[Updated] During the recording of Dr. John’s Tribal album, James Demaria videotaped Herman Ernest overdubbing rhythm tracks. “This is the updated version of New Orleans funk,” he explained, adding a pattern on a cowbell. “This separates the men from the sidemen.” He was partially talking trash for the camera, but he was also someone who’d know. Ernest, who passed away March 6 at age 50 after battling cancer, is best known for playing drums with Dr. John for 40 years. In that role and on sessions with the Neville Brothers and Kermit Ruffins, among others, he demonstrated himself to be the quintessential New Orleans drummer. When Labelle cut 1975’s Nightbirds with Allen Toussaint, Ernest suggested that they change the feel of “Lady Marmalade” from disco to funk, explaining, “The purpose of them coming down here was to get a New Orleans groove.”
Fans and friends wrote OffBeat.com to remember Ernest. Harold Brown, the original drummer for the funk group War, wrote, “When we had the Crescent City Drumming Camp, he was the one that the kids looked up to as there [sic] mentor and protector. Even though I was a drummer myself with major hits under my belt, he was a much better drummer than I was.” Jesse Moore remembered him as “a big bear of a funny, sweet man with a great laugh. He told me some of the best Booker stories I’ve ever heard.” Horn player Lou Marini wrote, “At the North Sea Jazz Festival, the Blues Brothers Band was getting ready to split. I spotted Herman outside and invited him in. He did five minutes in the doorway of the bus and just killed everyone.”
Ernest’s last gig was December 30, 2010, and shortly before that he did a session with Paul Sanchez for the Nine Lives album. “I went to Herman and asked how he was and he said it only hurt when he wasn’t playing music,” Sanchez wrote. “We tracked one more song and I let him go home with a hug and much love. Before he left the studio, sweating in pain, he sang those lines for me, “Yes, boys, it hurts. It hurts bad, but it could have been worse.”
Updated April 1, 2011
Our birth date for Ernest was incorrect. He was born August 12, 1951.