It should come as no surprise that the idea for a biography of Ernie K-Doe (born Ernest Kador), came from the man himself, while the self-proclaimed "Emperor of the Universe" sat on a barstool throne at his Mother-in-Law Lounge in 1999. The writer was an easy choice for K-Doe because Ben Sandmel had just written a Gambit cover story about him titled "Mr. K-Doe Goes to Washington," chronicling an appearance on the National Mall on the Fourth of July, where K-Doe delivered one of his trademark boasts, telling the crowd that "The Star-Spangled Banner" and his 1961 No. 1 hit "Mother-in-Law" were the only two songs that mattered.
Although an immodest proposal, it wasn't a bad idea.
"If you say K-Doe's name to anyone in New Orleans, they smile," Sandmel told Gambit last week. "He's such a beloved figure. Everyone has a K-Doe story."
In his later years, K-Doe was best known for his Muhammad Ali-style boasts and flourishes and his fired-up rants broadcast on WWOZ. But he lived a full and dramatic life, and Sandmel carefully details it from the heights of K-Doe's early R&B recording success to his personal warmth presiding over the lounge.
"If he had been just a kook, that wouldn't have been grounds for a book," Sandmel says. "And one hit wouldn't have been grounds for a book."
Sandmel started work on the book before K-Doe died in 2001, but wasn't able to really focus on it until later. His research and the book's documentation are exhaustive and the book sheds light on more than K-Doe. It fills in the details on the decades between his mid-1960s descent into alcohol abuse and his rejuvenation once Antoinette Dorsey Fox (later Antoinette K-Doe) entered his life. The book features a large number of amazing photos (many provided by publisher The Historic New Orleans Collection), including shots of K-Doe masking as a Mardi Gras Indian in his younger years, conferring with Paul McCartney and Robert Plant at parties, and in countless flamboyant concert outfits. The book bears out the truth beneath the bluster and behind his one-hit-moment of wonder.
"His flamboyance and eccentricity were pronounced in his later years, and he traded on that," Sandmel says. "But he was a really good singer — respected by his peers."
It's also a New Orleans story that Sandmel spotted as soon as K-Doe pitched it.
"It's partly a biography, but it's also about New Orleans grassroots surrealism," he says. — Will Coviello
6 p.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday
Historic New Orleans Collection 533 Royal St., 523-4662