In May 1961, Ernie K-Doe lorded over the national charts with “Mother-in-Law,” a 24-karat nugget of New Orleans rhythm & blues gold mined by Allen Toussaint, the song’s writer and producer. If K-Doe’s lone No. 1 hit was the extent of his story, he would be little more than a footnote in the history of R&B.
But Ernest Kador Jr. enjoyed a robust and unexpected second act as an eccentric, only-in-New Orleans icon, especially after he married the former Antoinette Dorsey, who rescued him from alcoholism and irrelevancy.
As a deejay and favored guest on WWOZ and WTUL, he spouted hyperbole, invented words and such catchphrases as “Burn, K-Doe, Burn!” He held court at the Mother-in-Law Lounge, the shrine to all things K-Doe on North Claiborne Avenue. He adopted, and was adopted by, an assortment of neighborhood characters, young musicians and tattooed hipsters.
Even after his death in 2001, he continued to make appearances via a mannequin replica. Antoinette referred to the mannequin as “Ernie,” dressed it in her late husband’s glittering garments, and squired it around town.
With his passing – and Antoinette’s own death, of a heart attack on Mardi Gras 2009 – the city became that much less interesting.
Journalist, folklorist, musician and producer Ben Sandmel’s new “Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans” ($39.95, The Historic New Orleans Collection) goes a long way toward explaining why.
Published as part of the collection’s Louisiana Musicians Biography Series and informed by dozens of interviews and many hours spent at the feet of the Emperor himself, the book presents K-Doe in all his complexities and idiosyncracies.
The Historic New Orleans Collection hosts a book-release party and signing with Sandmel on Wednesday; he’ll sign books at Octavia Books on Saturday.
At 90,000 words, “Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans” contains far more text than a typical coffeetable book. But with 137 black-and-white and color photographs reproduced on heavy, semi-glossy stock, it’s far more lavish than a typical biography.
Early in the project, which required 10 years of intermittent effort to bring to fruition, Sandmel decided not to organize the book chronologically or compile an exhaustive compendium of dates and chart positions. Facts are studiously researched and annotated, but his primary concern was to capture K-Doe’s irascible spirit and present it to a national audience.
To that end, the book opens with the infamous night K-Doe and Antoinette imprisoned New York Times reporter Neil Strauss at the Mother-in-Law Lounge. The K-Does believed, incorrectly, that Strauss intended to record and bootleg Ernie’s set.
The incident was absurd but, from a certain point of view, perfectly logical. The latter-day K-Doe story, and the book, are filled with such episodes.
“I tried to write it looking at K-Doe as someone who personified the New Orleans tradition of flamboyance and street surrealism,” Sandmel says. “If it was just a book about him being flamboyant, that wouldn’t work. If it was just about him having a hit record, that wouldn’t work. Neither of those would stand alone.
“But the combination of those two, and his epic journey in between, is what made it interesting. When you factor in the Fellini-esque scene at the Lounge, and his incredible history of ups and downs … it’s a real hero’s tale.”
Sandmel has spent decades writing about, and working in, the music industry. He collaborated with photographer Rick Olivier on the 1999 book “Zydeco!” He’s written for many publications, and contributes a recurring music column to Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine.
For 18 years, he managed and played drums for southwest Louisiana Cajun and Western swing band the Hackberry Ramblers. Under his direction, the group recorded a Grammy-nominated album, appeared on MTV and toured domestically and in Europe.
He also books the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’s oral history venue, the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, and is working toward a master of arts degree in musicology from Tulane University.
Sandmel came to know Ernie and Antoinette while hanging out at the Mother-in-Law Lounge in the late 1990s. He was a regular at K-Doe’s Sunday night gig, which often involved an hour-long effort to get the venue’s drum machine to work.
Sandmel booked K-Doe for an interview at the 1997 Jazz Fest, only to have the singer boycott the festival in a dispute over money.
“He demanded a half-million dollars in small bills in a briefcase, in which case he might change his mind,” Sandmel said.
That impasse resolved, Sandmel interviewed K-Doe at a subsequent Jazz Fest. K-Doe showed up at the release party for Sandmel’s “Zydeco!” and began signing the books himself.
“That’s when I thought, ‘This man is a genius,’” Sandmel recalled. “I wish I had a copy of my book autographed by K-Doe.”
One evening at the Mother-in-Law Lounge, K-Doe anointed Sandmel his biographer. “He said something to the effect of, ‘You have to write a book about me.’ It was more a directive than a question.”
Sandmel enjoyed many conversations with K-Doe over the years, but conducted few formal interviews. The most extensive was while waiting for a flight to Washington, D.C., for a K-Doe Fourth of July performance.
Sandmel’s account of that trip appeared on the cover of Gambit Weekly and was later included in Da Capo Press’s “Best Music Writing of 2000” anthology. It served as the jumping-off point for the book.
Though he tended to aggrandize autobiographical details, K-Doe’s other recollections generally proved reliable.
“When K-Doe was not talking about himself, he could be very reflective, calm and insightful,” Sandmel said. “He knew a lot about music and the music scene, and had kind of a photographic memory for detail. You could pretty much depend on it being factual — if not 100 percent right, certainly in a spirit of objectivity. When it got to him, that went out the window.”
Sandmel was scheduled to accompany K-Doe on a guided tour of his old Central City neighborhood in early 2001. But the singer fell ill, and died that summer.
“It was a blow, personally, because by that point I felt close to him. He was a good guy. He had a lot of bluster, but he was a very considerate, nice person. I didn’t interview him nearly as much as I wanted to.”
Gaps are filled by friends, associates and fellow musicians. Fats Domino biographer Rick Coleman granted Sandmel access to his K-Doe interview tapes. Sandmel also sourced interviews conducted by the late documentary filmmaker Stevenson Palfi, and drew on a trove of K-Doe’s legendary WWOZ appearances.
Photos supplied by the Historic New Orleans Collection and other sources range from 1970s snapshots of K-Doe mingling with Paul McCartney and members of Led Zeppelin to the classic 2006 OffBeat magazine cover depicting the widowed Antoinette dining with the K-Doe mannequin at Galatoire’s.
After her husband’s death, Antoinette encouraged Sandmel to finish the book. She occasionally grew frustrated with the slow process.
“Not knowing the book business, she didn’t understand the complexities of trying to get a book deal, or why I didn’t want to self-publish. I said, ‘I don’t know anything about the bar business. I respect your knowledge of the bar business. Please have faith in me that I know what I’m doing with the book business.’”
She and Sandmel spoke weekly in the last months of her life.
“She had a lot of wisdom. Like K-Doe, she had this conviction that nothing is impossible. There’s always another route to get to what you want. Don’t give up.
“In the course of trying to get this book deal and having doubts about whether or not the book would come out, I was inspired by their examples.”
Unfortunately, neither Ernie nor Antoinette lived to see the finished product. Sandmel believes they would be pleased.
“In the same conversation where Ernie said, ‘You need to write about me,’ he said, ‘Give them the good, bad and ugly. Tell them how bad I screwed up. Don’t sugarcoat it.’ So it’s not sugarcoated and it’s not blind hero worship.
“But I had a lot of respect and admiration for K-Doe. Hopefully that comes across in the book.”
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