(b. Ernest Kador, Jr.)
February 22, 1936
New Orleans, LA
July 5, 2001
New Orleans, LA
In this month’s installment of OffBeat’s “Masters of Louisiana Music” series, Jeff Hannusch remembers his friend Ernest Kador, Jr., known and loved throughout the Universe as “Ernie K-Doe.” On July 5, 2001, K-Doe died from kidney and liver failure at University Hospital in New Orleans.
Ernie K-Doe, the self proclaimed “Emperor of the Universe” and proud “Charity Hospital baby,” uttered what was perhaps his most profound statement one evening in 1980 when he was the guest on Shepard Samuels’ WTUL radio program. With characteristic aplomb, K-Doe announced, “I’m not sure, but I’m almost positive, that all music came from New Orleans.” Likewise, K-Doe, a man who never confused “ego” with “ergo,” could’ve come from nowhere but New Orleans.
K-Doe’s claim to fame was “Mother-In-Law,” the Number One single in the country in 1961. He followed with several other national chart hits including “Te-Ta Te-Ta-Ta,” “I Cried My Last Tear” and “A Certain Girl,” before his career bottomed out for nearly three decades. He bounced back in the late 1990s and became a cult figure in New Orleans, opening The Mother-In-Law Lounge and resurrecting his career with fiery appearances and new recordings.
“What’s really sad is that this man from a great music tradition, who just recently started getting his dues and recognition, can’t be around to enjoy it for a few more years,” said Cosimo Matassa, who engineered most of K-Doe’s biggest hits at his studios. “He was the kind of guy who was always ready to record and never needed to be pushed. He was super confident about his abilities, to a point where it gave Allen [Toussaint] headaches when he produced his sessions because K-Doe didn’t always listen to him. I remember once K-Doe was on one of those big touring rock and roll shows and he told the other artists, ‘You don’t want to come on after me because after I get off the stage, nobody’s even going to know you were here.’ But he was right—his shows were often unforgettable.”
K-Doe was born February 22, 1936, at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, the ninth of 11 children fathered by Ernest Kador, Sr., a Baptist preacher. “On the day I was born, the building [Charity] went to shaking and the walls went to trembling,” said K-Doe in 1982. “The people there was yelling because they didn’t know what to do. Finally, somebody said, ‘What’s happening on the fifth floor?’ The nurses said, ‘Ain’t but one thing it can be. It has to be a boy child being born and it has to be a K-Doe!’”
Raised by an aunt on South Derbigny, K-Doe befriended other up-and-coming singers such as Danny White, Izacoo Gordon, as well as Art and Aaron Neville. K-Doe was a promising singer as a child, and by the time he reached his teens, he was appearing with the Golden Chain Jubilee Singers and the Zion Travelers, both popular local spiritual quartets. K-Doe and his aunt often attended the Two Winged Temple, where they saw many touring gospel groups. His favorite though was the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, whose lead singer was Brother Archie Brownlee. “Archie Brownlee was by far the best,” confirmed K-Doe. “He wasn’t but 5’ 4” and 145 pounds, but when he sang his voice sounded like it was eight million pounds. I don’t care what kind of song the man sang, you had to move. You couldn’t keep still.”
At the age of 15, K-Doe won the first of several talent shows sponsored by radio station WMRY and Lincoln Beach, the black amusement park on Hayne Boulevard. A four-letter athlete at Booker T. Washington High School, K-Doe was able to balance sports with school and his developing career as a singer.
Soon after turning 17, K-Doe joined his mother, who had moved to Chicago in order to find employment. While in the Windy City, K-Doe continued to win talent shows and he began sitting in with groups like the Four Blazers, the Moonglows and the Flamingos, at the Crown Propeller and Club Bagdad.
“My mama had to sign papers for me to get me in the clubs to sing,” said K-Doe. “I had to sit in the back room and drink soda pop. The only time I could come out was when they called me to go on stage.”
Through his contact with the Four Blazers, K-Doe was introduced to the legendary record man Dave Clark, who was working for United Records at the time. Clark supervised a four-song session with K-Doe in November 1953. Unissued at the time, they were released late last year on a Delmark Records compilation, Jump and Shout.
A few months later, K-Doe was back in New Orleans and formed his own group, the Blue Diamonds. The group became a regular attraction at Club Tijuana on Saratoga Street. “The Tijuana inspired youngsters like me,” said K-Doe. “Many great entertainers performed there—Guitar Slim, Robert Parker, Bobby Marchan and Richard Penniman. I wanted to be a good singer so I watched the best.”
In June 1954, the Blue Diamonds auditioned and signed with Savoy Records at Matassa’s J&M Studio. With K-Doe singing lead, the group recorded “Honey Baby” and “No Money,” but Savoy didn’t promote the single and it flopped. Despite the disappointment, the group was becoming very popular around New Orleans, adding the Dew Drop, the Sho-Bar, and Jessie’s Club to their itinerary.
By 1955, K-Doe dissolved the Blue Diamonds to purse a solo career. In September 1955, Specialty Records signed K-Doe and arranged to record him at the J&M Studio in a split session with a singer/piano player from Macon, Georgia, “Little” Richard Penniman. “Do Baby Do” and “Eternity” did little for K-Doe, but Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” was a fabulous hit and helped define rock ‘n’ roll music.
K-Doe continued to build a local following with his singing, dancing and wild on-stage antics (many borrowed from his mentor Archie Brownlee) and his exotic wardrobe. In 1958, K-Doe was back in the studio, this time recording for the Ember label. With Robert Parker’s band backing, K-Doe cut “Tuff Enough,” which did well regionally, but not well enough for Ember to request another session. Still, by 1959, K-Doe was the hottest attraction in New Orleans. All he needed was a hit record to blast him into the national spotlight. The hit came shortly after he signed with the fledging New Orleans label, Minit.
That same year, K-Doe was managed by WYLD deejay Larry McKinley who had recently become partners with Joe Banashak at Minit Records. Allen Toussaint had been hired by the label to do arrangements when their first choice, Harold Battiste, couldn’t accept the assignment. Under Toussaint’s supervision, K-Doe recorded “Make Me Love You” b/w “Where There’s A Will There’s A Way.” On the latter, K-Doe mimics Brownlee to a “t,” creating a sound reminiscent of Ray Charles’ then popular early soul style. The single—a modest hit in New Orleans—was credited simply to “K-Doe.” “That was Mr. Joe’s [Banashak] idea,” said K-Doe. “He said, ‘Ernie we got to get the people that buy your records to say ‘Kay-doe.’ Kador is just to hard to say.’ So he decided to change it to K, with a dash, D-O-E. After we started putting records out that way, I changed my name legally and copy wrote it.”
K-Doe’s second Minit single [credited to Ernie K-Doe], “Hello My Lover” b/w “Taint It The Truth,” racked up 80,000 in sales and nearly made the national charts. Both sides were superb productions by Toussaint, who was gaining confidence with each trip to the studio. “In those days Minit didn’t have much money,” said K-Doe. “All the artists helped each other out on records. Allen used to rehearse us in the front room of his parents’ house in Gert Town. Benny Spellman, Willie Harper, Irma Thomas—they all sang on my records and I sang on theirs. When we got ready to record, we’d all go down to Cosimo’s and cut. Either me or Allen wrote those early songs and he produced them.”
K-Doe’s third Minit single, released in March 1961, proved to be the record he will forever be remembered for, “Mother-In-Law.” “There are only two songs that will be remembered until the end of time,” K-Doe often bragged. “One is ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ the other is ‘Mother-In-Law’.” Written by Toussaint, “Mother-In-Law” was Number One on the R&B and pop charts one month after it was issued. The catchy arrangement on “Mother-In-Law” included the stern baritone voice of Benny Spellman and Toussaint’s dancing piano. The late Joe Banashak recalled that people that ordinarily bought records purchased two copies of the single—one for themselves and one to give to their mother-in-law.
“I really had trouble writing for Ernie,” admitted Toussaint. “He was into that spiritual church thing. He liked to holler and preach like the Five Blind Boys. I couldn’t write like that. I was inspired by Danny White to write ‘Mother-In-Law.’ Danny didn’t make a lot of records, but he was very popular in New Orleans. We weren’t recording Danny at Minit [White recorded for Frisco], so when it came time to do a session on Ernie I thought, ‘Well, maybe we can get away with recording the songs I’d written for Danny,’ so K-Doe ended up recording ‘Mother-In-Law’.”
Even though Dick Clark refused to air the record on American Bandstand because he felt it was offensive, “Mother-In-Law” was certified as a gold record and became the first New Orleans-produced single to top the Billboard Hot 100. K-Doe, suddenly the biggest name in the record industry, hit the road in a brand new Cadillac, stopping at venues like the Peacock in Atlanta, the Howard in Washington, Chicago’s Regal Theater, and of course the Apollo in Harlem.
“I played at the Apollo with Sam Cooke, Maxine Brown and Dakota Staton,” said K-Doe. “Dakota Staton’s manager got tired of me stealing the show every night, and he wanted to put an end to it. He sent down to Baton Rouge to get a young man that was supposed to stop me. It was Joe Tex. When Joe got to New York and found out who he was going up against, he told the man [Stanton’s manager], ‘You must be crazy. That’s Ernie K-Doe. Nobody can stop him.’”
Penned by K-Doe, “Te-Ta Te-Ta-Ta” was a fine follow up to “Mother-In-Law” and it reached Number 53 in the pop charts. K-Doe was forced to relinquish half the writer’s royalties to Sam Cooke when a judge ruled that the song was similar to Cooke’s “Everybody Loves To Cha-Cha-Cha.” K-Doe also penned many of his early Minit sides, including “Rub-Dub-Dub” (with Robert Parker), “Penny’s Worth of Happiness,” “Come On Home,” and the stunning quartet-based “Waitin’ At the Station.” On the latter, the song slowly builds to a crescendo. At the song’s peak, K-Doe sang, “I think I heard someone call my name.” Just as his voice trails off, a member of the accompanying vocal group shouts, “K-Doe.” It was a chilling high point of K-Doe’s recorded work. Another K-Doe composition, “Done Got Over It,” was recorded by Irma Thomas for Minit Records and remains a staple of her concert performance.
Minit and K-Doe continued their hold on the charts as both sides of his next single, “I Cried My Last Tear” b/w “A Certain Girl,” hovered around Number 70 in the pop charts. In February of 1962, K-Doe helped satisfy the demand for the Popeye dance craze with “Popeye Joe.”
K-Doe’s singing and dancing and exhaustive stage routines made him a top attraction from coast-to-coast. He especially delighted in telling about the night he and James Brown went head to head in New Orleans’ Municipal Auditorium.
“It was a dancing and performing thing,” said K-Doe. “It was New Orleans against Macon, Georgia, and I sure wasn’t going to let New Orleans down. I changed my suit nine times. Every time I’d get to a certain part in a song, I’d run off stage, change my suit and come back out. I got real good at working that mike stand. I could push it down, pop it, do my splits, and it would always come right back to me. I learned how to do that by practicing with a broom and a number nine thread.”
After “Popeye Joe,” K-Doe never again reached the pop charts although he continued waxing local hits on Minit until 1963 with “Hey, Hey, Hey,” “Beating Like A Tom Tom,” “Penny’s Worth of Happiness” and “Get Out of My House,” the inevitable answer to “Mother-In-Law.”
When Imperial Records—Minit’s distributor—was sold to Liberty, the New Orleans label was part of the deal. The transaction left K-Doe without a record contract. Banashak, who had already set up Instant Records, salvaged four Toussaint-produced tracks and released two fine singles, “Sufferin’ So” and “Until the Real Thing Comes Along.” Both did well locally, but Instant’s fragmented national distribution didn’t allow them to break elsewhere. Through Larry McKinley, K-Doe was signed by Duke Records in the mid-1960s. “Don D. Robey was the owner,” recalled K-Doe. “He had a big club in Houston called the Bronze Peacock. They had Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, Al ‘TNT’ Braggs and Buddy Ace.”
Duke got K-Doe back in the R&B charts with the gospel-based “Later For Tomorrow” which reached Number 37, and the pop-ish “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” a Number 48 entry. (Billboard’s R&B chart only listed 50 singles.) “Boomerang” was a splendid dance record and “Pack My Bags” was interesting, but K-Doe’s Duke repertoire clearly lacked the spontaneity of his Minit output. Oddly, despite K-Doe’s spiritual background, he made an awkward transition to Duke’s brand of soul. “I spent three years at Duke,” said K-Doe. “Most of my sessions were produced by Robey. I thought we had some good records and Robey was a very intelligent man. Some records sold, some didn’t.” When they didn’t, Robey let K-Doe’s contract expire.
In 1970, K-Doe was reunited with Toussaint on a self-titled album that was released on Janus. Unfortunately, the old spark was clearly missing as simplicity gave way to boring and complicated arrangements. Once K-Doe’s records sales began to dip, so did the demand for live performances. K-Doe was forced to stay closer to home, working with pickup bands in progressively smaller clubs for less and less money. Increasingly he turned to the bottle for solace as he watched his popularity slide. In the early 1970s, K-Doe signed a contract with Toussaint and Marshall Seahorn’s Sansu label, but they recorded K-Doe infrequently and the results weren’t always satisfying.
In 1982, K-Doe began hosting an R&B show on WWOZ and his on-air antics attracted many listeners. Between records (more often than not his own) he would plug upcoming appearances, tell outlandish stories, periodically urge himself to “Burn, K-Doe, burn!!!” and explain to his listeners that he was indeed “Cocky but good.” Tapes of his shows are still traded and duplicated around the globe by collectors.
During the 1980s, K-Doe’s career continued to fade as he sank into alcoholism. Record companies weren’t interested in him and rumors of his undependability scared off club owners who might well have booked him. Still K-Doe was capable of being a brilliant showman and rarely held back even if the audience consisted of less than a dozen people.
In 1990, K-Doe met Antoinette Fox, the manager of a bar he often frequented. As a teenager, Fox listened to K-Doe’s records and remembered when he was one of the biggest stars in the county. “He was pretty unhappy then,” said Fox, who would become the future Mrs. K-Doe. “He was frustrated that his career wasn’t going anywhere and by what people had done to him in the past. I used to listen to him and we talked. Eventually we became good friends.”
As their friendship deepened, Fox began attending to K-Doe’s business affairs, and at the time, infrequent bookings. She also suggested he curb his drinking to get his career back on track. In 1995, Fox took over a run down club on North Claiborne Avenue. After talking it over with K-Doe and praying to God, they renamed the bar the Ernie K-Doe Mother-In-Law Lounge. “Ernie managed the club,” said Fox. “I managed Ernie.”
K-Doe and Fox were married at the club in 1996, accompanied by considerable local fanfare. He was performing regularly at the club and he’d managed to cut back considerably on his liquor intake. But he again began to hit the bottle heavily, which began to worry his new wife. Eventually she convinced K-Doe to see a doctor after one too many binges and he was diagnosed as being in the early stages of cirrhosis of the liver. “From that day on he never had another drink,” said Fox. “It saved our marriage, our business and his life.”
As his health gradually returned, K-Doe’s career also began to pick up steam. In 1998, he was presented with a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation at a ceremony in New York City. “That’s when the people started calling me the ‘Emperor of the World’,” said K-Doe. “Really I was shocked. I didn’t know I was still that big. I was there with Gene Chandler, Jerry Butler, Smokey Robinson, and Bobby Byrd. They all wanted to know if I still had that drive and could excite the public. Well, not only did I excite the public, I incited them. I got on stage with James Brown’s band and they all looked in the [music] books for ‘Mother-In-Law.’ I told them, ‘Put the books down, fellows, and stand up. We’re not doing it the book’s way, we’re doing it the Ernie K-Doe way.’ I had everybody in the house out of their seat. After the show [bandleader] Maceo Parker shook his head and said, ‘That’s the Ernie K-Doe I remember from New Orleans.’”
In 1999, he traveled to Washington, D.C., for a July 4 National Public radio concert with several other artists. Dressed in an Uncle Sam costume, K-Doe stole the show before an audience of 60,000. The following year, he and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival patched up their financial differences, and after an absence of two years, K-Doe began appearing at the event again.
During the festivities, New York Times reporter Neil Strauss was temporarily detained at the Mother-In-Law Lounge when K-Doe suspected Strauss was taping his live performance. Strauss offered to let K-Doe hear his tapes, which contained nothing but interviews. Antoinette K-Doe was convinced that, according to Strauss, “I was trying to make a bootleg of the show to sell for personal profit at some sort of K-Doe black market swap meet.”
After an hour of “surreal negotiations,” Mrs. K-Doe relented and Strauss left with his tapes, assuring her that his article would help spread K-Doe’s fame.
Antoinette was unconvinced: “This man is a legend. He doesn’t need any publicity.”
The Mother-In-Law Lounge also became busier as it was discovered by hip young kids who enjoyed mingling with the locals and listening to K-Doe sing along with his hits on the jukebox through an ancient public address microphone. K-Doe’s wife also helped introduce a line of K-Doe merchandise (items which ranged from K-Doe boxer shorts to the OffBeat-sponsored “Emperor of the Universe” posters designed by Bunny Matthews) which they sold in their club and on their web site [www.k-doe.com].
Disgruntled by record companies because of past dealings, earlier this year K-Doe realized another goal when he started his own record company, Big K, and recorded (in collaboration with Quintron and the Blue-Eyed soul Revue) “White Boy, Black Boy” and “Children of the World.” “I’d been retired from making hit records for 32 years,” said K-Doe earlier this year. “I’m not getting into why I retired, but when I retired, I retired on top. Now that Ernie K-Doe is back, he’s coming back on top. This is the first time I ever owned 200 percent of my own recordings. I own 100 percent of ‘Black Boy, White Boy’ and 100 percent of ‘Children of the World.’ One thing I learned about the record business is you can’t buck the public. You’ve got to give the public what they want and Ernie K-Doe’s got what the public wants and needs.”
I don’t think anyone ever doubted that.
K-Doe’s Duke, Janus, Sansu, Minit and Ember recordings are unfortunately only available on bootleg CDs. Buyer beware! “Mother-In-Law” is available on numerous rock ‘n’ roll compilations.
White Boy, Black Boy / Children Of The World (CD Single) (Big K Records) K-Doe’s two-song final CD produced by Quintron, available exclusively from the Mother-In-Law Lounge.
The Building Is Shakin’ & The Walls Are Tremblin’ (AIM) Produced by the late Milton Batiste, this album consists of mid-’90s re-makes of several K-Doe hits.
Best of K-Doe (Mardi Gras Records) More re-makes produced by Milton Batiste.
New Orleans Blues: Jump ‘n’ Shout (Delmark) Includes K-Doe’s first four recordings, cut in Chicago in 1953: “Talking To The Blue,” “Too Drunk To Drink,” “Process Blues” and “Get Out Of Here Woman.”
I Hear You Knockin’ by Jeff Hannusch (Swallow, 19184)
Rhythm and Blues In New Orleans by John Broven (Pelican, 1974)