This year marks the 14th anniversary of I last saw Ernie K-Doe perform at the Jazz Fest. To paraphrase one of his greatest songs, “but now he’s gone, we feel so bad.” Nevertheless his legacy lives on and will get more attention this year with the publication of Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans by veteran music writer Ben Sandmel.
I’ll begin by conceding that Ernie K-Doe is a subject about which I am hardly impartial. His “T’ain't it the Truth” is my all-time favorite New Orleans rhythm-and-blues-era recording. The song about lost love begins with a female chorus lamenting, “But now she’s gone you feel so bad, because she’s the best girl you ever had,” setting the tone for K-Doe’s melancholy wailing to follow.
K-Doe, who died in July 2001, was a master showman, a throwback to the days when showmen were flashier. He was from the Little Richard school of decorum and humility. Arriving on the stage at the Jazz Fest, a scarlet cape covered his red suit. A gold crown, not too different in design from what Comus wears, sparkled above his shoulder-length hair. The cape was removed for the performance, a gesture that made possible the dramatic conclusion an hour later when he would be draped again for his farewell.
His performance was draped with K-Doeisms, the most famous being his classic reminder that “I was a Charity Hospital baby.” When he had his radio show on WWOZ, K-Doe frequently announced that to his audience. The performer reassured the Jazz Fest crowd that nothing had changed in that regard. He still was a former Charity Hospital baby. That pronouncement sent the crowd into such an ecstasy that it made the bureaucratic grumps who had recently changed Charity’s name to the clinically tedious Medical Center of Louisiana look foolish. The cadence in that fabricated name would never work for K-Doe. His statement assured us of some security in a world in which, even pre-Katrina, changes were coming too fast: Charity Hospital it was; Charity Hospital it would always be.
“I’ve never had a flop!” K-Doe announced to the crowd. Well, not a flop that most of us can remember, because flops by their nature are quickly forgotten. Success has nevertheless been the rule, although his biggest hit was not his best song. In April 1961, K-Doe’s novelty piece “Mother in Law” rose to No. 1 in the nation. Though K-Doe might never admit it, fellow R&B-er Benny Spellman, whose deep bass pronunciations of the phrase “Mother in Law” gave the song its punctuation, should share the accolades for that piece.
None of K-Doe’s other recordings made it to the very top, although four others, including “Te-Ta-Te-Ta-Ta” and “A Certain Girl,” penetrated the top 100. And just what does the title of the former song mean? According to the lyrics, “Te-Ta…” was the response of his female interest, “every time she cha-cha chas.” The interpretation of that was left to the listener.
At one point during his show K-Doe gave credit to his mother and to his father, “the Reverend Ernie K-Doe Sr.” We could appreciate that gesture, for without them there would not have been this particular Charity Hospital baby. What was curious though was that in mentioning his dad the singer, whose family name was Kador, he retroactively renamed his old man to fit his stage persona. Here was a rare case of a father named in honor of his son.
As the performance was coming to a close, we of the audience could see a woman at the back corner of the stage preparing to bring the cape back to K-Doe. Not that he was bragging or anything, but in his parting moments K-Doe told the crowd matter-of-factly,” I am the best thing that ever happened to New Orleans, in all its history. I’m the best thing that ever happened!!!”
Here I had pause for debate. Prior to K-Doe’s declaration I might have ranked the city’s most fortunate moments differently. No. 1 on my list would have been the construction of a pumping system. Second would have been the finding of a cure for yellow fever. But maybe I was being short-sighted. Neither the pumps nor the cure ever reached the top of the national charts. I still think, however, that the pumps, which made possible the city's expansion and which helped drain the streets quicker than expected after the Katrina flooding, should be No. 1.
With his crown in place and the cape draped over him, K-Doe paused to accept the adulation of the crowd. I applauded vigorously too. I did so for “T’ain't It the Truth,” and because of the rare opportunity to acknowledge the second best thing that ever happened to New Orleans.
Let us know what you think. Any comments about this article? Write to email@example.com. For the subject line use K-DOE. All responses are subject to being published, as edited, in this newsletter. Please include your name and location.