Ben Sandmel’s long-awaited book, Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans, is finally here. He first heard K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law” as a kid, but he didn’t really get into him until he started going to the Mother-In-Law Lounge.
“Between his performances and the whole scene, it was fascinating,” Sandmel says. “It was like being in this really friendly, family home, but it was also like being on the set of a Fellini movie and in an R&B museum, and the music was great.” He became closer to K-Doe after interviewing him at Jazz Fest’s Music Heritage Stage in 1998. Antoinette K-Doe said that Ernie thought they understood each other. After Sandmel wrote an article on K-Doe’s appearance at the Washington D.C. Fourth of July concert in 1999, the idea of a book coalesced.
K-Doe had a mystique to him, Sandmel says, “There are two parts to it. K-Doe was like a motivational speaker. He was absolutely determined to be positive, never deterred, and for him to maintain that attitude for decades after all he went through, that’s incredible. And then you have the mystique of a guy—well, you can never quite tell if he was kidding you or kidding himself or a little bit of both. He would say things that were completely off-the-charts absurd. If he was talking about music, he was very knowledgeable and had a good memory for details, but if he was talking about himself, it was that he had gigs with three million people or he’s about to get his picture on a Wheaties box. On one level, he knew that was an effective way to keep attention on him and keep his career going. But after all he’d been through, he may have needed to psych himself up.
“Anybody else who would say such over-the-top egotistical things, few people like that would you want to hang out with. But he was still charming and charismatic and a nice guy. Had I known him when he was drinking, I might have thought differently, but all that was part of the mystique. You never knew which side of the reality he was working, but there were people who thought it was all an act, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He’s a part of the larger mystique of New Orleans—flamboyance and surrealism.”