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The Emperor's New Prose

Ben Sandmel's Much-Anticipated Biography of Ernie K-Doe Unleashed on the R&B Legend's Loyal Subjects

FRENCH QUARTER -- The evening began with a simple question: "Do you want to see the statue?"


It was 5 o'clock at the New Orleans Historic Collection and propped up in a chair next to the speaking podium was a life-sized model, grinning widely with his head cocked jauntily to the side.


This was my introduction to Ernie K-Doe, the esteemed local R&B musician and subject of the Collection's most recent publication, Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans. Written by Ben Sandmel, the biography contains ten years’ worth of research, interviews and photographs and is the second book in the Collection’s Louisiana Musicians Biography Series.


While the event was billed as a dialogue and reception in celebration of the book’s release, the evening instead felt like a commemoration of K-Doe himself – which is probably just how he would have wanted it.


The K-Doe statue has become just one of the many eccentricities surrounding the memory of this New Orleans-born R&B singer and self-proclaimed "Emperor of the Universe". Yet despite the fact that he is most often remembered in popular culture for his grandiose personality and unconventional behavior, the event was equally an acknowledgement of his contributions to popular music and R&B, as well as to the New Orleans music community.


“Oftentimes when K-Doe is remembered, it’s for his eccentric personality. However, he really was an incredibly talented musician and just this powerful force that people, especially people from New Orleans, really identify with and want to celebrate.” explained Karen Celestan, the event moderator and co-author of Unfinished Blues: Memories of a New Orleans Music Man, the first book in the Biography Series.


“He is such an important figure in New Orleans culture as a personality as well as a person, and I think the nature of this event and the overwhelming reception people have had to the book just proves how central he still is to this community,” she said of the man who provided the smooth vocals to hits like "Mother-in-Law" and "Here Come the Girls."


The evening consisted of an open Q&A-style dialogue between Celestan and author Sandmel, covering a range of topics including K-Doe’s personal and professional life, his relationship with local musicians and the community, and the process of writing the book itself.


Present to discuss some of the more technical aspects of the musicianship was K-Doe's longtime producer Allen Toussaint, of whom he once quipped, “There wouldn’t be no Ernie K-Doe if there wasn’t no Allen Toussaint.”


Toussaint was also the author of the Emperor’s most popular song “Mother-In-Law”, the first song by a New Orleans artist to reach #1 on both the Billboard pop and R&B charts.


As he elaborated after the event, “People here in New Orleans take care of their own, and tonight is really an example of that. K-Doe loved the music business; he loved the music business more than anyone I ever met. This reception tonight, and all the people who came out here to celebrate him - it just seems right.”


The shear variety of supporters was evident as people mingled in the courtyard following the discussion, sipping wine and discussing their favorite K-Doe memories. Many involved the eponymous Mother-In-Law Lounge, the combination bar/nightclub/ music venue on North Claiborne which was opened by K-Doe’s wife Antoinette in 1995 so that the Emperor would always have a place to perform.


It was during one such visit to the Lounge that Sandmel began formulating the idea for the biography.


“One night we were sitting at Mother-In-Law and he turned to me and said, 'You’ve gotta write a book on me.'” Sandmel said. “I’m sure he would have had some critiques, I’m sure Antoinette would have had a few critiques…. If he was here tonight, he probably would want to know why it took 10 years for this to happen.”


Described by Treme co-creator Eric Overmyer as ‘one of the five essential books on New Orleans culture’, the biography which has emerged has been well worth the wait.


“I would like people to take away from the book that Ernie K-Doe was a major, top-tier musical talent, well respected by his peers," Sandmel said. "Sometimes the flamboyance and eccentricity of his later years makes people forget that he was always a serious, dedicated and skilled musician.”


From the writing and photography to the design of the book itself, Sandmel has compiled a fitting tribute to this New Orleans legend – one that does justice to his purpose by honoring all aspects of K-Doe’s outsized existence.

I wonder what Sandmel's final

I wonder what Sandmel's final draft of the book read like before its bowdlerizing edit into leaden Historic New Orleans Collection prose. As for Overmeyer's‘one of the five essential books on New Orleans culture’ -it would surprise anybody who has suffered through Treme that he has read five of Lolis's columns, let alone five books on New Orleans.

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