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.
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.
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!’”
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.