There’s more to Ernie K-Doe than his 1961 No. 1 song, Mother-in-Law, and you can read about it in Ben Sandmel’s Ernie K-Doe: The R&B emperor of New Orleans.
“It’s such a rich scene with his history and his riches-to-rags story. He had a No. 1 record and then he lost everything. He was living on the street for while,” says Sandmel. “It’s a real saga.”
You can find out more tonight, 7-9, at Casa Azul in Grand Coteau with a book signing by the author and also have an opportunity to hear music by Yvette Landry.
Sandmel says he first became interested in K-Doe while listening to his radio show on WWOZ in the 1980s. The singer would play his own songs and “then scream over them about what a genius he was,” Sandmel says. “It was way over the top. It was pretty entertaining,” he says. “So when he opened the lounge, I started going there and I just loved.”
That was in the mid-1990s and the lounge in question is K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge, 1500 N. Claiborne Ave., in New Orleans.
“It was just this incredible scene of this veteran rhythm and blues singer and a lot of his colleagues singing in this tiny little place – a surreal atmosphere, kind of like a set from a Fellini movie – very friendly and hospitable place. But also a pretty strange place in a fascinating way, in a good way. Heard a lot of great music there.”
Sandmel, who also produces the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, had the singer as a guest. In 1999, he then joined K-Doe on a trip to Washington, D.C., for a Fourth of July concert for the National Park Service put on by Nick Spitzer and wrote about it for Gambit.
Because of the rich content derived while working on the article, the idea of a book about K-Doe came about. But Sandmel was in the throes of finishing his book Zydeco! and also touring/managing the Hackberry Ramblers.
“In 2001, not long before K-Doe died, I was sitting in the lounge one day and he said, ‘You really need to write a book about me,’ or something to that effect - kind of a royal edict, you know ,” says Sandmel. “So I said, ‘Yeah. Sounds interesting to me because I’d already been thinking about it.”
Plans were made to go through K-Doe’s old neighborhood with a videographer and the singer would reminisce about this and that. But while on tour with the Ramblers, Sandmel got the word the singer was in the hospital and then shortly thereafter he died.
“We didn’t get to do that, but that fall I started working on it,” says Sandmel. The author was putting together a book proposal on K-Doe, but admittedly it was on the back burner as he was also touring and making a documentary about the Ramblers. “And by ’05, right after the storm [Hurricane Katrina], the Ramblers’ .. we’d played our last show and it was obvious that wasn’t going on anymore.”
So Sandmel’s focus returned to the book, but wasn’t getting too far with publishers. As it happened this gave Sandmel more time to do more research and conduct more interviews with K-Doe’s contemporaries before they, too, were called home. In all, he spoke to more than 200 people for the book, including those who K-Doe toured with when “he was big on the national touring circuit,” such as Jerry Butler, Ben E. King, Herman of the Herman Hermits who’d covered “Mother in Law,” Carol Fran, Doe’s relatives and friends.
“I just went ahead and wrote it on spec – I had some doubts about that – but did it,” says Sandmel. The first draft was completed by 2008 and the next year the second draft was done. Historic New Orleans liked the book and the two reached an agreement. “They did a really beautiful job on it. It’s like an art book, coffee table book. It’s got about 150 photos in it. Besides the story, which I think is good, but it’s really a major visual book, too.”
Although it took 10 years to get the book written, Sandmel keep it all in perspective.
“In retrospect, it’s really good I did not get a book deal when I first started trying to because it would’ve been pretty much like a vignette, or a lengthy magazine article. It wouldn’t have really been a book,” says Sandmel. “So by not getting a deal when I first started to and just continuing to do the research, ultimately, it’s much better.
“If someone had said we’ll publish your book in 2002 or something, I would’ve had one-tenth of the material I have,” he says. “It would’ve been pretty thin. There were some frustrating phases in this process, but everything really worked out for the best.”
In his research, Sandmel learned about K-Doe’s connection to the Baton Rouge blues scene and who he modeled his style after.
“Besides being a part of the R&B scene in New Orleans with Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas and all those people, he was also part of the Baton Rouge Blues scene with Slim Harpo, Rafuel Neal, Buddy Guy before he moved to Chicago,” says Sandmel. “I didn’t realize he has such an extensive background in Gospel music. And his real idol as a singer was this gospel singer named Archie Brownlee with the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.”
Along with book signings, Sandmel is also using Facebook to get the word out about his book, which was the primary reason he hooked up with the social media network.
“It took a while to build up all of those friends, so that in one click I can get the word out to 1,200 people,” he says. “I don’t know for sure how many of those people have gone out and bought the book, so I can’t really say.”
Sandmel is not selling the book himself it's handled by the publisher, The Historic New Orleans Collection, so he can’t speak to the sales numbers.
“I’m sure it can’t hurt. It’s a great way to get the word out without spending any money to a lot of people,” he says. “I’m not the most web savvy person in the world, but I figured Facebook I should absolutely do. I haven’t gone as far as Twitter yet.”
Sandmel is a New Orleans–based journalist, folklorist, drummer, and producer. His previous book is Zydeco! a collaborative with photographer Rick Olivier. Sanmel's articles about Louisiana music have appeared in national publications, including the Atlantic and Rolling Stone, 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.