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BOOK REVIEW: Unfinished Blues and Ernie K-Doe

Unfinished BluesErnie K-Doe

As the port and melting pot of American music, the Crescent City sound began in Congo Square, where African slaves and immigrants from the Caribbean and Europe played music from their home countries and proceeded to mix it all up. Jazz came from New Orleans, and by virtue of lineage so did rhythm and blues, rock & roll, Zydeco, brass bands, and bounce. Music is the linchpin of Mardi Gras, of St. Joseph's Day for the local Indian tribes, and of Jazz Fest. Music celebrates births and ushers the dead to the cemetery in festive fashion. If New Orleans isn't really where all music comes from—as Ernie K-Doe once proclaimed on WWOZ, the city's community-owned radio station—then I'd like to know where else.

You can hear music anywhere, but in New Orleans you can feel it and smell it in the thick and salty air. Now and then you can read about it—but rarely in stories as well-told as Unfinished Blues: Memories of a New Orleans Music Man by Harold Battiste Jr. with Karen Celestan (2010), and Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans by Ben Sandmel (2012). These are the first two books in a series published by the Historic New Orleans Collection. The large-format books are liberally illustrated with photographs, poster and record label reproductions, and ephemera—get-well cards, poster boards, newspaper clippings, election buttons—that alone are worth the cover charge. But the storytelling makes the difference in these lavishly produced books.

Of all the arts that inform New Orleans's rich culture and separate the city from everywhere else, music remains by far the most important. The musicians at Preservation Hall, one of they city's oldest living traditions, charge $20 for playing jazz funeral standard "When the Saints Go Marching In"; it is so well known around the world that tourists can't help but request it. And the creators of this culture, the musicians at the heart of it all, from Jelly Roll Morton to Lil Wayne, have been recognized for their contributions and have sacrificed themselves for their art (a moment of silence for James Booker, Professor Longhair, and all the has-beens and never-wills). Harold Battiste Jr. and Ernie K-Doe, the subjects of the two books, traveled wildly divergent paths to reach hometown legacy status.

Battiste is that rare success story from New Orleans's classic R&B/rock & roll heyday, from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s; he was one of the cats who left town to be somebody and make money. Most artists bitch about never getting paid and having royalties and publishing rights stolen, and were and are bitter, but Battiste rose to a position of prominence as an A&R cat for Specialty; as owner of the trailblazing African-American-owned AFO label; as a producer and arranger of classic American popular music (including Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" and some of the earliest recordings of the Marsalises, New Orleans's first family of jazz); and as producer and arranger of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe" and musical director of their television show orchestra. Along the way, Battiste tried to give breaks to others, including Melvin Lastie and Mac Rebennack, whom he produced as Dr. John, The Night Tripper.

Battiste was a scrupulous list keeper and diarist, and many of his diary entries turn up in his memoir. Still, for all the intimate writings, a reader is left wondering about the dynamics of Battiste's relationship with Bono and with other music-business players, as well as the specific details of what led to his divorce (besides the implicit demands of the lifestyle musicians lead). Too often Battiste gives his personal life short shrift to focus on career highlights.

Ernie K-Doe's story is more compelling, due largely to the writing talents and outsider's eye of author, musician, and historian Ben Sandmel, whose prose reads like a great New Orleans song is supposed to sound: you start tapping your foot with each turn of the page, as the tales grow wilder, more exotic, and larger than life. Each time you're ready to put the book down, you're swaying and moving to some silent rhythm. 

K-Doe was one of those one-hit wonders who never got his due, popularly or financially, after his moment in the national limelight with the number-one single "Mother-in-Law," in 1961. Like so many others, his story should have ended there, but K-Doe's mid-life resurrection became the bigger story. First he was a disc jockey on WWOZ, where the self-declared Emperor of R&B became a star in his own right. Then he and his third wife, Antoinette, started Ernie K-Doe's Mother-in-Law Lounge, where K-Doe held court and gave a satisfying show (on most nights) to visitors seeking an authentic New Orleans music experience—unlike, say, witnessing Frogman Henry singing "Ain't Got No Home" on Bourbon Street for the two-drink minimum.

Sandmel's appreciation and respect for K-Doe and Antoinette shows through his rollicking, party-time narrative that celebrates the extreme aspects of entertainment without ignoring the consequences of what the pursuit of pleasure can bring. K-Doe's post-"Mother-in-Law" life was defined by what Sandmel calls "anarchic madness," which is a nice way of describing the collateral damage brought on by all that partying, such as alcoholism and broken relationships.

But the redemption K-Doe found late in life through his wife and the Mother-in-Law Lounge is indisputable, culminating with his postmortem immortalization in 2001 as a life-size, stuffed statue that remained the lounge's centerpiece even after Antoinette's death on Mardi Gras morning in 2009. Betty Fox, Antoinette's daughter, ran the joint for a year and a half before she threw in the towel, acknowledging that she wasn't her charismatic mother. The current owner, trumpet player Kermit Ruffins, temporarily reopened the lounge at North Claiborne Avenue and Columbus Street for this year's Mardi Gras, and he hopes to eventually reopen the venue full-time.

K-Doe may have talked a lot of shit (he once said, "Ain't nothin' but two songs gonna make it to the end of the world—'The Star-Spangled Banner' and 'Mother-in-Law'"), but he was always worth listening to. The man's radio wizardry and penchant for hyperbole has been preserved for posterity:

As for the larger question K-Doe posited about all music and New Orleans, both books go a long way in providing the answer: music couldn't have come from anywhere else.

For more on Ernie K-Doe and the outsize influence of New Orleans on America's musical tradition, read "All Music Comes from Louisiana" by Chris Rose, featured in the OA's Louisiana Music Issue.

 

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