Unlike so many knowledgeable New Orleans natives, this writer never had the pleasure of seeing Ernie K-Doe in his prime, but in the early ’60swhen he was cutting a succession of great 45rpm singles for Minit Records and tearing up stages everywhere he appeared.
But his incredible performance at WWOZ’s Mardi Gras Party in Congo Square three years ago provided a thrilling glimpse of the K-Doe of legend. Backed, by Tommy Ridgley & The Untouchables, K-Doe overcame the visible ravages of time and hard. living to deliver a driving, emotionally-charged set that lifted the audience up a few feet in the air before it was over.
The well-known “Charity Hospital baby” was born Ernest Kador Jr. on February 22, 1936. His story is well told by Jeff Hannusch in I Hear You Knockin’, from his early training in the church to his first recorded efforts for Savoy Records in 1954 and subsequent singles for Specialty and Ember.
In 1960 Ernest Kador hooked up with Allen Toussaint and Joe Banashek at Minit Records and unleashed a torrent of hits like “Make You Love Me”/’There’s A Will There’s A Way,” ”Hello My Lover”/’Tain’t It The Truth,” the immortal “Mother-In-Law” (the first and last No. 1 pop hit out of New Orleans), “Te-Ta- Te-Ta- Ta, ” “I Cried My Last Tear”/”A Certain Girl,” “Popeye Joe” and “Beating Like A Tom- Tom.”
After Minit folded, K-Doe signed with Don Robey and Duke Records for a handful of 45s and then lapsed into undeserved obscurity, working small neighborhood joints and the occasional nostalgia show without the benefit of additional recordings.
By Mardi Gras 1993 Ernie K-Doe was turning 57 and at a seeming dead end. He made frequent appearances on WWOZ as a regular guest of DJ Tootie, but little actual work was forthcoming, and when there was a scheduled engagement there was often reason for concern about its outcome.
Then there began to appear a few hopeful signs of chang ein the fortunes of Ernie K-Doe. A pair of new Recordings “American Children” and “Night Dorsey II “suddenly appeared on CD, followed by an entire album of live and studio performances, I’m Cocky But I’m Good, produced by Milton Batiste and issued on his tiny DuBat label
In the summer of 1995, K-Doe announced the opening of his Mother-In-Law Lounge at 1500 N. Claiborne in the 7th Ward, and introduced his new romantic and business partner, Ms. Antoinette Dorsey, to the world by means of a major story in the Times-Picayune. In the fall DuBat released a second K-Doe CD, Fever, now gaining considerable attention, and announced its intention to bring the rejuvenated performer back to national and international prominence through projected record licensing deals and regular touring activity.
On January 10, 1996. Ernie K-Doe took another major step in his return to personal and professional stability when he and Ms. Antoinette were wed in a simple late-morning ceremony at the Mother-in-Law Lounge. The next day he sat down with Milton Batiste and this writer to talk about his roots, his Career resurgence, and his plans for the future.
As Batiste pointed out to begin our discussion, “not many artists after the age of 55 come back from the deepest waters that he’s been treading and those deep waters “have to do with physical and mental anguish, so this is almost like being born again—it’s almost like getting started again in the business.”
Ernie K-Doe: This is a brand-new Ernie K-Doe, with a period about it. Because I can’t do what I used to do, but I do what I ” have to do at any particular time. I have to do this, ya know, and I’m glad I have a second chance to go around.
But you know one thing, though: I look back on my life, and I look back on the things that came through, and thanks to the people that believed in me, I made my mind up that I want to come back. Thanks to Milton Batiste, and Ruby Batiste—they worked with me about three-and-a-half weeks, I believe, and said, “Hey, man, look: you got it—let’s go for it.” I had got to the place at one time that I just didn’t want to come back again, but they brought me back and showed me what I had to offer-not only to New Orleans, but offer to the country again.
I’ll tell you one thing: I think I made a major step in my life when I chose Milton and Ruby Batiste to handle my business as far as my singin’/makin’ records-wise. And I made another choice last week when I chose Antoinette Dorsey—better known as Antoinette K-Doe now.
OffBeat: Of course we want to congratulate you on your recent marriage, but I know everybody’s got to be after you now about having a new mother-in-law.
K-DOE: You know one thing? The first mother-in-law I had, I didn’t know about her, that she was that particular way. That’s why I could sing that ”’Mother-In-Law” song. But my hew mother-in-law, I know all her feelings, and I’m gonna write a song about her, because you look for the little things that you learn from your mistakes. That’s how you get great, by your mistakes. All I wanna do, is do what’s right now. So I can’t go wrong. I
OB: How did you discover this lady who just became your wife?
K-Doe: I’m gonna tell the truth like it was: I saw this lady in 19…in ’62. I was on my way—I just had bought my brand-new Cadillac—and I ws on my way to the Apollo Theatre in New York and I stopped in this place on TOuro and St. Claude. She was workin’ behind the liquor counter—she had the liquor store—and she was bendin’ down and during that time I said, “Oh no, I ain’t gonna mess with her.”
She was dressed nice, in a white dress—I never will forget this—and I wouldn’t mess with her. I just ordered my drink, and she had somebody else behind the bar to fix my drink, while she was puttin’ up the liquor behind the bar. I never did forget her, but I never did think that me and her would tie up together, because back then—hey, she wouldn’ta . liked me, and then again, I wouldn’ta liked her, because I was…ooh, man, look, I was doin’ my thing.
OB: You were rollin’—you had the No. 1 record in the USA.
K-Doe: Yeah, I was doin’ my thing, ya know. But I’d like to say this one thing: that me and Milton Batiste, and Ruby Batiste, along with Antoinette Dorsey K-Doe—now we gonna make it. We gonna make it, and we goin’ back to the Apollo Theatre. And what’s gonna shock me, and a whole lotta people: I got two things goin’ for me.
The two things I have goin’ for me: the youngsters that has never saw me is gonna come out to see me, and the elders remember me–how I used to dance, how I used to drive a band, and the whole bit. They gonna come out to see if I still have that drive. You understand what I’m talkin’ about? And I’m gonna feel good shakin’ everybody’s hand, ya know?
OB: I wanted to ask you about growing up with Walter “Wolfman” Washingwn. He tells me you grew up together, in the same household.
K-Doe: That’s my first cousin. His mother was my mother’s sister—we two sisters’ chirren. My mother was named Laurie, and his mother was named Mary. I grew up on Derbigny Street, 2419 South Derbigny, between First and Second. My church is the New Home Missionary Baptist Church.
Like a whole lotta people say, “K-Doe, how you get that spirit?” I say, “I was born Baptist”—I was born Baptist. You catch any Baptist, sanctified, and they got that, they got that, they got that Seventh Day Adventist, they got that, they have that …that movement. And you just got to go along wit’ ’em, because they get along with the crowd. And once you get along with the crowd, you got it all goin’.
But I was raised half in Baton Rouge, Louisiana-722 North, Baton Rouge, on 38th Street. I was baptized in Pecan Grove. Um-hmm. That’s Reverend Pitcher baptized me, okay?That’s in Pecan Grove. And when I came down to New Orleans, my first pastor was the one and only New Home Missionary Baptist Church, on Prieur and Jackson, Reverend Bud Smith. We had the one and only—he’s done passed away now, too, Reverend Freddie Dunn.
See, I was staying on Derbigny between First and Second, and the Rhythm Club—better known as Club Rocket—was on the corner of Derbigny and Jackson. And Mr. Fields, he had the house behind there, and we used to go upstairs and step off the balcony, off from Mr. Fields’ two-story house, and look at the band and look at the people. They had a big old window fan was there, and I used to see Count Basie, Duke Ellican [Ellington]. But I was lookin’ at what the band was doing, what the pianist was doing; That’s the first time I ever saw Billy Eckstine in my life. And I appreciated him.”
The people that learned me how to tap dance was Pork Chop and Kidney Stew. I did see Sammy Davis Jr. at the Ritz Theatre, when I was a little kid, but he was a little bit older than I was, with his father and his uncle, and they was dancin’, and he was in the middle.
I remember all these things. They had a young lady, never got a shot, not a actual shot. She used to sing with Paul Gayten, years ago. I remember her—Annie Laurie. I remember Sam Cooke—Sam Cooke used to stay at my house, when they wouldn’t look for no hotel or nothin’ like that.
“You take, like, the greatest singing group that ever was to come out of the United States of America. I remember ‘em, because I wanted to be a singer all my life, and I wanted to be one of the greatest. But the greatest singing group I ever heard in my life—and when I call out their names, you will know what I’m talkin’ about—and heard ’em at one time, that was at the Palace Theatre, and I heard ’em: Billy Ward & The Dominos.
See, I’ve been wanting to go back into the beginning of my career, when I used to sing gospel. So the next project we have planned will be a gospel album. And the most important thing: I’d like to do the whole album of Archie Brownlee and the Five Blind Boys, because I can —I know ‘em. See, Archie used to stay at my house on Derbigny Street, with my auntie.
OB: Yeah, I was told to be sure to ask you about Archie Brownlee.
K-Doe: I can do Archie, but I wanna do Archie in Archie’s key, ya know, with the music that Milton is gonna put behind it. Do the same song, but do it in Archie’s key. Because I know Archie, ya know—I came up ‘neatha Archie.
See, Archie died at Charity Hospital. Whole lotta people don’t know Archie was from here, but he stayed in Alabama —ya dig where I’m comin’ from? And by them rehearsin’ at 2419 South Derbigny Street, I remember Archie. You know? And that’s where I get that power from. Because a whole lotta people don’t know why, when I hit that stage, how I can throw my voice like that.
But I wanna do Archie —I wanna do it in his same key, I wanna do the same thing that he did, but I’d like for Milton Batiste to arrange it, you understand? Don’t change nothing, you know? Put a good singing group behind me, that will listen to what I say because I remember Archie.
See we goin’ back now. We goin’ back to the Two Winged Temple, back on Rushblade [Rocheblave] where they used to have the Two Winged Temple. Now, I have saw Mahalia Jackson, Brother Joe Mays, I have saw the Staple Singers—I’ve saw ‘em all. I have heard ‘em and where they made their mistake at—and some people do me that, they always bring me on last, but I don’t like that. I like to open up a show, or come in the middle, but they always keep me to the last.
And that’s how they did Archie. After all of ’em had sung, and made people–back then they didn’t have no air conditioning, they had window fans, and fans that you fanned with, you dig where I’m comin’ from? Now what happened was, they brought Archie Brownlee up last, and the Five Blind Boys and the people almost tore the whole church down. The man say, “I got two wings”—that’s what he was singin’—the Reverend Utah Smith, you understand what I’m sayin’. I’m tellin’ ya what I done saw with these eyes, and I was lookin’ through the window.
But when Archie got up there and sung, it looked like nobody never been up on the stage—what I call the stage—they didn’t go up in the pulpit then, they stepped down—but I never saw a red man sing like that. And he was weighing about a hundred and what—145 pounds—and I said, “I wanna be another Archie Brownlee. I wanna be him. I’m gonna get that—I’m gonna get that sound.”
And he’s still going within me. You know, Archie had a feeling that, whoever it was, you couldn’t beat Archie Brownlee. You dig where I’m comin’ from? And I’m doin’ this. And one day everybody gonna understand: what I have cannot be beaten. Ya dig? When I hit that stage, I’m comin’ behind Archie. When I hit that stage, I’m ‘lectrified. I don’t care who be up on the bandstand, who done sung—they can never beat Ernie K-Doe. Because I’m cocky, but I’m good.
OB: You also wrote a lot of your own material, didn’t you?
K-Doe: Oh yeah. Well, actually, the ones that my name wasn’t on, it was my idea. It was my idea. Right back there in Cabbage Alley, it was my idea. Because I just, like—I hear different beats, and my old lady say, “Man, why don’t you lay down and go to sleep?” I be on the side of the bed just jumpin’, and jumpin’, ya know, but I be hearin’ that movement.
I’d like to do all my songs all over again, but I’d like for Milton to do a different arrangement, but still do ’em. Because they’re my songs—I can do my songs all over again. Ya know, like you remember a song called “Make You Love Me”? I’d like to take all my things, and just sit down with Milton, and just work them out with him.
But you know what I’d like to do? I was tellin’ my wife last night, Antoinette. We was sittin’ on the side of the bed. See, I like peanut butter and jelly, and she like peanut butter and jelly. We’re sittin’ on the side of the bed, and I said, “You know what I’m gonna do? From nine until twelve, we gonna start every Sunday, we gonna have church in the Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge. And we gonna have different preachers.”
And another thing that I came up with the idea of doing, it’s never happened before in the history of the United States of America: you have ten ministers. Each one of the ministers preach the Ten Commandments. First Commandment, Second Commandment, and the whole bit But I wanna record it, with Milton, and I’m gonna pick out the ten ministers to preach.
You know another thing that I’m very proud of? I stay in gym a whole lot—and a whole lotta people don’t know that I lives in the gym. If! don’t be at the YMCA on Dryades Street, I be at the Riviera Health Spot on Bienville Street, and I stays in the gym.
OB: We heard you were working out pretty heavy.
K-Doe: Yeah, and you know why? I’m gonna tell you why: because of Batiste. He want me to give the best performance. If I’m in shape, I can give the best performance. If I’m not in shape, I cannot give the best performance.
Some people see me walkin’ up and down the street-I walk almost all over the city, just walk. I done walked from my house [in the Sixth Ward] all the way back to his house [Batiste’s DuBat Records studio on Filmore] and walked back. Because for the simple reason why, I gotta keep these bones, my legs, and everything in shape. And if I don’t do it—you know, can’t nobody tell me what to do, but I gotta keep myself in shape.
OB: Well, you’re such a dynamic performer that the physical aspect must be considered, I can see that. Because when you get up there, you don’t hold nothing back.
K-Doe: No, no, no, no, no, it’s…to me, drive is a drive, you know. Although you have a good band behind you—like I have the Magnificent 7ths be playin’ behind me—but K-Doe, how can you ax another human being to play, really play, behind you, and you not doing what you supposed to do? You drive, so you can ax them. And I never look over my shoulder when I’m on stage, at no band, but the Magnificent 7ths, they be playin’, and they be pumpin’ behind me, because I be drivin’ in front of them, just like a general or a lieutenant, whatever, a captain, you know…
OB: That’s right, and I’ve seen you at times when you’ve lifted the crowd above the turmoil of this earthly plain and had everybody reaching for the heavens.
K-Doe: Well, everything we have done, we have done it real good. But one thing I really wanna say is this: when we really hit it, it ain’t gonna be no stoppin’. It ain’t gonna be no stoppin’, ya know, because I am an original—don’t nobody sound like me out there.