Saturday, May 26, 2012

Ernie K-Doe - The R&B Emperor of New Orleans

Having failed to get a free review copy of Ben Sandmel’s new book ‘Ernie K-Doe – The R & B Emperor of New Orleans’ I ordered the book from Amazon. And it was worth the price. It’s probably the best book about my favourite musical style, New Orleans R and B, since John Broven’s  ‘Walking To New Orleans’ of 1974. And, with the benefit of nearly four further decades of research into the subject, it shines a fresh light on those exciting early days, as well as telling the remarkable tale of Ernie K-Doe’s rise to stardom with his number one hit Mother In Law, his fall, literally, into the gutter and his re-emergence, with support from his new wife Antoinette, towards the end of his life.

Ernie was dismissed by many as a garrulous clown, a braggart and a has-been. But for me he summed up what makes New Orleans so special. It’s been said that New Orleans is not really part of the USA but a different country. And its musical heritage is something very special and unlike anywhere else. Ernie came from a poor family and had little education. But he had a self-confidence that outweighed his talent and which helped him maximise his opportunities until drink took its toll. He performed with all the major New Orleans R and B artists including Irma Thomas, Art and Aaron Neville, Robert Parker and Jessie Hill.  After Mother In Law made it big, with vital input from Allen Toussaint and Benny Spellman, he believed that he was truly the greatest and even took on James Brown in a head to head music event. The hits dried up and his fortunes faded, but he stayed in New Orleans and raised his profile during the 1980s as an outrageous DJ on local radio station WWOZ.
I remember reading that he would be appearing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1989 and that prompted me to make the first of many visits to the Big Easy. At Jazzfest K-Doe appeared to be the worse for wear and had to be almost dragged from the stage by Milton Batiste at the end of his set, but his voice was still pretty good with his familiar ‘ack-ack’ interjections and there was no doubting his enthusiasm. In subsequent years I saw him a number of times, including several visits to his Mother In Law Lounge where Antoinette attempted to keep him under control, with limited success. By now he had proclaimed himself ‘Emperor of the World’. On one occasion John Howard and I chatted to him as he sat rather bleary eyed on his ‘throne’ and he performed a homage to Jerry Butler for the whole of his act – in a near-deserted club.
Towards the end of his life he seemed much sharper and more focused. I met him for the last time in 2000 when he was with Antoinette on his way to do a radio interview and he seemed smart and sober. He had by now become the New Orleans legend that he always imagined he should be, having worked with several young bands in the city, and his death the following year was a major event. His fame lived on with his widow commissioning a life sized mannequin which took pride of place in the Mother In Law Lounge, visited various venues and functions in the city and even half-jokingly stood for mayor after the disaster of Katrina and its aftermath.  Antoinette died on Mardi Gras 2009 and her daughter wasn’t able to keep the club going. I was one of a group of Woodies from the UK who met up at the lounge for a final farewell organised by local Woodie Armand St Martin in 2010 and the club closed its door finally in December of that year.
Ben Sandmel’s book brings Ernie’s life and times to vivid life and I found it an enjoyable and un-putdownable read. Ernie was larger than life, He was a drunk for much of the time, but he was possessed with quite a bit of talent, and probably truly believed his claims to greatness. Mother In Law, he said, was one of only two songs that would last forever – the other being Star Spangled Banner.  It’s doubtful whether he could have survived and eventually prospered anywhere else other than in New Orleans. His catchphrases, such as ‘Burn K-Doe Burn’, will be long remembered in the city. And even though his Mother In law Lounge has now closed he will not be forgotten, as he was one of the true characters of New Orleans.


At 11:17 pm , Anonymous Hornsey Howler said...

I look forward to reading it.

At 9:48 pm , Blogger Nick said...

Good to get the following message from Lauren Noel of the New Orleans Historic Collection:
'I just wanted to say a quick thank you for the coverage on The Vinyl Word. I’m glad you enjoyed the book and thought it was worth the price. Let me know if you would like to be on the media list when we announce the next volume in The Collection’s Louisiana Musicians Biography Series, and feel free to contact me if you see anything else of interest in regards to The Collection’s programming or publications. Thank you again for your interest!

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