The R&B Emperor of New Orleans
By Ben Sandmel
The Historical New Orleans Collection. 304 pp. $39.95
Ernie K-Doe, "the R&B Emperor of New Orleans"?
That's a pretty grandiose title for someone who, to the outside world, was a one-hit wonder — even if that 1961 smash, "Mother-in-Law," became the first recording by a Crescent City artist to top both the rhythm-and-blues and pop charts. When it comes to New Orleans R&B royalty, people are more likely to think of names such as Allen Toussaint (who wrote and produced "Mother-in-Law"), Dr. John, or the Neville Brothers.
Actually, author Ben Sandmel's title plays off an even loftier appellation the late K-Doe had given himself — Emperor of the World.
That might lead you to assume this was an insufferably egotistical or sadly deluded individual — or both. Such was not the case, however. The Big Easy-based Sandmel, a musician himself, paints a meticulously researched yet enormously entertaining portrait of an artist who, for all his outrageous self-absorption, was ultimately a good-hearted guy and talented artist who was hard not to like.
It's also a uniquely and quintessentially New Orleans story. In telling it, Sandmel brings the reader into the Crescent City's rich musical milieu — he interviewed scores of musicians as well as the late K-Doe's family and friends — and also examines the city's African American culture and the roots of its traditions, helping to explain K-Doe's particular flamboyance.
And it's a story told not only through Sandmel's straightforward prose but also through the many stunning photographs, both color and black-and-white, that fill this beautifully illustrated book.
As Sandmel notes, "Though Ernie K-Doe always sang with great feeling, he did not possess a truly great voice. His range was average." But the gospel-rooted K-Doe had other attributes that weren't readily apparent just from listening to his records.
"K-Doe knew how to work a house," Dr. John recalls, "and to me that was one of the high points of what he contributated to New Orleans music."
Toussaint concurs: "I have never seen someone with that much energy and ambition who commanded the stage so well."
Ernest Kador was born in 1936 in New Orleans' Charity Hospital — throughout his life, he proudly proclaimed himself "a Charity Hospital baby" — and in many ways his life followed the classic "Behind the Music" arc: rise to stardom, hard fall, and redemption. There was also a bizarre, only-in-New Orleans sort-of afterlife (more on that in a minute).
K-Doe made many fine records after "Mother-in-Law," but he never came close to matching that song's success, and by the '70s he was destitute, dogged by alcoholism and sometimes homeless.
In the '90s he became a hero and mentor to some of New Orleans' young white rockers, but his comeback really began in the '80s, when he hosted a radio show on the city's WWOZ-FM that helped redefine "out there." His stream-of-consciousness monologues and dialogues — sometimes he argued with himself — became the stuff of legend, and fans avidly traded tapes of the show.
One admirer was the musician Bruce Hornsby. "To me," Hornsby tells Sandmel, "Ernie K-Doe was a good, solid singer, but there were a thousand and one of them. What was special was the hilarious persona that he affected as a DJ. 'Mother-in-Law' was just a springboard, a tiny kernel of achievement, that allowed K-Doe to be a star twenty-something years after his big hit. … None of us would have been interested in K-Doe without the radio show. It's all about showbiz, creating an image, and taking that extra nutty step."
Speaking of nutty, after K-Doe's death in 2001, his second wife, Antoinette, commissioned a life-size statue of the singer. It sat for years, regally greeting visitors to the couple's since-closed Mother-in-Law Lounge, decked out in K-Doe's flashy stage clothes.
So, for several years after his death, Ernie K-Doe still drew the kind of attention he craved in life.
Antoinette, who died in 2009, told the author: "Of course I know that K-Doe's dead. But the fans don't consider it a statue; to them it's Ernie K-Doe. I want people to remember K-Doe as a legend; I want his music and legacy to live on."
With this fascinating biography, Sandmel has done his part to make sure that happens.