When Ernie K-Doe died in July 2001, Mayor Marc Morial opened Gallier Hall for the wake. The city’s 19th-century Greek Revival temple – the old city hall, now the major’s ceremonial venue complete with paintings of generals and mayors – was a fitting place for the masses to mourn the self-styled Emperor of the Universe.
In a media culture that promotes a meat parade of people famous for being famous, K-Doe made himself a folk celebrity by sheer force of personality.
As Ben Sandmel reports in Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans, he came about success the hard way. The out-of-wedlock son of a preacher named Kador, he grew up in poverty, left school early and sang in gospel churches. After changing his name to K-Doe, he scored a 1961 rhythm-and-blues hit, “Mother-in-Law,” that fueled him on the concert circuit. Doing splits, changing outfits between songs, K-Doe was a bravura Trojan who saw James Brown as his competition. K-Doe hit his stride in a town teeming with competition – Art and Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, Benny Spellman, Tommy Ridgely and Allen Toussaint – who wrote many of their songs. But as the ’60s dragged on, K-Doe missed the chart-busting sequel; his record sales sputtered. His antics and braggadocio made him a figure of ridicule among certain other musicians. He plunged into debt from unpaid taxes and crashed on booze. For a time things were so bad he was literally homeless, sleeping on the streets.
In 1982, WWOZ radio station gave K-Doe an unpaid deejay slot. His stream-of-consciousness monologues hit the town like comic thunder; people taped his shows and swapped them. Nobody else in local media was as exciting as K-Doe. He was obsessed with his nativity in ’86:“8:15 in the morning time, Charity Hospital went to rumblin’ and a-grumblin’! The building started to bendin’, the walls started shakin’, and the doctors said, ‘What’s wrong? What’s happening?’ The people told them doctors, ‘A boy child is being born on the third floor, at this particular time!’”
His coda began as a cackle – “Ha! I’m cocky but you know I’m good!” – and ended in a roar: “Burn, K-Doe, Burn!”
For all of the grandiose verbal theatre, K-Doe was hitting on primal tissues of the black psyche. Built in the 1930s under Huey Long, Charity Hospital, where generations of poor women gave birth, is now the Louisiana State University Hospital in Mid-City.
K-Doe the self-styled ”Charity Hospital baby” became a voice of the city in the 1980s. Sandmel’s witty, ambitious biography treats K-Doe as a serious singer who staged a comeback in the grass roots culture that arose around the Mother-in-Law Lounge. Sandmel uses a deft hand in moving musicians, pitchmen, journalists, rappers and artists across a narrative stage, melding K-Doe’s life with a rocking story of the town.
“In New Orleans your worth is not based on how much money you got but on how much respect you get,” the artist Willie Birch explains. “It’s a warrior culture where the men are like peacocks, and K-Doe was a peacock for sure.“
His savior, Antoinette Dorsey, had raised 27 foster children when they met. Steering K-Doe to relative sobriety, she married him and managed their venture, the Mother-in-Law Lounge, in the shadow of the Interstate-10 overpass in the back of Tremé. K-Doe held court amid a floor-show of surrealism. The K-Does became local celebrities. At a Garden District reception for Ken Burns, the filmmaker met K-Doe, who was unclear on whom Burns was. Burns mentioned his documentaries and said that he lived in New Hampshire. ”Don’t worry about it, son. That ain’t nothin’ to be ashamed of,” replied K-Doe.
Sandmel’s is the second work in The Historic New Orleans Collection’s new line of books on music – an idea long past due. Alison Cody’s handsome design uses an array of photographs to convey a culture. Jessica Dorman, THNOC director of publications, and editor Sarah Doerries deserve a special shout-out.
After his death, artist Jason Poirier created an Ernie K-Doe mannequin that sat in the Mother-in-Law and accompanied Antoinette to public appearances. She fussed over “the statue“ – shaggy black hair, trim mustache, dreamboat smile – dressing it in Ernie’s suits for parades or when they sat at Galatoire’s Restaurant for a magazine shoot. To paraphrase Faulkner, K-Doe is never dead, even though he passed.
Antoinette rode out Hurricane Katrina at the club, evacuating after days without power. Friends helped her reopen the Mother-in-Law. Charity Hospital took flood damage, but the military and volunteer medical staff did repairs that had it ready for service in autumn 2005. The state shut it down and then landed $456 million in FEMA remediation funds that went to defray costs for the new hospital. Its cost overruns are projected to drain $100 million from state coffers.
After Antoinette died in 2009, the Mother-in-Law is closed, but is now set to reopen under the new proprietor, Kermit Ruffins. The murals still face Claiborne Avenue like peacocks on parade.