Burn, K-Doe, Burn!
8 p.m. Thu.-Fri., April 28-29; May 2-7 & May 13-15
Ernie K-Doe's "Mother-in-Law" hit No. 1 on the Billboard's pop charts in 1961, and the R&B singer never let New Orleanians forget it, either in his years of eccentric exhortations on WWOZ-FM or during his reign over the just-closed Mother-In-Law Lounge. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the song's ascent to the top of the charts, and commemorations include a reprise of Robert Florence's play about K-Doe.
"That song is a milestone in New Orleans music," says Florence, a friend of the late singer, who has organized many of this week's festivities. "It was the first New Orleans song that made No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts."
Florence's Burn, K-Doe, Burn! chronicles the rise to stardom of the self-proclaimed "Emperor of the Universe" in the early 1960s. K-Doe's heyday was the "golden era of New Orleans' — and consequently American — pop music," Florence says. The play is set against a soundtrack of classic New Orleans R&B, and there's also a sing-along of K-Doe songs.
The drama also chronicles K-Doe's descent into alcoholism and homelessness, and his eventual redemption, largely with help of his second wife, Antoinette, with whom he ran the Mother-in-Law Lounge. K-Doe died on May 2, 2001.
Burn, K-Doe, Burn! premiered in 2004 and ran again in 2005. With the 50th anniversary of "Mother-In-Law" charting, Florence saw a chance to reprise it. Proceeds from the show benefit the New Orleans Musician's Clinic, where K-Doe received medical treatment late in his life
Florence has been active in efforts to preserve and commemorate the legacies of New Orleans musicians. He helped get a plaque marking the birthplace of late banjoist Danny Barker in 1993. At noon Monday, May 2, there is a combination plaque-unveiling and cemetery concert honoring Antoinette K-Doe and the late Earl King. Friends of New Orleans Cemeteries will install plaques on tombs for both Antoinette and King. Sunpie Barnes and the Louisiana Sunspots will perform New Orleans R&B classics and there will be a second-line parade between St. Louis No. 1 and No. 2 cemeteries.
Florence has organized another plaque unveiling for 1 p.m. Tuesday, May 3 — this one at the site of Allen Toussaint's parents' home (3039 College Court), where Toussaint wrote "Mother-in-Law" and many other popular tunes.
A plaque will be placed at Cosimo Matassa's former studio on Governor Nicholls Street, where "Mother-in-Law" was recorded. (Many earlier R&B hits were recorded at his studio at 840 N. Rampart St.) An Installation date has not been set.
There's more to K-Doe's story than his hit song. Author and musician Ben Sandmel is writing a biography, The Emperor of New Orleans: Ernie K-Doe's R&B Odyssey, scheduled to be published next year by the Historic New Orleans Collection. He offers some perspective on why K-Doe deserves attention.
"He was a standard-bearer for a lot of cultural traditions [in New Orleans]," Sandmel says. "Grassroots surrealism, flamboyance ... He symbolized a lot of New Orleans traditions and brought a lot of happiness to New Orleanians."