Like a great pop song, Ben Sandmel’s book about New Orleans rhythm-and-blues singer Ernie K-Doe opens with a great hook.
In the spring of 2000, during the annual flood of music that happens during and between the two weekends of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, New York Times reporter Neil Strauss visited Ernie and Antoinette K-Doe’s Mother-In-Law Lounge. Even by New Orleans standards, the nightspot on North Claiborne Avenue was eccentric.
Strauss had previously entered the self-proclaimed emperor of the universe’s domain in the fall of 1999. During his first exposure to the lounge named after K-Doe’s No. 1 hit from 1961, “Mother-In-Law,” the reporter was chaperoned by Sandmel, a New Orleans writer and musician who knew the K-Does’ colorful realm well.
“I took Neil there and he loved it,” Sandmel, the author of “Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans,” said this week.
But when Strauss made his second trip to the Mother-In-Law Lounge, without Sandmel, an incident of the kind that could only happen in New Orleans, and specifically at the Mother-In-Law, erupted.
When K-Doe spotted Strauss’ microcassette tape recorder, Sandmel recounts in “The Importance of Being Ernie,” chapter one of the K-Doe book, he stopped singing in mid-song. The Mother-In-Law Lounge went to red alert. K-Doe demanded that Strauss turn over the tape recorder. K-Doe and his wife and business partner, Antoinette, also called the police to report a robbery in progress. And they locked the lounge doors.
“I don’t need your little paper!” the enraged singer told the reporter from The New York Times.
“Neil called me the next day,” Sandmel remembered, “early on a Jazz Fest morning. He was shaken up. He and the photographer went home in a police car at five in the morning.”
Sandmel didn’t find the K-Does’ hostile reaction to Strauss’ tape recorder such a shock.
“It’s plausible that they would not have heard of The New York Times,” he said. “To the K-Does, he was just another guy in jeans and a T-shirt. And if you’re in the New Orleans R&B circuit, and you’re trying to promote the career of a local musician, The New York Times doesn’t have much relevance.”
Even so, Sandmel feared repercussions from the incident would be ruinous for his friends, the K-Does.
“I know writers who would have used their bully pulpit to crucify K-Doe,” he said.
Sandmel visited the K-Does at the lounge a few days later. “I tried to explain it to them, but they didn’t much get it,” he said.
Sandmel also tried to explain the K-Does’ behavior to Strauss. During Jazz Fest crunch time, he said, they had gone without sleep for days, busying themselves with making costumes and the knickknacks and T-shirts they sold as Ernie K-Doe merchandise. Furthermore, the idea that someone would tape a K-Doe show and release the badly recorded performance as a bootleg in Europe or Asia wasn’t farfetched.
“Neil got it,” Sandmel said.
Strauss ultimately wrote a large, kind story about his brush with the vainglorious K-Doe. He even encouraged readers to go to the Mother-In-Law Lounge.
A few years before The New York Times incident, Sandmel made a very positive impression upon K-Doe when he interviewed the singer at the Jazz Fest’s Music Heritage Stage. In 1999, Sandmel accompanied the K-Does to Washington, D.C., when the singer performed for a July Fourth concert organized by “American Routes” radio host Nick Spitzer.
Sandmel also wrote a story for Gambit, a New Orleans weekly, about the K-Does’ adventures in the nation’s capital.
“And I realized that this 1,500-, 2,000-word article barely scratched the surface,” he recalled.
In the spring of 2001, K-Doe suggested that Sandmel write a book about none other than Ernie K-Doe. A sometimes filmmaker as well as a writer, Sandmel arranged to film the singer while he visited his old neighborhood in New Orleans. The planned filming never happened.
Sandmel, then working as drummer, manager and producer for the Hackberry Ramblers, was on tour with the Cajun band when he heard that K-Doe had been hospitalized. Shortly thereafter he learned that the emperor was dead.
A crowd of 5,000 gathered outside of Gallier Hall during K-Doe’s funeral.
“The city was shocked,” Sandmel recalled. “There are country musicians who say Hank Williams was like a member of the family when they were growing up. Performers like K-Doe, Irma Thomas and Jessie Hill are part of the family to a lot of New Orleanians and south Louisianans.”
Sandmel started work on the K-Doe biography in late 2001. He spent nearly a decade writing it, but working with the Ramblers occupied much of his time during four of those years.
“Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans,” published by the Historic New Orleans Collection in April, generated enthusiastic reviews from Rolling Stone, Publishers Weekly, The Austin Chronicle and news coverage from NPR’s “Morning Edition,” the Associated Press, USA Today and The Los Angeles Times.
“It’s gratifying,” Sandmel said. “I wrote the book on spec and, really, only people who have done a project like this can realize what an all-consuming job it is.”