A flamboyant R&B singer who proclaimed himself “Emperor of the World,” Ernie K-Doe made a splash in the pop music world in the early 1960s when his single, “Mother-in-Law” reached number one on the charts. Though he never again produced a number one song, he had several other minor hits and enjoyed legendary status in his native New Orleans, Louisiana.
K-Doe was born Ernest Kador, Jr., on February 22, 1936, in New Orleans’s Charity Hospital. His father was a Baptist preacher and Kador’s first public singing, at age nine, was in church choirs; he later sang with touring gospel groups. But like many others, the pull of pop music, in particular doo wop and R&B, was too much for him. In the early 1950s the young Kador sought to advance his career in Chicago where he briefly sang with the Flamingos and the Moonglows. His Chicago sojourn, however, proved less than fruitful, and Kador soon returned to New Orleans and to his gospel roots.
K-Doe began hanging out at the famed Dew Drop Inn and other New Orleans clubs like the Sho-Bar. He also sang briefly with a local group, the Blue Diamonds, with whom he recorded on the Savoy label. As a solo artist he signed with Herald and Specialty, and it was with the latter that he recorded his solo record, “Do Baby Do,” released in 1956. In 1959 K-Doe had a local hit with “Hello My Lover,” written by the legendary New Orleans songwriter/producer, Allen Toussaint.
It was Toussaint, in fact, who gave K-Doe, then recording on Minit Records (who, according to legend, were responsible for K-Doe’s name change), the biggest boost to his career. Toussaint wrote four songs for K-Doe in 48 hours: “Hello My Lover,” “T’aint It the Truth,” “Wanted: Ten Thousand Dollar Reward,” and the song that would become K-Doe’s only number one hit, “Mother-in-Law.” Ironically, K-Doe abandoned “Mother-in-Law” during rehearsal because it had not gone well. However, as Toussaint recollected in K-Doe’s obituary in the New Orleans Times-Picayune: “It found its way back out of the trash can and into my hands, so we could try again. I’m so glad we did.” The four songs, including “Mother-in-Law” were recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio, a popular recording studio of the era.
Following the success of “Hello My Lover,” Minit released “Mother-in-Law.” The popularity of the novelty song, with horns and backup singers complementing K-Doe’s outrageous vocalizing, took everyone by surprise. It reached number one on Billboard’s R&B chart during May of 1961. “Mother-in-Law” was the pinnacle of K-Doe’s success, but he used it to both sustain, for a time, and later rebuild his career. In the early 1960s K-Doe toured the United States, performing in venues such as the venerable Apollo Theater in New York City.
Born Ernest Kador, Jr., on February 22, 1936, in New Orleans, LA; died on July 5, 2001; married Antoinette Fox (second marriage), 1996.
Began singing with church choirs, later with toured gospel groups, age nine; by the early 1950s switched to R&B, was briefly a member of the Flamingos in Chicago; returned to New Orleans where he sang in clubs such as the Dew Drop Inn; sang with the Blue Diamonds; recorded “Do Baby Do” for Specialty, 1956; released local hit, “Hello My Lover,” on Minit Records, 1959; released number one hit, “Mother-in-Law,” 1961; U.S. tour, 1961; released last songs to reach the charts, “Later for Tomorrow” and “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” on Duke Records, 1967; guest deejay on WWOZ in New Orleans; opened the Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge, 1995; released Building Is Shakin’ & The Walls Are Tremblin’ and The Best of Ernie K-Doe, 1999.
Awards: Induction, New Orleans Music Hall of Fame, 1995; induction, Louisiana Hall of Fame, 1997; Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Award, 1997; Big Easy Entertainment Heritage Award, 1999; South Louisiana Association Legend Award, 1999.
Addresses: Business —Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge, 1500 N. Claiborne Ave., New Orleans, LA 70116, (504) 947-1078. Website— Ernie K-Doe Official Website: http://www.k-doe.com.
Though never considered more than a regional celebrity, his own flamboyant flair for self-promotion made him a legend in his hometown of New Orleans. The town forgave his failings, nurtured his eccentricities, and eventually accorded K-Doe legendary status, primarily on the strength of “Mother-in-Law.” K-Doe subsequently released a single he himself wrote,“Te-TaTe-Ta-Ta,” which became a minor hit throughout the Southeast. After this came another important K-Doe release—“I Have Cried My Last Tear.” It was backed on the B side by “A Certain Girl,” a tune that became popular in the United Kingdom, where it was covered by the Yardbirds and the Paramounts. (It was also recorded in the United States by Warren Zevon.) Other K-Doe songs of the early and mid-1960s include “Popeye Joe” and “I’m the Boss.”
When Motown and the British Invasion combined to crowd the established R&B and doo wop singers off the pop charts in the mid-1960s, K-Doe returned his home base in New Orleans. By 1967 he had signed with a new record company, Duke, and got back on the R&B charts for the last time with the singles “Later for Tomorrow” and a remake of “Until the Real Thing Comes Along.”
The next two decades were particularly rough for K-Doe. His eight-year-old son, Kevin, was shot to death in the late 1970s; his music was relegated to the novelty and oldies categories; and he became caught in the blur of alcoholism. He performed very seldom during those years, yet his legend grew as a result of a job he took as a guest deejay on WWOZ, an FM community radio station. K-Doe, who admitted “I’m cocky, but I’m good,” often exhorted himself over the air with the slogan “burn, K-Doe, burn.” This became a catchphrase for his fans and the title of a CD released in 1989. By then K-Doe was on his second career and his loyal fans wholeheartedly embraced him as “Emperor of the Universe.”
In the late 1980s, clearly on a downslope, K-Doe sang “Mother-in-Law” and other New Orleans tunes in such venues as Club Lingerie. His career was revitalized when he met Antoinette Fox, a K-Doe fan who managed a bar where he spent time. It was she, along with musician Milton Batiste and his wife Ruby, who got K-Doe back onstage; Fox and K-Doe were married in January of 1996. By then the couple had taken over a rundown bar called Memories and, with the assistance of friends and K-Doe’s fans, reopened the club as the Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge. More than a club, it became a museum dedicated to K-Doe; its hot pink exterior symbolized K-Doe’s flamboyance. The Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge quickly caught on with K-Doe’s fans, especially when he began performing regularly in the club. His backup singers, the Paradise Ladies, were Fox and her cousin, Tee Eva (sometimes spelled T-Eva) Perry. Backed at first by the Top Notes, he later formed a ten-piece band called the Blue-Eyed Souls. As an added flourish, K-Doe’s new mother-inlaw would appear onstage while he sang his signature song.
In addition to being the headquarters for the K-Doe resurgence, the Mother-in-Law Lounge became a cornerstone for the revitalization of a once-booming African American neighborhood. K-Doe himself was a changed man in the 1990s—a “recovering” alcoholic who still drank occasionally and devoted himself to local charitable causes such as New Orleans’ Kingsley House, the oldest settlement house in the South. As K-Doe recounted to David Cuthbert in a New Orleans Times-Picayune interview, “Anytime Kingsley House calls and wants me to do something for them, I’m there. Oh, yes, I’m their man.” K-Doe also performed at a July 4, 1999, roots concert in Washington, D.C., for National Public Radio.
Accolades also came to K-Doe in the 1990s. He was inducted into the New Orleans Music Hall of Fame in 1995 and into the Louisiana Hall of Fame in 1997; he was also awarded the Pioneer Award at Radio City Music Hall in New York City by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. In 1999 he received the first Heritage Award, part of the Big Easy Entertainment Award, along with a Legend Award from the South Louisiana Association. In the same year two record companies, AIM and Mardi Gras, released Ernie K-Doe CDs—The Building Is Shakin’ & The Walls Are Tremblin’ and The Best of Ernie K-Doe, respectively.
By 2000 K-Doe’s legend had captivated a new generation of New Orleans rockers. In March of 2000 five underground rock bands paid tribute to him at the Mother-in-Law Lounge by alternately backing him on his memorable songs. One of the bands, Fireball Rockett, had even recorded its own tribute, entitled “K-Doe.” The success of the night overwhelmed even the irrepressible K-Doe who told Keith Spera of the New Orleans Times-Picayune six weeks later that “I didn’t expect that big a crowd. I was very proud of (the rock bands). I stayed in their corner with them to make sure they had it right.”
Then in May of 2000, Neil Strauss of the New York Times interviewed K-Doe in his touring van, which was parked outside the Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge. Afterward the reporter went inside to watch the singer’s second set. Near the end of his performance K-Doe suddenly accused Strauss of illegally recording the performance on his tape recorder, which contained the K-Doe and other interviews. The club’s doors were locked and the police were called; the standoff lasted two hours before things were sorted out.
Even though he had moderated his drinking, two decades of alcoholism caught up with K-Doe in 1998 when he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. Over the next three years his condition worsened even as he continued to perform and hone his legend. K-Doe died from kidney and liver failure on July 5, 2001. In comments recorded on the New Orleans Channel (WDSUTV, New Orleans) website, Toussaint remarked, “Beyond the musician there was no K-Doe. He was all about the stage. Offstage, he was still on.”
“Do Baby, Do,” Specialty, 1956.
“Hello My Lover,” Minit, 1959.
“Later for Tomorrow,” Duke, 1967.
“Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” Duke, 1967.
Mother-in-Law, Minit, 1961.
Burn! K-Doe, Burn!, Charly, 1989.
The Best of Ernie K-Doe, Mardi Gras, 1999.
The Building Is Shakin’& The Walls Are Tremblin’, AIM, 1999.
Larkin, Colin, The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Vol. 2, Guinness Publishing, 1992.
Los Angeles Times, February 7, 1989, Part 6, p. 8.
New Orleans Times-Picayune, August 5, 1995, p. E1; January 10, 1996, p. A7; September 26, 1999, p. E3; November 18, 1999, p. 1A1; March 24, 2000, p. L11; May 4, 2000, p. A1; May 20, 2000, p. E1; July 6, 2001, p. 1.
New York Times, May 17, 2000, p. E3.
“Ernie K-Doe,” http://www.tsimon.com/k-doe.htm (December 13, 2001).
“Ernie K-Doe Laid to Rest,” New Orleans Channel, WDSU-TV (New Orleans), http://theneworleanschannel.com (January 2, 2002).
Ernie K-Doe Official Website, http://www.k-doe.com (December 13, 2001).
“Singer Ernie K-Doe Dies,” New Orleans Channel, http://theneworleanschannel.com (December 13, 2001).
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