Black Eagles’ Big Chief Rody dies at 49

Big Chief Jerod “Rody” Lewis, of the Black Eagles Mardi Gras Indian tribe, who had one of the most distinctive and powerful voices in New Orleans’ entire Mardi Gras Indian community, died Nov. 25 at Ochsner Medical Center of a cerebral aneurysm. He was 49.

Lewis was widely known as Big Chief Rody. Although the name was often spelled as Roddy, his family said the Rody spelling was correct. The family also said his first name was correctly spelled Jerod rather than Gerod or Gerard, as some sources had it.

A lifelong resident of New Orleans, Lewis graduated from Booker T. Washington High School.

He was considered his generation’s vocal equivalent of Bo Dollis, the legendary big chief of the Wild Magnolias. A strong, charismatic singer with a rich baritone, Lewis could be heard chanting at Mardi Gras Indian practices, shouting the ancient songs behind various second-line parades and fronting his gang at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

The Black Eagles, along with the White Eagles and the Golden Eagles, are among the oldest Uptown tribes of Indians. The Creole Wild West is recognized as the city’s oldest tribe.

Big Chief Rody’s Indian heritage was rooted in the Calliope — later renamed B.W. Cooper — public housing development. He had led the Black Eagles since the death of his father, Percy “Big Chief Pete” Lewis, in 1981. “Big Chief Pete” was featured prominently in photographer Michael P. Smith’s 1994 book “Mardi Gras Indians.”

Big Chief Rody was one of the few Mardi Gras Indian chiefs to have his vocals recorded for commercial release. The 1998 album “United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” by the Indians of the Nation, featured him along with several other Indian chiefs from both Uptown and Downtown neighborhoods.

Observers said it was remarkable the album was even recorded, given the long-standing rivalries between tribes from the two areas of the city.

Big Chief Rody sang lead on six of the album’s 10 songs, including a powerful tribute to his father, “Pete Came Early That Mornin’.”

More recently, Big Chief Rody was one of the lead vocalists in another ground-breaking group, the Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra. In the group’s earliest incarnation, he was flanked at the edge of the stage by Big Chief David Montana and Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes.

Survivors include his wife, Veronica Lewis; four children, Shannon and Robert Walker and Jockia and Jerod Wilson; six brothers, Reed Watson Jr., Daniel Francois, and Wardell, Raymond, Charles and Percy Lewis; six sisters, Barbara Allen, Yolanda, Faye and Deidra Lewis, Rhonda Gibson and Doris Jeff; and two grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. Saturday at Rhodes Funeral Home, 3933 Washington Ave. The funeral service will be at 9 a.m. Burial will be private.