There ain’t but two songs that will stand the test of time, until the end of the world. One of them is “The Star Spangled Banner.” The other one is “Mother-in-Law.”
May 1961, and one tune was sitting pretty atop both the R&B and pop charts. “Mother-in-Law” became the first hit by a New Orleans artist to achieve this feat—to rule black and white airwaves alike. Ernie K-Doe was only twenty-five years old, and his reign was just beginning.
Born in New Orleans’s Charity Hospital, K-Doe came of age in a still-segregated South. He built his musical chops singing gospel in church, graduating to late-night gigs on the city’s backstreets. He practiced self-projection, reinvention, shedding his surname, Kador, for the radio-friendly tag K-Doe. He coined his own dialect, heavy on hyperbole, and created his own pantheon, placing himself front and center: “There have only been five great singers of rhythm & blues—Ernie K-Doe, James Brown, and Ernie K-Doe!” Decades after releasing his one-and-only chart-topper, he crowned himself Emperor of the Universe. A decade after his death, lovers of New Orleans music remain his loyal subjects.
Journalist Ben Sandmel takes readers backstage in this intimately framed biography. Here are all the highs: Billboard raves, rock-star parties, a string of early hits that remain local staples: “A Certain Girl,” “Te Ta Te Ta Ta,” “T’aint It the Truth.” And here are the lows: profligate spending, go-nowhere releases, and years lost to alcohol. And here, too, is the magical second act: a radio show with a cult following, a new generation of protégés, and a fresh lease on life—and love—with Antoinette Dorsey Fox.
In its broad outlines, K-Doe’s story parallels that of his beloved, beleaguered city. Granted talent—and a boatload of personality—he cannily exploited limited resources. He rose, fell, and rose again, weathering storms and lingering long after most considered him down for the count. In the end, he literally rose from the dead: an eerily lifelike statue of K-Doe held court at his castle, the Mother-in-Law Lounge, for years after his 2001 passing.
Volume two in the Louisiana Musicians Biography Series, Ernie K-Doe: R&B Emperor of New Orleans features exclusive interviews with Ernie, Antoinette, and more than a hundred musicians, friends, and family members. The series, launched in 2010, exemplifies The Historic New Orleans Collection’s commitment to preserving and celebrating the region’s unique musical culture. Interview transcripts, sound recordings, and memorabilia from the Mother-in-Law Lounge are available to the public at The Collection’s Williams Research Center.
For one week in 1961, the New Orleans singer Ernie K-Doe was the Number One voice in America, with the funky domestic complaint "Mother-in-Law." In his mind, K-Doe--a man of extravagant ego and underrated vocal grit who later performed for Paul McCartney and Led Zeppelin--never lost his crown...Sandmel vividly captures K-Doe's wild rise out of poverty, the riches on his many 45s, and his long, strange rebirth as a Crescent City treasure.
- editorial staff
Though he's best known outside of New Orleans for his 1961 hit "Mother-in-Law," Ernest Kador Jr., aka Ernie K-Doe, was a legendary figure in the Crescent City. Known for his wild performances, self-aggrandizing, and free-association radio broadcasts—not to mention his Mother-In-Law Lounge (essentially a shrine to the performer and his musical career, in which he frequently held court)—, Ernie K-Doe couldn't have existed anywhere other than in New Orleans. Here, local music expert S
Los Angeles Times
- Lynell George
Lyrically evoked, Sandmel's take on Ernie K-Doe isn't simply a study of the performer's vocal prowess and outsized persona, but it allows the reader to wind through the streets of New Orleans during its golden era of R&B--the late 1940s into the 1960s--to really hear the distinct rhythm of the patois, feel the humidity of some after-hours hole in the wall where the musicians vamp and history was revving up.
- Edna Gundersen
When Ernie K-Doe shot to stardom in 1961 with "Mother-in-Law," he became the first New Orleans artist to top both black and white charts. Though best remembered for that waggish, sneering hit, it's only a fragment of the R&B legend's odd odyssey, explored with authority and affection in Ben Sandmel's book title, "Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans."...The exhaustive biography chronicles K-Doe's kaleidoscopic history of fame and failure, beguiling eccentricity, and boundless self-regard.
Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans–based journalist, folklorist, drummer, and producer. His articles about Louisiana music have appeared in national publications, including The Atlantic, and have been anthologized in such collections as Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 and From Jubilee to Hip Hop: Readings in African American Music (Prentice Hall 2010). Sandmel has written liner notes for over a hundred albums in a wide range of traditional-music genres. He is also the author of Zydeco! (University Press of Mississippi 1999), a collaborative book with photographer Rick Olivier.
Since 1983 Sandmel has worked for the state-funded Louisiana Folklife Program as a field researcher and writer, documenting traditional music and occupational folklore, the latter based on his experience as a riverboat deckhand. Sandmel currently produces the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, an oral history/interview venue at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He has produced and played on four albums, including the Grammy-nominated Deep Water by the Cajun/western swing band the Hackberry Ramblers. Sandmel is currently enrolled in the masters program in musicology at Tulane University.