.
"It was the sound of his voice," says Giovanni, calling from her home in Virginia. "It was angelic. People think of angelic and think Minnie Riperton, but Raymond's voice had that lightness to it. But it was gutsy. Raymond was not about competing. He was about carrying a message. He was such a community person, you know. He stood for something."
Thanks to the tireless support of producer Leo Sacks, Raymond's spirit, as captured on A Taste Of Heaven, will live on as long as we have stereos and open hearts.
And open minds.