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Witness Post: Miles Watson Leverett

MilesWatson

Miles Watson Leverett III (1954 – 2014)

Only One Miles

Miles Watson Leverett gone? I was sobbing aloud, as I read the Class Notes from the Yale Magazine to my wife.  I had promised myself that I would visit Miles in LA, but I never made it.  When we moved to the west coast in 2001 it seemed possible, but living in Portland, Oregon did not offer an easy path to LA. I spoke to him on the phone about his failing health a few times, but never made the trip to see him. My mistake and deep regret.  Miles is one of those characters worth the trip, no matter how hard the journey. Ed Gates, a fellow Whiffenpoof with Miles, and Lyle Leete, a fellow Society of Orpheus & Bacchus (SOB) member, had made the trip several times in the last year, as had some other close friends. I can only weep and reminisce.

Singing in the SOB’s “saved my life” at Yale, and Miles, more than anyone, held the life buoy. The competitive, hyper-academic atmosphere in New Haven wore me down and drained me of energy. All of us had to find ways and friends to help us cut through the tension and refill the tank. Some exercised, others meditated, wrote, or medicated. For a collection of us, song was our tonic. Singing was engaging, it was elusive, it was full-throated fun. Tuesday nights at Mory’s were always special, as were our concerts, rehearsals and tours. For me song was the font of friendship and support which made all of the difference.

Growing up in the middle of eight children, I knew what it felt like to be from a large family. So did Miles Leverett.  He confided with me, “I have four brothers and two sisters. I had a tough childhood growing up in New Jersey.”  It was tougher than my start in Baltimore.  Miles had the added racial tensions of the “projects” of Trenton and the financial strains of a lot of mouths to feed. He said, “I sang in the choir, which I loved, and was fortunate to earn a scholarship to Lawrenceville for high school.” Male singing groups and prep school were his next great adventures.

Sing Out, Raise Hope Benefit Concert

Formal Horseshoe with A’ Cappella Singers

At Yale I attempted to balance a heavy academic load in biology and psychology, playing two varsity sports, and trying out to join either a male a’ cappella singing group or the freshman chorus. I auditioned for the Alley Cats and the Glee Club, but I didn’t get tapped by either. I had most wanted to sing in the Alley Cats alongside Middie Walsh and George Gephart, two guys I admired from Gilman School in Baltimore, and had naively thought the “Cats or Bust” and did not try out for any other singing groups. The SOB’s, in my memory, were the group with that amazing Black tenor who had the huge Afro hairdo and the platform shoes. One of my many mistakes at Yale was not trying out for all of the groups as a freshman. My only singing outlet at the time was at St. Thomas More Chapel, where Bob Eggers played his 12-string Martin guitar and cantored for some masses.

Tap Night

In the fall of my sophomore year I tore the LCL in my left knee, while wrestling against Princeton, and I sullenly limped around on crutches for weeks. Doug Johnson (DJ) and Art Keefe heard from Bob Eggers that I sang and had a decent voice. DJ and Art approached me in the Morse Dining Hall one day during lunch.  They asked me to consider trying out for the SOB’s. I asked, “Are you the guys with the great Black first tenor?” They said yes and encouraged me to go see Jamie Fisher for a voice test. Passing the audition by singing the bass part of Aura Lea, I was officially TAPPED by the SOB’s and admitted as a Bari/Bass in the group.

I had seen the SOB’s perform at Chi Psi and thought that the Black tenor with his smile and bow ties was something special. Thanks to the outreach of DJ, Art Keefe, Jon LaPook, Larry Comesas, and the others that fall, the group filled its ranks. The group had vied to recruit a talented trio of new members: Bryan Murphy, Bruce McCrae and Mike Chernick, after their previous singing group folded. (Their version of “Chain Gang” is still near the top of my list of Yale favorites.)  The strategy had been for the SOB’s to tap enough seasoned voices to represent the group well, even as students were missing concerts for sports events, science labs, class lectures, or other extra-curriculars. We were headed toward the climax of Yale Jamboree Season and 10 members was too few, 16 about right (four per part). The drum-beat build-up of the singing season included campus gigs, off-campus concerts, and Spring Tour.  Time to get ready!

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Miles Leverett (center) with his Afro, bow tie and platform shoes

My induction into the SOB’s enrolled me into an already strong contingent of ’76ers: Lee Osborne, Damon Miller, Miles Leverett, John “Leo” Madden, Peter Markman, and Geoff Piel; plus those members from ’77: Jon Prestley, John Lang, Jim Johnson, Ken Stewart, and Gary Kikuchi.  We were all welcomed to the group by the SOB’s Whiff contingent that year and a fabulous collection of juniors, seniors and alumni from ’73 – ’74 – ’75: Doug Johnson, Larry Comesas, Jon LaPook, Jamie Fisher (pitch), David Bass (arranger), and Art Keefe among others. Those who had moved on to the Whiffs and other singing groups included Kent Stevens, Garth Dickey, Bob Picardo, Stu Bevan, Craig Oxman, Phil Roundtree, and Bob Eggers. The song-making was pure fun, smoke and magic.

Smoke

Speaking of smoke, John Madden and other members of the group have told and retold the story of “Miles’ smoking Afro” over the past few decades and the story is a growing/glowing cloud in their memory. Miles had on platform shoes which made him tall and imposing as he stood in the middle of the singing horseshoe. As Doug Johnson recalls, “I will never forget the concert where Geoff Piel stood behind Miles and blew cigar smoke into his Afro. With each of Geoff’s exhales, Miles’ head appeared to levitate more. The resulting cloud was rising like a halo above Miles’ head and over the group.”

smoke

When we were not pulling stunts like the ‘Smoking Afro’, we practiced in the basement of Colleges such as Morse or Styles, Silliman or Timothy Dwight, wherever we could get a quorum and a piano. After the newbees learned the Yale Songbook numbers, if not aurally, then sometimes “anally,” for lack of actual sheet music, David Bass rolled out a special treat: he had carefully handwritten sheet music for the arrangements he had made of “John Henry,” the fugue about man versus machine, and “The Ranger’s Song,” which was a full-throttle testosterone march. We took to the songs quickly and adopted them into the repertoire.  We also learned some rearrangements that Bass had made of the Chan Everett, Bob Eggers, Scott Drum, and Marshall Bartholomew numbers, as well as the Norwegian National Anthem (“Javi,”) and other SOB standards: “Under the Bar,” “Pretty Girl” and “For God Country & Yale”. No matter what song it was, we loved it when Miles Leverett sang the solos. He set us apart from all other groups.

Chariot

The most memorable SOB song for me was “Ride the Chariot”. When Miles sang that solo, I was completely transported to another world.  His powerful lead voice transformed the rousing Negro Spiritual toward the divine. I never heard Miles sing the verses nor the melody the same way twice. He said, “I sing that one for me … I am back in my Trenton church choir. I don’t want it to be stale or boring.”  Each time he sang the solo his voice was clear as a bell and packed with emotion and authority up to and through the highest notes. It still gives me chills to hear his voice in my mind.

Audio of Ride the Chariot, Miles Leverett on solo from 1975:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=614gXiVB8O0

Later that year we added of a few key voices to the group during the early spring rush: Roger Sherman, David Barnett, Jonathan Nelson and a few other talented musicians.  They helped balance out those of us who lacked the talent and sounded like “lunch meat”. Although it is true, we may have sounded like lunch, we were noted for bringing the fun factor to our on-campus concerts and road trips.

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Doctor Fun and the Dog

Amidst one concert held in Hendrie Hall, Geoff Piel developed a mid-gig skit he called, “Dr. Fun.” Piel had assembled an odd collection: a thermos full of liquid nitrogen, a bag of hot dogs, a lab coat, a hammer, a set of tongs, a stool, and some goggles. Geoff told me, as a new SOB inductee, that I had to sneak behind the group and put on the lab coat and goggles. After that I was to follow his lead. Geoff announced to the crowd that Dr. Fun from the physics department was conducting a science experiment. At Piel’s instruction, Miles pulled out a hot dog from his pants’ pocket, held it up admiringly in front of the crowd, and dropped it into the thermos. After ten seconds of marveling at the smoking thermos, I pulled the hot dog out of the thermos with the tongs, lifted the smoking tube steak up for all to see, and placed it on the stool. I then smashed the hot dog with a hammer. Bits of frozen meat spattered everywhere. It was not a great musical performance, but we got a lot of memorable laughs. For the rest of that term undergrads stopped me on the street and asked if I were “Dr. Fun”; the moniker stuck long after the gag.

As a varsity wrestler, I was often injured by the pugilistic assaults of Neal Brendel, Jamie McEwan and Tim Karpov, and spent a lot of time in recovery mode. When Miles learned that I was a wrestler he mentioned that he too was a wrestler. “I wrestled heavyweight at Lawrenceville,” he said. “Were you any good?” I inquired. “No, but I liked messing around with all of those gorgeous bodies and showering with them.” I thought that Miles was joking, but he was serious.  “It’s all right, Henry, I’m gay!” Having no ‘gay-dar’ in those days, or today for that matter, I tried not to show my shock at his announcement. Miles was the first openly gay man I knew for real. His sexual orientation forced me to reconsider my values. I really liked Miles! Not only did I like this man, but also I felt at one with him when we sang. And I always felt welcomed by him. He accepted me at face value and expected the same in return.

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SOB’s of 1973 – 1974

At rehearsals and in concerts Miles had a huge heart that poured out into the room.  He rarely sang the songs as written in the score, which made for interesting practice sessions. He had a gap-toothed grin and a broad smile that lit up his face. He had one eye that was cock-eyed from time to time, so he seemed to be looking right at you, no matter where you stood in the horseshoe. That jovial grin always overtook me. I had to laugh and smile back. Miles said that my enjoyment of the group and laughter made for a great audience reaction right within the room. Above all he had a wide tenor range that could soar into falsetto and sink to baritone. His voice could be gravelly and raw, or sweet and clear, yet always with moxie.

Doppler Effect

One term, Geoff Piel’s grades were not up to snuff and he was asked by the administration to withdraw for a period. Not wanting to leave the SOB’s, he enrolled at Southern Connecticut and stayed in the group. He took a physics class at Southern and invited the SOB’s to sing a song as a prop for one of his class presentations.  We all piled into Damon Miller’s truck and a few cars and drove past West Rock to the College. Standing in front of the professor and class, Geoff introduced us as his sound prop.  We then sang “John Henry” all the way through the verses. When we hit the final verse, Miles and Geoff worked out harmony that they sang over the sound of the roaring freight train as it went bye with the words, “The Doppler Effect” which was the point of his physics demonstration. Apparently Piel passed the class.

Our more memorable road trips were to women’s colleges such as Briarcliff, Vassar, Wheaton, and Connecticut College. Those trips were outstanding for the egos of the heterosexuals in the group. Miles would sing some unforgettable love songs, and anyone so inclined would strike up a conversation with a co-ed and perhaps get lucky. Miles said he was fine going stag: simply admiring the group members and the attractive males in the audience was enough for him.

The Game

The 100th Anniversary of the Yale – Harvard Football Game was a special treat for both colleges.  Somehow, the SOB’s were hired by Ballantine Scotch to sing on the Harvard bound train, which traveled from New Haven’s Penn Station to Boston on the Saturday morning of The Game. Booze was flowing freely and we drank as much scotch as we could hold. (Who can pass up free good stuff?) Our instructions were to serenade the travelers in each of the club cars and dining cars on the train all the way to Boston. We gladly complied with the several hours of melody and harmony, though, by the third or fourth time we had sung “Your Daddy is a Yale Man,” things sounded a little rough. OK, very, very rough.

SOB - Harvard Train 1974Miles Leverett (front right) on the train to Cambridge for The Game

It was a ton of fun on the train and at The Game, even with the Eli’s losing to Harvard 16 – 7.  The rendezvous after The Game at a few Cambridge watering holes were exhilarating as well. But, with all of the singing, cheering, and alcohol, most of us were hoarse. A few of the SOB’s got lost in that wild town of Boston and did not make it back to the station to board the last train headed to New Haven.  Miles and I made it though and sat together on the return ride talking about life, dreams, and aspirations for the upcoming Spring Break Tour, which was heading south down I-95 to Florida.

Spring Tour

To say we learned a lot on our SOB road trip to the Sunshine State would be an understatement. We entertained the women at Hollins College, for example. (I re-met three women at Hollins with whom I had gone to elementary school in Baltimore, quite a shocker.) We drove all the next day and sang that night at Berry College in Mt. Berry, Georgia. Strangely, we were chased from the campus of Berry College by security. Either Larry Comesas or Jon LaPook had offered a mid-first set welcome to our host school saying that Berry College was the “bastion of southern aristocracy.” Somehow a member of the audience had reported to the President that we said, “Bastard” of southern aristocracy!  At intermission, we were escorted from the hallowed grounds of the college by security guards in police-like vehicles and sent packing, without pay. Odd how garbled a Yankee accent must sound to sensitive Southern ears.

The next day we sang some of our raunchy stuff at the Atlanta Church where Jim Johnson had sung in his high school choir. It felt embarrassing to sing “Saving Ourselves for Yale” and “The Rangers’ Song” in a church sanctuary. The fear of being sacrilegious and chased out yet again was palpable; however the feeling soon vanished, when Miles belted out his dulcet tones to some Bartholomew Spirituals, “Early in the Morning” and of course “Ride the Chariot.” Miles’ glorious voice redeemed the rest of us.  We rode with Orpheus and Miles to safety.

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Food & Fashion

Keeping up with Bacchanalian-side of the SOB traditions, we also spent a lot of time smoking marijuana, setting off bottle rockets, drinking copious amounts of beer, and generally misbehaving. To overcome the munchies we took up the ‘White Castle Challenge’ and went in search of the best small burger joint.  We drove to Krystal fast food restaurants and stuffed ourselves with as many Krystal Burgers as we could fit into our mouths at once. Miles preferred not to stuff himself. “You have to be particular about what you shove in your mouth,” he warned. Ignoring Miles the record was set at 7 Krystal burgers by Geoff Piel.

Many of the singers had shunned Brooks Brothers and marched to ‘Hadassah Thrift’ in New Haven to buy suits for the tour. The rule was that we were to dress one step above the audience.  If the crowd wore slacks and a blazer, we were to dress in suits. Clothes were important on stage. However, while in transit many of the SOB’s chose to travel inter- and intra-state without any clothes at all. The ‘nude miling’ was dubbed NILING and on the Spring Tour of 1974, it is fair to say that Miles logged the most niling miles in the SOB’s. He was naked in the back of Damon Miller’s truck for most of that trip.

Doug Johnson bailed us out of one near-arrest that trip. DJ had been niling in the front of an adjacent car, when we were all pulled over by the flashing lights of a police car. DJ quickly pulled on a t-shirt, hiked up his pants, jumped out of our car and walked nonchalantly up to the passenger side of the police car and hopped in.  After about 15 minutes, while we frantically tried to cover beer bottles and wave out the smell of smoke, DJ came back to the truck and said, “We are good to go, guys,” and proceeded to tell us he had gotten us off with a WARNING.  His conversation with the cop about the cool radios and gadgets he had on his dash board had saved the day and a fine. The officer had followed us for about 20 miles during which our speed was erratic, we did not use our blinkers when we changed lanes, and we failed to dim our high beams at on-coming traffic. Doug assured the officer that he would instruct us on the appropriate driving behavior and we drove off with a huge sigh of relief. Spring Break, we should have realized, was prime ticket season in many southern states and we were fortunate to have DJ thinking fast to cover our naked tracks when the cops appeared.

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One thing Miles Leverett noted that trip was the “Florida is one large phallic symbol of a state … When you get to Jacksonville, don’t get too excited, or you’ll peter-out before you make it to Miami.” We didn’t stop at the first Oranges for Sale sign, as there were tons of them along the way.  We sang at a restaurant in Vero Beach with some Yale Alumni and it was great fun. Florida, though, is one long state. As we often said in our skits, “when you get to Florida, forget about tomatoes, cause there’re peaches on the beaches, boys!”  And to Miles’ delight there were boys on the beaches as well. We sang for our dinner further down the east coast to West Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale, before hitting night life on Miami Beach.

We lit up the stages at the fancy clubs and restaurants by night and stayed as guests of the Yale alumni in town.  By day we went to the Atlantic Coast beaches, swam in the warm surf, and pulled “moves” on the other Yale singing groups we spotted. (The cars of the other groups were fair game to turn into Sea World, or other beach creations.) Miles laughed at us most of the time, enjoying the camaraderie immensely. He was a happy traveling companion.

Chevy & Air-Stream

On the return trip to New Haven, John Lang, Miles Leverett and I were in the front bench-seat of Damon’s truck, while Lee Osborne, Damon Miller and David Bass were in the back. Somewhere on I-95 in South Carolina, we had an unfortunate interaction with a pink Chevy toting an air-stream trailer. The passengers in the other car did not seem to appreciate our bottle rockets and blaring music.  They honked loudly and swore at us with disdain as they revved their engines and drove bye.  Not knowing why or how we had offended them, we proceeded to catch up with their Chevy.  At the perfect moment Miles deftly splattered a raw egg on their windshield.  The other car had to slow down to wipe the egg off their windshield, while we kept our steady speed past them.  When the family in the Chevy got their windshield semi-clear of albumen, they drove maniacally to catch up with us.  We took the next exit for a pit stop.

What we had not noticed was the Chevy with the air-stream was traveling at about 100 miles per hour to catch up and they were on our tail. Failing to use our blinker, as usual, our truck exited the highway. At the last second the Chevy noticed our right turn and the driver quickly veered right to follow us; however, he had misjudged the exit ramp angle. Suddenly the air-stream he was hauling jackknifed in the roadway, snapping the trailer off the hitch. The air-stream rolled sideways like a hot dog down the highway for about one hundred yards. Those of us in the truck did not see the accident. We simply filled up with gas, emptied our bladders, and headed north again on I-95.  Another SOB car, traveling at a leisurely pace behind us, saw the whole event and was caught in the resulting traffic jam. They told us of the calamity when we met up later that day.  (Hence the picture of the eggs and overturned air-stream behind the pink Chevy on the album cover of the record we cut the next spring: The Society of Orpheus & Bacchus Greatest Hits. Bacchus showed up on the album with some windowpane. We dedicated the album to Rory O’Neil.)

31ERhjgUAALSOB’s Greatest Hits Album

We made it back to New Haven without further incident, at least as far as I remember.

Are You Hungry for Love, Babe?

The following summer of 1974 the SOB’s went to an August retreat at the home of Rory and Dedee O’Neil, who lived in Seville, Ohio. As a quorum of singers arrived, we started rehearsing. David Bass went through the sectionals one by one and then coaxed us into whole group rehearsals.  Much of our time was spent brushing up old standards, which were always rusty. After the warm-up songs, David treated us to his latest musical creation: a song entitled “Hungry for Love.” It started out low and slowly with the basses setting the somber mood, before taking off and soaring to the emotional climax with Miles’ lilting tenor voice taking the love of his life to the fireside. We all knew that this would be another signature song for Miles and it was.

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Miles with his shaved head look

After one practice that summer I remember Miles walked up to me, smiled gently, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I love you, man!” Then he added, “Are you doing OK?” It had been a long rehearsal and I was tired. More importantly I was still struggling with the breakup with a year-long girlfriend. When Miles comforted me and asked how I was really doing, I was overcome with emotion. No one had openly said that to me, except my mother, and he really meant it.  I was so grateful he noticed my pain. We hugged a tight embrace and I thanked him for caring, saying what a blessing he was in my life.

We recorded the SOB’s Greatest Hits album in the summer of 1975 in Sprague Hall and the acoustics were above expectation. It was challenging, though, to get the SOB songsters to stick around for long after graduation, because the weather was unbearably hot and muggy in New Haven. For some of the recordings we were lean in key parts of songs, which is hard to cover in post-production. Miles was there, thank goodness, so that we recorded him on the album for his signature songs.  He was always enthusiastic and smiling during the long recording sessions, even on the seventh take. Those moments were the last that Miles was in the group, as his time our senior year was swallowed up by the Whiffenpoofs.  All of us felt that Lee Osborne, John Madden, and Miles were SOB’s first, even if they were not around to be with us as seniors. For the rest of the seniors who had not been tapped for the Whiffs, it was a hard year of thesis papers and final exams. That said, with the tapping of a new inductees of immortals into the SOB’s ranks, such as Rob Campbell and Jeff Warren, the group discovered a rejuvenated energy.

Whiffenpoofs of 1976 and More

Miles was a remarkable man in many ways. His friendship, candor, humor, and singing were extraordinary. Lastly were his many firsts. Not only was he one of the first Black men to sing in the Whiffenpoofs, he was also the first head of the Yale Gay Student Alliance, and one of the first Black members of the secret society, Skull & Bones. As a senior Miles was the one Whiff whom many felt really owned his songs.  I went to nearly every on campus Whiffenpoof concert, even some of those Monday nights at Mory’s, and believed that his near-perfect songs were “Little Pony” and “Broadway.” His versions of these Whiff standards were exceptional.  No one could perform an arrangements of those songs with the same solo-power and grace. What a performer! His friends at Skull & Bones must have felt his humor and his influence: Kim Oler, Star Childs, Ed Gates, Bob Blattner, Phil Davies, Chan Gibson and the other. I know that they gained some deep insights into what made Miles tick.

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Official Whiff Photo, 1976

At jamborees, after the each of the a’ cappella groups performed, we would sing a few Yale standards in unison. During times like those the barriers between groups dissolved and the Alley Cat’s, BD’s, Duke’s Men, SOB’s, Spizzwinks(?), New Blue, Whiffs, Red Hot & Blue, and Whim ‘n Rhythm would all stand, intermingle and sang together. We would end the festivities with Ride the Chariot calling for Miles to sing the solo. One concert amid the tapestries in Dwight Hall, Miles was particularly poised; his voice seemed as if it were coming from a balcony. His solo rose in a sort harmonic, ascending above the rest. We all broke into applause and cheers at the end. Although Miles Leverett was an SOB first and now a Whiff, all of the groups claimed him as their treasure as well. Then it was off to Rudy’s.

In After Years

After graduation Miles moved to New York and tried his hand and voice at singing.  He had a few good jobs, but nothing as steady as he had wanted. A fellow SOB bass, David Barnett, had arranged and produced a series of dance and exercise records, including all covers of tunes from various genre and periods. David asked Miles to cover a song by the Village People entitled, ‘The Milkshake’. Barnett recalled that they had a blast recreating the track. And as usual, said Barnett, “Miles knocked it out of the park.” (see the YouTube video below.)

Miles and I spoke on a few times after Yale, but far too few. He told me he had changed his last name to Watson for his acting career, but it was also because he had come to love his mother more than his dad and needed to distance himself from his nuclear family. I could only imagine the anguish of that life decision. He was singing less those days and acting more, which helped pay the bills. I encouraged him to sing. With each conversation I got a bit more information about his health.

Word had spread at the SOB’s 50th Reunion in Seville, Ohio at the O’Neil’s that Miles had contracted HIV, but people were unsure of its severity.  It sounded like a death sentence to me.  I called him soon after the reunion, told him we missed seeing him. Miles said he was confident in his efforts to fight the virus. “Henry, there is no cure. I will go to extraordinary lengths to find some relief and a remedy, even if that means drinking my own urine, which I have.” He lamented that most of his friends with the virus were gone and that he was lonely but bearing up.  From the tone of his voice it seemed only a matter of time.

In 2000 I was singing in a jamboree of a’ cappella choruses from around the country.  At the time I sang with the Jones Falls Express (aka JFX) from Baltimore, Maryland.  In our group was Preston Athey (Yale ’71 and singer from Whiffs and SOB’s).  [Our prior group had been founded by Buck Walsh (Yale ’46) and Parker Matthai (Yale ’41).] When the JFX were not performing, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Fenno Heath (Yale ’51), the longtime director of the Yale Glee Club (1953 – 1992). Fenno said, “Although I loved performing with piano and an orchestra, there is nothing like the sound of voices without accompaniment…One of the best tenor voices at Yale that I recall was a young African American named Miles Leverett.” When I said that I had sung with Miles in the SOB’s, Fenno said, “He was the only non-glee club member I really wanted to sing solos.”  High praise from a man who loved music and had followed Yale choral singing, starting in 1947.

Ed Gates said that he and others had tried to cajole Miles to come to New York or New Haven for Whiff reunions. Miles declined the invitations. Ed prevailed upon him again in conjunction with the 100th Reunion of the Whiffenpoofs. This time Miles said yes.  There is some footage of Miles being serenaded with a drinking song salute and a red cup at Mory’s on October 9, 2009:

A spare tribute to this dear man.

In Woolsey Hall that night the class of 1976 Whiffs sang “Strike Up the Band” (aka “Jack“) and “Broadway“, which had an eerie clairvoyant quality to it, considering Miles’ lifetime flirtation with fame in the neon lights.  It was also somber, compared with the rousing and defiant versions I heard when he was a performing Whiff:

Jonathan Nelson said he connected with Miles a couple of years ago, when Miles came to NYC for a visit. He was staying at Craig Oxman’s apartment, and Craig arranged for Jon LaPook and Jonathan to come sing quartets with the two of them. Jonathan brought along the SOB songbook that John Ford made and they blew their vocal pipes for about an hour, all in great fun.

The SOB’s 75th reunion in New Haven (2014) came and went. Miles couldn’t make the trip due to declining health. Whatever it was of lesser significance that got in the way, I did not get to Southern California. I thought about Miles when I saw the movie “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” still I did not fly south. Lyle Leete suggested I get a Facebook account, as Miles often communicated that way. I never did.  I felt so out of touch.

I wish I had heeded the sound of his fading voice and flown to LA to visit during our West Coast era. For that error, I am deeply saddened. Miles Watson was a rare friend and a genuine article.

The Memorial Service

Ed Gates arranged a memorial dinner for Miles, held at the Trumbull Room of the Yale Club in New York City on February 13, 2015. About thirty of Miles’ admirers attended the somber yet joyous occasion to honor their friend. As David Bass reported, “It was very moving to see how many lives he had touched so profoundly and to hear the moving testimony of the mostly Whiffs and Bonesmen.  So serious.  So formal.  So solemn.  Among the SOBs were Jon LaPook, Mike Chernick, Craig Oxman, Jonathan Nelson, Ken Stewart, Larry Camesas, Jamie Fisher(!), John (Leo) Madden, Dave Barnett and me. Only a subdued Oxman spoke, and he touched on the craziness of the O’s and B’s in passing.”

At Jon LaPook’s request, the collected Yalies sang a final version of Ride the Chariot.  Similar to a military funeral, where a walking soldier leads a riderless horse, Jamie Fisher led the memorial attendees through the spiritual without the soloist.  Those in attendance said they heard Miles’ voice rising through the rafters, as if he were still with us.

God Bless Miles Watson (Leverett III). We love you, man.

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15 thoughts on “Witness Post: Miles Watson Leverett

  1. Hello, my name is Agnes and I am Miles’ sister. My daughter came across this enjoyable story on your WordPress site. I love my brother and miss him sooooo much. Thank you for sharing.

  2. What a fine memoir of those crazy years and of Miles. Great job putting this out there! It brings back so many memories for me of Yale, of the O’s & B’ and of talking with Miles at reunions. We are all bound together and will sing together and maybe toss a few eggs again!

  3. Thanks very much for this post. I was a gay kid in the Class of ’77, one year behind Miles, and while I was at Yale I thought he had extraordinary courage and presence — and that gorgeous, gorgeous voice. I’m more sorry than I can say that he’s gone.

  4. Hi Henry. I remember you from Yale – I was Morse ’75. I don’t think I knew Miles in college but I feel like I know him now after reading your inspiring essay. What a beautiful tribute to your true friend.

    • Laurie, of course I remember you. I lived with David Nierenberg during his first year in law school and he had dubbed you as a Menzo recipient for your grace under fire, crutches and all.

      Thank you for reading my story about Miles. He was a good man and we miss him dearly.

      — Henry

  5. I knew Miles in the late 1980s. He had a regular gig, singing lead with the legendary back-up band, “Stuff,” once a week at Kenny’s Castaways in NYC’s Greenwich Village. I was walking past the club one night and his voice, coming from inside, literally made me turn on my heel and go in. I had to meet the source of that voice. He was singing R&B classics and he had one of the best voices I’d ever heard. I went to that club every week for at least a year or two to hear him and hang out. On at least one occasion, I brought my then-17 year old daughter to hear him. He also went on tour with the show “Once On This Island” for about 6 months. I’d been a visitor to his apartment on Remsen Street in Brooklyn, and he to mine on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

    One time he made a two-stage “confession” to me. First, that he was gay (no big deal). And, then, a bit later, he told me he had HIV. It was about that time that doctors had come up with a “cocktail” of many medications which likely extended his life until the Rx became more simplified and effective. As years passed and it became a one-pill/day disease that kept people healthy for years (i.e. Magic Johnson) I had hoped and believed that he’d have a normal life. A few weeks after he’d confided his HIV status to me, I accompanied him to a large support group (he asked me to go with him for moral support) because he was going to announce himself to a large number of people at that gathering.

    We had a falling-out by the early 1990s and he moved to L.A. and appeared in a few films and TV shows in smaller roles (and maybe a few commercials?), but I’d always hoped he would land that elusive record deal that he came close to a couple of times.

    Even though we had not been in touch for 20 years, I’m very sorry to learn of his passing. My condolences to his friends and family.

    • Dear Seth,
      Thank you for filling in some important gaps in the story of Miles’ life. You and your daughter stepped into his universe just as some of his college friends stepped away. Your recollections are great, as we can picture Miles crooning at a night club in Greenwich Village, not far from those neon lights he sought. We miss him dearly.
      — Henry

  6. Henry, you’re very welcome. And your blog filled-in many of the years prior to my knowing him. I probably have some cassettes of his demos from that time, including in the recording studio and live at Kenny’s. I’ll have to search around for them. I also have some photos of him rehearsing at my apartment. I don’t know how to post them on here. Do you know what date he passed away? Back then, he was concerned he wouldn’t make it to age 40. When he started with the AZT cocktail I guess it helped bridge him to the next developments in treatment. Was his illness due to a compromised immune system?

  7. Henry, I’m so glad I found this post. I remember Miles and his stunning voice, but even more I remember Mike Chernick, Geoff Piehl, and Kim Oler. My friend Hatsy Tuttle (now a poet) was in New Blue, and I got a taste of the music scene through her. As I recall, I met you through Blair Bell (now Rabbi Berel Bell). Thank you for the memories and the tribute to Miles.

    • Thank you, Karen. A small group of us in ’76 are working on our 40th reunion. I wanted to write tributes to our classmates, no longer with us, who made profound personal impact. Glad you hear your recollections with such clarity.

  8. I just came across this memorial while looking for something else.

    Miles was truly a Force of Nature. Think how lucky and blessed are all of us who knew him!

    Off hand, I cannot think of a single soul that I ever came across who knew him at Yale that was not positively touched in some manner by Miles. How many of the rest of us can say that?

    Rest in peace, my man.

  9. I attended Junior High School (now called Middle School) with Miles. I hadn’t seen him since we all left for High School. I went to UVA and thought about him here and there through college. I graduated, took a commission in the Navy and subsequently retired and reentered the civilian world. All through it, here and there, I thought of old friends. Just this year, Miles popped into my head again, so I ran a search and came upon this article. It was so nice to fill in “Whatever happened to…”. I was, however, deeply saddened, when I got near the end of the article and found that Miles had passed on. Heartbroken is the best description. Obviously, he made a lasting impression on me, as I have fond recollections of him some 50-odd years later.

    • Jamie,
      Thank you for the reply to this Witness Post about Miles. There are many Eli’s who got to know him in college, who hold his memory close to their hearts. He was a great friend to people from New Jersey to New Haven to LA who will never forget his gifts of song and camaraderie.
      — Henry

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