The Historic New Orleans Collection recently published an outstanding biography of Ernie K-Doe, legendary New Orleans musician, by author and historian Ben Sandmel. Sandmel will discuss the decade-long project at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 9, at Maple Street Books’ New Orleans Healing Center branch (2372 St. Claude Ave.).
Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans
By Ben Sandmel
Historic New Orleans Collection Press
Reviewed by Wesley Stokes
“All you can do is just keep the faith in what you are doing. You set your goal line, and don’t let nobody change you. You know what you say when people tell you can’t do something? Fool, shut your mouth up!” —Ernie K-Doe
During his comeback in 1998, Ernie K-Doe declared himself “Emperor of The Universe.” While he may not have been a Caesar recognized internationally, his rule over New Orleans is indisputable. Ben Sandmel’s appropriately named biography Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans, reveals his protagonist’s world like a fairytale. Known for his over-the-top personality and attire (often wearing capes, crowns, and matching big hair-dos with his wife Antoinette), K-Doe proclaimed his 1961 hit “Mother-In-Law” to be one of two songs to stand the test of time (the other being “The Star-Spangled Banner”).
A stream of books have come out in recent years that attempt to document whole grand swaths of New Orleans’ history, and some of them are very good—Ned Sublette’s The World that Made New Orleans, Richard Campanella’s Bienville’s Dilemma, and Lawrence Powell’s The Accidental City are among the best. But more often than not, New Orleans’ identity is defined by individual stories, personal histories, and singular personalities—fictional and real—whose lives reflect the city that shaped them.
Sandmel’s writing is fluid and enjoyable—the mark of a seasoned historian and storyteller who’s done his research. Equally rewarding as Sandmel’s exposition, however, are the decades of amazing archival photographs and oral histories that position Ernie K-Doe as a king—but a king wholly made by his kingdom, New Orleans. This book succeeds foremost as testament to New Orleans’ rich modern culture, as a crisp and enticing glimpse into a world so often misrepresented or ignored.
While New Orleans was celebrating a return of the king in the 90’s with K-Doe’s revamped career, it would seem that it was no different than how Louisiana often operates—outside of the popular American consciousness. John Woo’s 1993 action hit Hard Target featured a Cajun Jean-Claude Van Damme among the typically depicted New Orleans of the era—down and dirty, with slow revolving ceiling fans, an endless track of blues slide guitar, and over-the-top fake Cajun accents. Even comic books echoed these tropes, like the X-Men character Gambit, a Cajun hustler whose weapon of choice was exploding playing cards, and whose hammed-up dialect in Saturday morning cartoons came across as primitive alien speak.
Meanwhile, news or K-Doe’s resurgence attracted record collectors from Germany, but for the rest of America, the radio played Stain’d and Missy Elliot. As culture changed, New Orleans became a spring break destination for Mardi Gras and the home of jazz but beyond that, wouldn’t enter into much of the national conversation.
Ernie K-Doe died in 2001. This didn’t stop Antoinette from making public appearances with a dummy made up to look like K-Doe, decked out in his own colorful wardrobe complete with weekly manicures for the mannequin hands. She would often set the K-Doe automaton outside of the Mother-In-Law Lounge with a transmitter hidden inside that played looping K-Doe-isms for all passersby to hear. In any other American city, this kind of post-mortem celebration would be considered odd or distasteful, but not in New Orleans. In a place where all things are celebrated, death is no exception. On Mardi Gras Day 2009, Miss Antionette passed away after closing up the bar. Word spread and the week following was filled with as much celebration of Antionette’s legacy as it was mourned for her loss.
The story of Ernie and Antionette K-Doe is special not just because of the music that K-Doe gave us, but because theirs is a story that could only be made in New Orleans, Louisiana. In a world saturated with perspectives about what a place like New Orleans is and isn’t, Sandmel has documented a fragment of a culture that is unique and often misunderstood. While Ernest Kador, Jr. could have been born anywhere, he wouldn’t have been Ernie K-Doe if it wasn’t for this city. To see this life from the outside would seem surreal or completely made up. One would hope that this book somehow makes its way into a rural high school library in Iowa or South Dakota or New Mexico and spreads the message to an unsuspecting youth: Burn K-Doe Burn!