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A talk with Ben Sandmel, who chronicles the rise, fall and redemption of New Orleans legend Ernie K-Doe

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New Orleans journalist, drummer, producer and folklorist Ben Sandmel has been writting about Louisiana music for decades. But few performers have been more colorful or unique than the mercurial bandleader, songwriter and vocalist Ernie K-Doe.

Sandmel's new book Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans (The New Orleans Historic Collection) documents an amazing tale that includes a quick brush with national stardom, a lengthy period of regional success, then an ugly descent into alcoholism and poverty. It concludes with a final act of redemption propelled by a love story that wouldn't be out of place in a Harlequin romance. The book also includes interviews with more than 100 K-Doe friends, associates, family members and musical comrades, who speak freely and frankly regarding their memories and perspectives of him.

While K-Doe's only mainstream hit was the 1961 novelty smash "Mother-in Law," he had a host of regional anthems. These included "T'ain't the Truth," "A Certain Girl" and "Te Ta Te Ta Ta." His style was a brilliant merger of gospel technique with soul lyrics and theatrical flamboyance. His influence and impact extended far beyond the musical realm. K-Doe created and popularized his own lexicon, proclaimed himself "Emperor of the Universe," and developed a wardrobe and stage act second to none for bombastic presentation.

Sandmel, who was born in Nashville and once worked here, returns to Music City this weekend for appearances at the Southern Festival of Books and Parnassus Books. During an interview Tuesday he talked extensively about K-Doe (whom he knew for the final three years of his life and had seen in low and high moments in the Crescent City), his music, and why it was important to tell his story even though many other New Orleans R&B, jazz and gospel figures still lack comprehensive biographies.

You've spent decades covering and writing about New Orleans musicians. What was it about Ernie K-Doe that made you want to do this book?

There are two great things that combined make his story very special. The first was while he was overlooked nationally due to only having the one big hit, he was very well known and loved regionally. The other element involved the fact he was someone who at one point had become a derelict and alcoholic, then not only came back with the help of a devoted woman, but got a whole new beginning. He eventually had a club (The Mother-in-Law Lounge), a new set of proteges, and was once more a factor in the current scene. So he's not just someone that scored one Top 40 smash then vanished, even though that would also be a good story. He was a guy very involved in the New Orleans scene from the late '50s on and had a hot period, really dropped off, but made a great comeback.

Another thing that's kind of unusual with a project like this is you were close to him, yet you don't downplay or soften the negative elements in his story.

It's funny, when he came to me and said you should write a book about me, he told me make sure you tell the whole story. Don't hide the warts and bad things. When I was talking to various people, they were brutally honest. I remember attending one of the shows I write about in the book where he got the hook after one minute on stage. It was an event designed to put him back in the spotlight and he showed up totally wasted. He was supposed to be on the first part, but didn't arrive till the second had already started. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and they were someone else's clothes. He was holding onto the pants and if he let go, they would have dropped. It was awful and they didn't let him go past one minute before yanking him off that stage.

But later I got to know him. After he got cleaned up, he was singing great and doing the things that originally put him on top. So those are the kind of stories you don't want to leave out of any book that's going to be accurate. I wasn't interested in coming across as some gushing fan, or doing hagiography. I wanted people to know the truth, get the full story. When you really understand how far he fell, you'll appreciate even more he was able to overcome that and rebuild his stature in the New Orleans music community.

Did you attend or were you present at any of the events in that famous New York Times story Neil Strauss wrote about K-Doe?

No, I had met Neil previously and taken him to see Ernie, and he was blown away, which is why he wanted to do the story in the first place. I told him when he came back to get in touch with me and I'd take him over there and introduce him, kind of smooth things out. But then he came back at a very busy time here, and we didn't connect. For Ernie, the New York Times didn't really mean that much. For him, the local or regional papers were important, but the Times wasn't necessarily something that mattered. It was the classic clash of cultures.

But the great thing was the way Neil handled it. There are some writers who would have used that event to try and make things as difficult for him as possible, convince their readers that this guy was a washed-up jerk and should be ignored. Neil handled it beautifully, and did a story that really helped Ernie. I also think once Ernie truly understood this was an opportunity for him to get some national recognition he began to co-operate a lot better.

While you certainly have done a thorough and comprehensive job, would it be accurate and fair to say you liked him and had a really good relationship?

Well, I only really knew Ernie three years, though I'd certainly seen him play a lot. I would hesitate to say he was a friend, although yes, I did really like him. I had a much stronger friendship with his wife, whom I'd known for 12 years and we continued that after he passed. I could tell her she needed to stop smoking and she could tell me where to go, and it was in fun, and we both really like each other. Ernie was a kind and compassionate man in the time I knew him, someone who had a very positive attitude. I saw him tell performers don't let people rob you of your dreams, go out there and achieve them. He didn't mind telling people he had once blown things in a big way, and he was giving them advice so they didn't repeat his mistakes. He became sort of a motivational speaker around town, although he also could still really go out there and do a great show.

Is there anyone in contemporary New Orleans music that reminds you of Ernie K-Doe, or was what he did so singular and special no could really emulate it?

The answer would be somewhere in between. There is no one I see today in the current music scene who is emulating his vocal style or doing things with the "Emperor" wardrobe the way you see Fats Domino imitators working around New Orleans. But his music is very much still a part of the local and regional marketplaces. You see and hear black and white bands doing "Mother-In-Law,' "A Certain Girl" and others in his catalog right alongside songs from the Neville Brothers, Fats, Jean Knight and all the other New Orleans R&B and soul singers. So yes, his influence is definitely still very much around. But what I don't see anymore is anyone with that flamboyance. We're missing that in New Orleans.

Ben Sandmel appears at a panel on New Orleans music 3 p.m. Saturday at the Nashville Public Library as part of the Southern Festival of Books. He'll also be at Parnassus Books, 3900 Hillsboro Pike, 6:30 p.m. Monday.


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