On sale now: Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans
10th April 2012 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
What made Ernie K-Doe tick? Author Ben Sandmel comes as close as anyone could in answering that question about the wonderfully eclectic inner-workings of the artist who declared himself the Emperor of the Universe. Sandmel tells it like it was in his equally comprehensive and hilarious biography, “Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans.”
Through hundreds of interviews, personal experiences, extensive research and a mind to set things as straight as possible, Sandmel delves into the irrepressible K-Doe as a musician who topped the charts with his 1961 zinger “Mother-In-Law,” a flamboyant disc jockey on community radio station WWOZ, a no-holds-bared entertainer, a New Orleans icon with a deep love of his city, a husband, a lover and a man of many, many words.
The conclusion, as repeated by a significant number of fellow musicians and acquaintances is simply that “K-Doe was a nice guy.” This from people who experienced the sometimes exasperating aspects of K-Doe’s bigger than life personality – his bragging, his stretches of the truth, his disregard for anything beyond the here and now of Ernie K-Doe. The vocalist, who knocked out so many audiences with his talent and bravado had one thing absolutely right when he declared, over and over, “I’m cocky but I’m good.”
It’s right on when K-Doe’s charm is compared to that of Muhammad Ali. Few could get away with either of their egotistical flights if it hadn’t been for their mutual way with a phrase, sense of humor and big hearts. A favorite quote from the book has K-Doe declaring on accepting the 1998 Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation: “There have only been five great singers of rhythm and blues — Ernie K-Doe, James Brown and Ernie K-Doe.” Pure, riotous, genius. Sandmel writes: “(Emcee Smokey) Robinson had the giggles for a full five minutes before he could gather himself…”
For those who knew Ernie K-Doe, and there were thousands from around the world and from all walks of life, the biography of the New Orleans rhythm and blues legend has the capacity to evoke a multitude of memories. Readers can turn back the hands of time to reminisce about K-Doe’s music, the gigs in back of town clubs and his wild shows when he played host on WWOZ. In case anyone’s forgotten just how far out his radio programs could get, the book transcribes quite of few of them just to jog one’s memory. Mention of early tunes like “Waiting at the Station” and “There’s a Will, There’s a Way,” on which, writes Sandmel, K-Doe’s vocal style was inspired from his hero, gospel great Archie Brownlee, encourages heading to the record collection or a visit to YouTube.
Like John Broven’s indispensable “Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans” (originally published as “Walking to New Orleans”), the Ernie K-Doe biography digs deep into the recording business and goes to people who were there for the low-down. It’s a treasure trove of information for record collectors and those who want to know the real deal on topics like who wrote what, who played on what.
When there’s speculation on those facts, such as who composed “Mother-In-Law,” Sandmel quotes both sources, in this case K-Doe and longtime collaborator, pianist/arranger Allen Toussaint, and doesn’t shy away from conclusions. “Toussaint did, indeed, write Mother-In-Law,” Sandmel writes definitively.
We not only get to know K-Doe better – that he came up singing gospel, was a cousin of Walter “Wolfman” Washington and gave him a guitar, masked Indian with the Young Sons of Geronimo – but also learn more about a slew of other musicians who were on the scene. Allen Toussaint’s kind and genteel expressions about working with K-Doe show him, as always, as a music master who understood how to work with a certain kind of genius that was Ernie K-Doe. In interviews discussing and telling some hilarious stories about K-Doe, Sandmel makes sure to give background information about his interviewees like Eddie Bo, who caused a stir with his tune “Check Mr. Popeye” and bassist Peter “Chuck” Badie, a modern jazz bassist then playing R&B to keep dinner on the plate. Dr. John, who shares a certain unconventional aura and penchant for word speak with K-Doe, also comes in on the “Charity Hospital baby” and gets him all the way. So while K-Doe is at center stage, the musicians of the era who surrounded him are central to the book’s ensemble.
“Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans” begins at the Mother-In-Law Lounge, a shrine created by his wife Antoinette K-Doe. Most, including the author, would agree that it was Antoinette who, along with his fabulously notorious show on WWOZ, would lift K-Doe to the prominence he so strongly desired following some down, no-hit times. Not that K-Doe ever saw himself as anything but the Emperor of the Universe or performed like he was anywhere but the Apollo Theater where he played decades ago, but these new dynamics changed his fate and confirmed his regal status. Antoinette put that crown on his head again both literally and figuratively as a seamstress, booster and bar manager. She was a mover and shaker for the Ernie K-Doe imperial reign and keep his spirit alive even after his death on July 5, 2001. She sewed outfits for a life-size mannequin of K-Doe that greeted people at the club and accompanied her on many festive occasions.
Photographs of K-Doe from a span of decades and numerous sources also help tell the vocalist’s story. He was a man of the people as can be seen in shots from the noted New Orleans photographer Michael Smith who caught the warmth of K-Doe singing directly to a woman at Tipitina’s in 1977. Smith was also there as the enlivened vocalist bounded over a chain link fence into the arms of an adoring fan in 1974 at the Warehouse.
Ernie K-Doe, a passionate singer, full-on entertainer and a genuinely nice guy pulled off his sometimes outrageous antics because, as he shouted, “I’m cocky but I’m good.” Even in print, K-Doe jumps off the page. In “Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans” —Ben Sandmel catches all the heartfelt moves of the one and only Ernie K-Doe. Burn, K-Doe Burn!
Published by The Historic New Orleans Collection, the book stands as volume two in its Louisiana Musicians Biography Series. Its release will be celebrated at The HNOC, 533 Royal Street, from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 11. Admittance to the free event includes a conversation with the author, book signing and a reception.
This article was originally published in the April 9, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper