Larger than Life K-Doe is patron saint of this blog

Meet Ernie K-Doe, a New Orleans performer and a character in a city of characters. He is now officially designated: Patron Saint of this Blog.

I have no idea what the criterion is to be a blog’s patron saint or even if this is a good idea. I suspect for someone who called himself Emperor of the World, Ernie might consider this gig slumming.  Then again, from what I’ve read, he was a generous and warm fellow despite his boastful swagger.

Ernie K-Doe’s claim to fame is the song Mother-in-Law (written by Allen Toussaint) which became the best-selling record in America in May 1961, topping the pop chart for one week and the R&B chart for five weeks.  No other New Orleans artist has ever reached the top with a song recorded in New Orleans. Fats Domino sold a mountain of records but never had a number one hit.

And Ernie K-Doe never let you forget his claim to fame. Not in his performances nor in his outrageous stints as a volunteer deejay for community radio stations WWOZ and WTUL–where his code phrase was “Burn K-Doe Burn.” He would say there are only two songs that will stand the test of time: Star Spangled Banner and Mother-in-Law.

But its not his R&B career that qualifies him as patron saint though it is an essential part of his resume. It has more to do with his stint as a community radio deejay given that this blog supports my radio show Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa.  But what puts him over the top for patron canonization is what the Times-Picayune describes as “a robust and unexpected second act as an eccentric, only-in-New Orleans icon.”

Ernie’s turning point was meeting Antoinette Dorsey Fox–a woman with many talents including her ability to sew outlandish outfits to match his personality and to provide love and focus to a man who had taken the textbook life crash of a one-hit wonder.

Ernie in full Emperor regalia outside Mother-in-Law Lounge

Antoinette opened the Mother-in-Law Lounge at 1500 N. Claiborne Street in the shadow of Interstate 10 where K-Doe could perform as well as tend bar.  The lounge became a kitschy memorial to his career, including outsized murals of K-Doe and a jukebox that played his hit every 20 minutes — sometimes accompanied by the real-time K-Doe who kept a wired microphone nearby.

Despite being renovated after Katrina, the lounge closed after Antoinette died in 2009. Kermit Ruffins later bought it and reopened it this year with many of the murals restored.

I recommend reading Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans by Ben Sandmel. The New Orleans writer/folklorist makes it easy to feel a connection to Ernie even though we’ve missed our chance to meet or see him perform. He died in 2001.

Not that death stopped him. A local sculptor was able to adapt a mannequin into a life-size and lifelike rendition of Ernie. For a few years after his death, Antoinette dressed and brought the statute to gatherings around town, including a fundraiser for the benefit of New Orleans cemeteries.  In 2002, the benefit was held at Saint Alphonsus Catholic Church where I once subbed as an altar boy in the 60’s. Apparently the church was also used by Anne Rice as a setting in her novel The Witching Hour.

Antoinette with the Ernie K-Doe statue

Sandmel takes the story from here:   

“Although decommissioned as a place of worship and then reinvented as an arts center, Saint Alphonsus kept its full array of Catholic statuary in place. This holy horde looked on as the Madame Tussaud-esque K-Doe was plunked down in its sacred midst. A bodyguard named Cisco accompanied Ernie’s effigy. He stood stock-still by his charge’s side lest anyone should feel prone to K-Doe kleptomania. But almost everyone else at the church was in frenetic motion.  A zydeco band set up in front of the altar and cranked out upbeat two-steps and slow, low-down blues. This irresistibly danceable blend inspired the cemeteries’ more extroverted friends to twirl, bump and grind by the baptismal font, with their Lestat costumes and Goth garb all a-flutter.  At evening’s end Antoinette disassembled and packed up the statue like all mannequins, it is sectional–with the disarming comment, ‘I’m working poor Ernie to death!’”

Ernie and Antoinette

Poor Ernie. Now you gotta be my patron saint as well. I’ll be playing Ernie’s Certain Girl — a New Orleans favorite on the September 15th show on KAOS starting at 10 a.m.

POST SCRIPT: And I’ll honor his birthday on the February 23rd show.

You needn’t be from New Orleans to say it right

I like to think that I come from the Gershwin school of pronunciations, as in “You like ‘to-may-toes’ and I like ‘to-mah-toes’.” But I have to admit I did ask my daughter-in-law to stop saying New Or-leens. For me, it’s the equivalent of fingernails on the chalkboard.

I couldn’t really blame her. “New Or-leens” is what most people say because its most often sung that way. Probably because it has better rhyming capability as in “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.”

Pronunciations in New Orleans can be tricky. Take street names, for instance.

It's easier to pronounce if you do the first syllable as
It’s easier to pronounce if you do the first syllable as “Chop”

Tchoupitoulas Street, home of the legendary Tipitina’s club, looks daunting until you know to start it by saying “chop.” Other streets are harder than they look. Carondelet is pronounced with an “et” at the end. Chartres is “Charters.” Even the seemingly easy Burgundy Street ain’t said right unless you accent the “gun.” Here’s a short video on street pronunciations, featuring Soul Rebel drummers Derrick Moss and Lumar Leblanc.

But back to saying “New Orleans”, even natives will say it differently because of the variety of accents that reside in the city. In the 60’s when I was an altar boy for an itinerant priest, we had a gig at St. Alphonsus Church on Constance Street in the Irish Channel. Having never been in the neighborhood before, I remember how shocked I was to hear the other altar boys sound like Bobby Kennedy. And I lived only three miles away.

The expression
The expression “Where Y’at” also is the title of New Orleans entertainment guide magazine.

Then there is “Yat” — considered a unique New Orleans dialect and accent, popularized in the novel, Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The accent “is hard to distinguish from the accent of Hoboken, Jersey City, and Astoria, Long Island” according to A.J. Liebling author of “The Earl of Louisiana” and quoted in Confederacy of Dunces.

Ray Blount, Jr. in his ode to New Orleans (Feet on the Street) notes that the typical New Orleans accent is particularly noticeable with the word “quarter” as in “French Quarter” (or two bits). “It comes closer to rhyming with ‘porter’ than with ‘garter,’ but it’s more ‘Quo-tah,’ with an ‘o’ sound that’s semi-extended, as if you’re saying ‘oar’ or ‘o’er’ more like it, but not finishing off the ‘r’ sound.”

What were we talking about, oh yea, how to pronounce New Orleans. Oh hell say it, or sing it, the way you want. For me, I prefer extending the “w” into the second syllable as in “Nu-Wah-Lens the way Lil Queenie does it when she sings “My Darlin’ New Orleans.”

Just don’t say “Nawlins” unless you and your companions have downed too many Abitas.

HEAR ME MISPRONOUNCE ALL SORTS OF NEW ORLEANS WORDS ON SWEENEY’S GUMBO YAYA, MONDAY, 10 A.M. TO NOON (PST) ON KAOS, 89.3 FM

What makes New Orleans drummers and drumming unique?

There’s something special about New Orleans drummers.  A statement I read and hear regularly and while my untrained ear suggests that is true, I cannot in my own words explain why.

Drum Magazine has made it easy for me though by interviewing four of New Orleans top drummers. The magazine pulled together musicians who have handled the beat for The Meters, Professor Longhair, Wynton Marsalis, Papa Grows Funk, Galactic and countless other projects.  Some of the conversation gets a little beyond my understanding but if you’re a drummer, I recommend you read the interview.  Here’s a lay summary of it:

While New Orleans wasn’t much different as other Southern locales for discouraging the continuation of African culture, the city was unique in that it did allow for New Orleans slaves and people of color to congregate at a central location, known as Congo Square, on Sundays to share, among other things, music.  From this setting, Caribbean and African rhythms and syncopation met European harmonies and melodies.

The key distinction of New Orleans drumming is an emphasis on the bass drum which in the New Orleans parade tradition is the heart and soul of the show.  The bass “is the main voice; and the snare drum is the polish.” Interestingly, in the marching band, second line tradition, the bass drummer and snare drummer are two separate musicians.

“Bottom line is it has to be a pelvic thing. . . What makes me unconsciously decide whether it’s good or bad is when I’m having a conversation [at a gig] far away from the music with someone who’s totally distracting me, and in the meantime I’m moving my butt. Then I know it’s the science of true, organic swing.”

Drumming that gets your butt moving.  Yea, that’s what I’m talking about.

Welcome to Gumbo YaYa

I’m Tim Sweeney and this blog is to support a radio show I’m starting on Monday called Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa.  I’m incredibly excited as well as nervous.  Nothing like getting what I want and then freaking out about whether I can do it right.

After retiring from a 30-year stint as State of Washington employee on Halloween 2013, I signed up for and took the KAOS deejay training class –which qualified me, upon completion, to host programs on one of the best known and regarded community radio stations in the country. KAOS has been on the air since January 1, 1973 and is located on the campus of The Evergreen State College.  The station uses trained volunteer deejays from the college and the community and offers a diverse free-form radio format.

From the start, I’ve wanted to do a show that would allow me to pursue my love for New Orleans and its music.  I was born in New Orleans and lived there until I was 10.  I went back frequently until I moved to the Northwest 35 years ago and didn’t return until the first Jazzfest after Kartina (April 2006). I’ve been back several times since, always to catch as much music (and food) as possible.

Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa premieres on KAOS, 89.3 FM (www.kaosradio.org) at 10 a.m. (PST).  The two-hour live program will air every Monday after that.  The show will feature  music from and about New Orleans, including blues, jazz, R&B, hip hop, folk, cajun/zydeco, Mardi Gras Indian, rock, and everything in between-new and old.

I’m hoping you’ll catch all or part of the show as you can and let me know what you think.   I’ll be using this blog to support that show, provide more details, photos, links etc.

See you on the radio.