The singer best known for his 1961 number one hit “Mother-in-Law” was a formidable character. He lived a life that was as outsized as his talent and personality. New Orleans writer Ben Sandmel has crafted a compelling biography that tells his story, warts and all.
K-Doe’s career peaked when he was 25 years old, and his song became known across the world. He played at the Apollo Theater. He bought Cadillacs. But his fall was as quick as his rise. He wound up living for a time under the Claiborne Bridge in downtown New Orleans; but even as he scuffled and scrapped he never lost his massive ego.
The story could have ended there. The one hit wonder who spends all his money and/or is ripped off by unscrupulous businessmen, falls prey to booze, and descends into his own, self-made living hell, is an unfortunate archetype of the 1950s era.
Incredibly, K-Doe reinvented himself with the help of a new wife—Antoinette Dorsey. He opened a lounge, named after his song, very close to the spot where he spent his nights as a homeless person. The bar became a church and a shrine to all things K-Doe. It attracted hipsters, reporters (the book features a hilarious retelling of the time the K-Does locked up a New York Times writer), and R&B pilgrims from across the globe.
Improbably, his story has a happy ending. His funeral was held at Gallier Hall—a venue typically reserved for the white movers and shakers of the city.
Sandmel knew K-Doe; though given the singer’s penchant for self-promotion, most people on the music scene in New Orleans were at least acquainted with him. But their relationship doesn’t dominate. The author, who is also a musician, gives ample space in this lavishly produced tome to commentary from many of the musicians that were in K-Doe’s orbit. His family and friends fill in the details of his life.
For record collectors, this book is indispensible. Sandmel discusses nearly every one of K-Doe’s releases, and chronicles the myriad number of record companies, producers, co-writers, and sidemen that helped make his career possible. Allen Toussaint featured prominently in K-Doe’s life, and his quotations flesh out the story. They help explain his enigmatic, oversized, only-in-New Orleans personality.
I was one of those music scene devotees who knew K-Doe. I’m sure he didn’t know my name, but whenever I saw him he was unfailingly polite and greeted me with a hearty handshake and a knowing smile. I like to think that he thought I was in on his secret.
Sandmel’s book is filled with wonderful anecdotes and great photographs from a wide variety of sources. He doesn’t sugarcoat the bad times, nor has he created a work that is more hagiography than biography. It is meticulously researched; filled with details that will astonish and amaze even a casual fan. However, there are moments where the details come close to interfering with the story, yet there is always a payoff that offsets the brief bits of tedium.
I laughed out loud at least five times in the first 30 pages alone—and I nearly wept at Sandmel’s eloquent description of the outpouring of grief upon Ernie’s death.