Music
1:57 pm
Mon December 24, 2012

The Rise, Fall And Redemption Of New Orleans' 'R&B Emperor'

Originally published on Mon December 24, 2012 12:33 pm

Even in a city known for its eccentrics, Ernie K-Doe was in another dimension. The New Orleans musician always knew — and said, loudly — that he was special. And for one week in a life of wild ups and downs, he managed to pierce the national consciousness with a chart-topping hit: 1961's "Mother in Law."

The man born Ernest Kador sometimes claimed he wrote "Mother-in-Law" — but he claimed a lot of things. In fact, Allen Toussaint composed and produced the song, and, after a few unsatisfactory takes, literally threw it away. It was rescued from oblivion by one of the backup singers at the session.

"He thought it was just a delightful song, and he took it out of the trash can when I took a short break, and went over to K-Doe and said, 'Look, try this again, man,'" Toussaint says. "K-Doe did just that, and I'm so glad he did."

The song was dismissed as a danceable novelty. But Ben Sandmel, author of the new biography Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans, says it was deeper than that: angry, and smoldering.

"In 1961, to say that your mother-in-law was 'sent from down below' was kind of pushing the standards, I guess, of what was considered to be acceptable," Sandmel says. "In a time of meaningless bubblegum lyrics, this one had an edge to it. And it was real."

It was one of four songs that Toussaint and K-Doe recorded in one three-hour session.

"We certainly had a good time together. I wrote so much for him, and I was highly inspired," Toussaint says. "He was [good at] promoting himself. He would get out there; he wouldn't watch the grass grow."

When Toussaint went into the army, K-Doe continued recording, without much success. The two got back together in the early 1970s, but none of the songs they produced became hits outside of New Orleans. Within their hometown, however, many of their tunes have become standards. Guitarist Ernie Vincent, who has played them in his own band and others, got to know K-Doe in the '70s.

"He was strictly positive about his self-ability," Vincent says. "He always said, 'I'm cocky, but I'm good.' And believe me, he was good."

But he also had some tough times. The British invasion's version of R&B became more popular than homegrown music, and by the mid-'70s, K-Doe had pretty much dropped out. He drank a lot, and many people remember seeing the once-dapper musician living on the streets.

K-Doe made a comeback in the 1980s on the New Orleans station WWOZ. David Freedman is now the station's general manager.

"You never knew what the next thing was going to be out of this guy's mouth. It was like he was in a trance state," Freedman says. "You had to kind of enter into it, and then as you began to enter into that crazy universe, you'd just kind of surrender to it [and] it all made sense."

K-Doe's run on the radio ended in the late '80s, though cassette tapes of his shows continued to be collected and played around the world. In the early 1990s, his life took another turn when an old friend, Antoinette Dorsey Fox, took him in. They got married, and she created a new look for her husband, replete with capes, shiny suits and feathered hats. And she created the Mother-in-Law Lounge, where K-Doe would perform once again.

"I forget how many people it holds, but it used to be wall-to-wall — it was packed," says Eva Perry, who sang backup for K-Doe during that era. "He had people coming from everywhere to hear him, since he was back his second time around."

Ernie K-Doe died in 2001 at the age of 65, but he didn't exactly leave: His wife commissioned a likeness, fashioned from a department-store mannequin, that she installed in the lounge.

"Everybody wanted to take a picture with Ernie — you know, his mannequin," Perry says. "We all took pictures with him."

The Mother-in-Law Lounge still stands, and there are rumors it will reopen — but without the statue.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When it comes to music books, one of the best of the year, according to some critics, is a biography of Ernie K-Doe by Ben Sandmel. K-Doe was known as the R&B emperor of New Orleans. He pierced the national consciousness in 1961 with his chart-topping hit, "Mother-in-Law." His life was a wild ride of ups and downs, as Karen Michel discovered when she visited New Orleans.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Even in a city known for its eccentrics, Ernie K-Doe was in another dimension. He always knew, and said loudly, that he was special. And for one week in his life, he was on top of the charts with "Mother-in-Law."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER-IN-LAW")

ERNIE K-DOE: (Singing) Mother in law, mother in law, the worst person I know, mother in law, mother in law...

MICHEL: His real name was Ernest Kador. But the story goes people kept screwing it up so he turned it into K-Doe. He sometimes claimed he wrote "Mother in Law," and he claimed a lot of things, but Allen Toussaint composed and produced the song. And after a few unsatisfactory takes, threw it away.

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: I just balled it up and put it in the trash can, like I did with many efforts back then. But one of the backup singers, Willie Hopper, he thought it was just a delightful song and he took it out of the trashcan when I took a short break, and went over to K-Doe and said, look, try this again, man. And just calm down and please give it a try again, 'cause it's a good song. And K-Doe did just that, and I'm so glad he did.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER IN LAW")

K-DOE: (Singing) Satan should be her name, mother in law, mother in law. To me, they're about the same, mother in law, mother in law...

MICHEL: The song was dismissed as a danceable novelty, but Ernie D-Doe's biographer, Ben Sandmel, said it was deeper than that: angry and smoldering.

BEN SANDMEL: In 1961, to say that your mother in law was sent from down below was kind of pushing the standards, I guess, of what was considered to be acceptable. In a time of meaningless bubble gum lyrics, this one had an edge to it and it was real.

MICHEL: It was one of four songs that Toussaint and K-Doe recorded in one three-hour session.

TOUSSAINT: I kind of thought "Hello My Lover" was the better song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO MY LOVER")

K-DOE: (Singing) Hello, my lover, wherever you are, wherever, wherever you are. I said, hello, my dear, a fool by heart, wherever, wherever you are. But I'm done up in my mind, I can play the game of love and lost and now I'm crying.

TOUSSAINT: We certainly had a good time together and I wrote so much for him, and I was highly inspired, especially after he got it going because he was heavily on promoting himself. So, he would get out there. He didn't watch grass grow. He was all over place. So, he did what he could with whatever he had to work with.

MICHEL: Toussaint went into the army and K-Doe continued recording without much success. The two got back together in the early 1970s, but none of the songs they produced became a hit outside of New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COME THE GIRLS")

K-DOE: (Singing) Here come the girls, girls, girls, girls, girls. Here come the girls, girls, girls, girls, girls. Looking so good, it's a doggone shame that they couldn't all be mine...

MICHEL: In New Orleans, many of K-Doe's tunes have become standards. Guitarist Ernie Vincent has played them in his own bands and others and got to know K-Doe in the 1970s.

ERNIE VINCENT: He was particularly positive about himself - about his self-ability, that he was better. He always said I'm cocky but I'm good. And, believe me, he was good.

MICHEL: But K-Doe had some tough times. The British invasion's version of R&B became more popular than homegrown music, and by the mid-1970s K-Doe had pretty much dropped out. He drank a lot and people remember seeing the once dapper musician living on the streets. But he made a comeback in the 1980s on New Orleans station WWOZ.

K-DOE: There ain't nobody know nothing about no WWOZ radio station before I come on here. But I'm here today. I'm here today.

MICHEL: David Freedman is now the station's general manager.

DAVID FREEDMAN: You never knew what the next thing was going to be out of this guy's mouth. It was like he was in a trance state. And when he would trance out, it was like he was a genius at putting things together. It was kind of like you had to kind of enter into it. And then as you began to, like, enter into that crazy universe, you began to, like, you know, you just kind of surrendered to it but it all made sense. And then you were in deep trouble.

K-DOE: I'm so good, I got to pinch myself in the morning to see if I'm still alive. Boy, K-Doe, boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MICHEL: K-Doe's run on the radio ended in the late 1980s. Cassette tapes of his shows were collected and played around the world. And in the early 1990s, K-Doe's life took another turn, when an old friend, Antoinette Dorsey Fox, took him in. They got married, she created a new look for her husband, replete with capes, shiny suits and feathered hats, and she opened the Mother-in-Law Lounge, where once again Ernie K-Doe performed. One of his backup singers was Eva Perry.

EVA PERRY: I forget how many people it hold, but it used to be wall to wall. It was packed nicely. He had people coming from everywhere to hear him since he was back his second time around.

MICHEL: Ernie K-Doe died in 2001 at the age of 65, but he didn't exactly leave. His wife commissioned a likeness, fashioned from a department store mannequin, that she installed in the lounge.

PERRY: Everywhere she go, we have to help her push this mannequin in a wheelchair. You know, I mean, everywhere, you know. I mean, she did chores with the mannequin. And everybody wanted to take a picture with Ernie, you know, his mannequin, everybody, everybody. We all took pictures with him.

MICHEL: The mother in law lounge still stands, and there are rumors it will reopen, but without the statue. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

K-DOE: Boy, K-Doe, boy. I want all the naugahydes to call me up and let me wish you a very Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And from all us at WEEKEND EDITION, happy holidays. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.