Bruce Allen shared this story along with his fund drive contribution. A story with as many iterations as there are listeners of WWOZ because it is a story of that New Orleans magic we've all experienced. That magic that is the common denominator of our WWOZ community.
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On my first-ever night in New Orleans, I walked from the Quarter down to the legendary Tipitina's, but should have checked the listings because there was no music there that night. My feet were tired so I called a cab.
Cabbie was a guy from back east who visited New Orleans years ago and never left. He said “I can tell you’re here for the music, let me tell you about a place. It’s called the Mother-in-Law Lounge. If you want to experience some of the essence of New Orleans, go there.” I had heard the song, of course, but knew nothing else about Ernie K-Doe.
Next night, my wife and I hired a babysitter at the Monteleone (until midnight) and after dinner followed the cabbie’s advice. We were soon dropped off in front of one of the strangest, funkiest and most beautiful installations of folk art that I had ever seen. Those murals! Those bathtubs!
We’d arrived early, way before showtime. We were the only tourist types in the room, and sidled up to the bar feeling a little awkward, until we were greeted by a woman with the kindest eyes I have ever gazed into. Antoinette welcomed us warmly, served us drinks, and then said “Now I’ll go get y’all some red beans and rice.”
We tried to demur, saying we had just had dinner. The eyes stayed kind, but flashed a little authority. “Honey, you about to see Ernie K-Doe onstage. You gonna need some fuel.” We quickly realized that we were going to have some red beans and rice, and that was not negotiable.
She brought out two steaming plates (no charge accepted) and it was so transcendently delicious that it shamed the expensive meal we had downed an hour earlier. And she was right, we were gonna need that fuel.
Because then the strange, magnificent K-Doe took the stage, backed by a smokin’ young, punkish-looking band called Fireball Rocket. They were propelled by a skinny wisp of a girl on drums who somehow beat those skins with the force of someone three times her size, but also with crisp precision and speed.
The punk-rock energy with which they infused the classic ‘50s and ‘60s R&B tunes was incredibly intoxicating. But K-Doe was the show, and he blew everyone away. The best description I could think of him initially was a combo package of Little Richard, James Brown, and Muhammed Ali. But Ernie had something else all his own that was even more outrageous and endearing than even any of those characters. The more he told us how great he was, the more we agreed.
Between sets, it became clear Ernie was quite smitten by my wife, and he flirted with her shamelessly (when Antoinette wasn’t watching him). Neither of us minded (and besides, Antoinette was usually watching him like a hawk, and letting him know it over the PA).
The place was soon packed, with sweaty writhing bodies (it was August) and ecstatic faces, old and young, black and white, locals and tourists. Ernie danced like a 25-year-old and burned through gem after gem, such as “Certain Girl” and “Ta-Tee-Ta-Ta” and of course innumerable iterations of “Mother-in-Law.” I felt like I had died and gone to Rock & Roll Heaven, and the joint’s roof was at high risk of getting blown off.
In the midst of my ecstatic state, I was ripped into a horrific reality: it was time to call a cab to get back before midnight, my wife urgently declared. BUMMER! I begged her to let me stay and take a cab back without me. “Please! I’m having one of the peak rock & roll experiences of my life here!”
She wasn’t happy, but she agreed and called a cab. Forty minutes later, she was even unhappier because no cab had arrived.
On another break, the ever-attentive Ernie saw her frown and asked what’s the matter, dear lady? She told him, and he asked to borrow her phone. He called the cab company and screamed “Hey! This is K-Doe! Gitcho ass up here right now! I got a lady here need to get home!!”
A cab arrived two minutes later. Ernie escorted her out and opened the cab door for her. Then he was back onstage, and I resumed losing myself in rhythm and blues nirvana with the rest of the blissful dancers, until at last the consummate showman and his young acolytes laid down the last song of the night – one final, blistering reprise of “Mother-in-Law,” of course. After a long and wild ovation, the crowd began to filter out.
At this point, I was raving to Ernie (who did not mind hearing it) and Antoinette about how great he was, and how much they would love him in San Francisco and I’m gonna go back there and arrange a gig for him at one of our finest venues. They gave me some CDs and t-shirts in advance of my promotional efforts.
Then I said I should call a cab, and Antoinette’s cousin Tee Eva (a saint herself, but who could out-dance the devil, I tell you) said “Sugar, even K-Doe can’t get you a cab here at this hour.” So she drove me back to the Monteleone at 4:30 AM.
That was my first full night in New Orleans. It was August 2000. Less than a year later I heard on NPR that Ernie had moved on to inspect other regions of his empire. I was stunned and deeply saddened, but also grateful that I had met this amazing man and seen him perform before he left us.
Much later I learned, through Ben Sandmel’s excellent K-Doe biography, that Ernie already knew he was dying of cancer that night I watched him burn the room down. He was giving us everything he had left, for as long as he could.
Only a few years later, of course, came the heartbreaking pictures of the Mother-in-Law Lounge under 10 feet of water. And then the stories of how Antoinette fed the neighborhood for days from her still-working second-floor kitchen, saving lives with those heavenly red beans and rice, until she was forcibly evacuated.
Her journey back home from some refugee camp in Georgia. The whole community rolling up sleeves to help her restore the Lounge. Her hilarious, satirical campaign running statue-Ernie for mayor. And then, her passing on Mardi Gras Day. To me, she is truly a saint, as is Ernie, and Tee Eva.
Everything about the K-Does – their story, the music, the warmth, love, and joy they radiated, the incredible night I was blessed to spend with them – is to me the essence of the people of New Orleans, the music and culture, and just, well, the vibe. A very cool, life-affirming, joy in the face of sadness vibe. Or perhaps it is more properly called a spirit.
Every time since then that we have returned to the great city of New Orleans, its people have treated us with the same welcoming kindness, and incredible music, and fun, and red beans and rice, and we are forever grateful. We will return there as often as we can for the rest of our lives.
I can’t decide if New Orleans gave me the gift of the K-Does, or if they gave me the gift of New Orleans. Maybe it’s both.
That’s why I support WWOZ, which brings me those gifts over the internet every night (and commercial-free, baby). Groove on, New Orleans, and Burn, K-Doe, burn!
Links to Ernie and Fireball Rocket performing at the Mother in Law Lounge are complements of Lefty Parker