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Fallen Emperor 

Remembering Ernie K-Doe

In the end, Ernie K-Doe transcended his biggest claim to fame.

No one can ever say that K-Doe, the veteran New Orleans rhythm and blues singer who died on July 5 at the age of 65, was a one-hit wonder. He might forever be associated with his 1961 No. 1 single, "Mother-in-Law," but not only did K-Doe have other memorable '60s hits such as "A Certain Girl," "Te-Ta-Te-Ta-Ta" and "'Taint it the Truth," but in the second act of his life, Ernie K-Doe created a persona that couldn't be defined by a two-and-a-half-minute song. As a performer, disc jockey, nightclub owner and New Orleans icon, K-Doe became the benevolent self-proclaimed "Emperor of the World," and he ruled with an inimitable combination of charm, savvy and absurdity.

The center of K-Doe's universe in recent years was his Mother-in-Law Lounge at 1500 N. Claiborne St. K-Doe married Antoinette Fox there in 1996, and she helped him resurrect his career and turn the lounge into a shrine to K-Doe and his R&B peers. With the support of his new wife -- and a microphone behind the bar -- K-Doe was free to extol the virtues of his legacy.

Extol and expound he did. It didn't matter if it was midnight on an oppressive weekday night in August, and there were no other signs of life in the vicinity on Claiborne Avenue. K-Doe's voice could frequently be heard echoing off the 1-10 overpass, thanks to the megaphone above the lounge entrance that was connected to K-Doe's interior microphone. Even if K-Doe was holding court inside for a lone patron, the stories traveled for blocks.

They were fascinating, detailed accounts from the glory days of New Orleans rhythm and blues and soul. K-Doe almost inevitably started from his beginnings as a Charity Hospital baby born Ernest Kador Jr., and the lessons he learned while singing in church choirs such as the Golden Choir Jubilee. He had a memory like a steel trap, and could rattle off the names, places and details of his 1950s and '60s records and tours with uncanny detail.

K-Doe's early solo recordings were for the United record label, and he also claimed in interviews to have sung the lead vocal on the 1959 Flamingos classic "I Only Have Eyes For You." But K-Doe hit his artistic and commercial peak working with producer Allen Toussaint for the Minit label. Their partnership launched K-Doe's career to new heights on the strength of "Mother-in-Law," and K-Doe shared stages and crossed paths with national artists such as Solomon Burke, Joe Tex and James Brown, and local luminaries like Huey Smith and Tommy Ridgley.

K-Doe enshrined that era at the Mother-in-Law Lounge, covering the walls with publicity photos of R&B greats and local friends. It was one of the lounge's draws for local and international music fans -- K-Doe had stories to tell about virtually every performer, with bonds ranging from lifelong friendships to the most unlikely six-degrees-of-separation connections. In every instance, K-Doe recounted the events in a way that ensured he was the center of attention.

It was that flair for self-promotion that revived his career after K-Doe's hits dried up in the late '60s and he subsequently battled alcoholism for two decades. After first appearing as a guest on WWOZ 90.7 FM in the early '80s, K-Doe landed his own Thursday night show. In this forum, he perfected a wild stream-of-consciousness delivery peppered with the catch phrases that became his trademarks, such as "I'm cocky but I'm good," and "Burn, K-Doe, burn!" It was free-form radio, with K-Doe at the controls: When Rockin' Sidney's "My Toot-Toot" was released, K-Doe played the song 15 times in a row. His broadcasts made him a cult hero, and tapes of his radio shows were traded across the country.

K-Doe's often-outrageous personality didn't end when he went off the air. After opening the Mother-in-Law Lounge dramatically increased his profile, tales of K-Doe's exploits multiplied. When he received the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1997, his acceptance speech stole the show and left emcee Smokey Robinson incapacitated with laughter. K-Doe sold boxer shorts emblazoned with his likeness and "I'm Cocky But I'm Good" for $15 -- and a previously worn pair was $25. When his old friend Allen Toussaint's NYNO record label offered K-Doe a record contract he found insulting, K-Doe laminated the contract and hung it in his lounge for all to see. At a book signing for writer Ben Sandmel and photographer Rick Olivier's Zydeco!, K-Doe showed up and signed their books. He recently claimed he was ready to receive the Nobel Prize.

There were some that dismissed such antics as the work of a clown. But that's a disservice to the man who was a devoted husband and father, and frequently donated his time and energy to charitable causes -- especially his beloved Charity Hospital. His last two recordings, "White Boy, Black Boy" and "Children of the World," found K-Doe hoping for racial harmony and better education for today's youth.

Perhaps K-Doe's greatest legacy can be gleaned from a pearl of wisdom taken from the sign-off of one of his old WWOZ shows. "People say that understanding is the greatest thing in the world, but that's wrong," said K-Doe. "Because before you understand anything, you've got to pay attention. Paying attention is the most important thing in the world."

Ernie K-Doe made people pay attention. His music, especially the unforgettable "Mother-in-Law," demanded it. But his irrepressible personality elevated him to royalty status -- the Emperor of the World, ruling from his castle on North Claiborne Avenue.


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