Thursday, June 14, 2012

Five top books about the music of New Orleans

Keith Spera writes about music for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. In 2006, he was a member of the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Hurricane Katrina coverage team. He has also contributed to Rolling Stone, Vibe, Blender, LA Weekly, Garden & Gun and numerous documentaries. He lives in his native New Orleans. His latest book is Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleans.

With Daisy Banks of The Browser, Spera discussed five top books about the music of New Orleans, including:
Ernie K-Doe
by Ben Sandmel

New Orleans has produced some amazing musical characters – one of them is Ernie K-Doe, who is discussed in your first book choice, by Ben Sandmel.

It is a brand new book and Ben is a journalist as well as a musician. He is the drummer in a band called The Hackberry Ramblers, which was, at one point, the oldest active Cajun band in existence. Its roots date back to the 1930s. Ben is much younger than the other members. He drummed with that band for a long time and he has been working on this K-Doe book for more than a decade.

In a city of characters, Ernie K Doe was unique. He had a couple of rhythm and blues hits in the 1960s, most famously “Mother-in-Law”, one of the songs that was written and introduced by Allen Toussaint. And then he had a couple of other hits. There is one that was a big hit in the UK in 2007 in an advertisement for the drugstore Boots, called “Here Come the Girls”. That is one of their songs from the 1970s.

K-Doe, as with many singers from New Orleans, had a very fertile period in the 1960s and then he fell out of favour after what we call the British invasion, when the Beatles and other groups became popular in the United States. So he became less relevant. But he re-emerged in the 1980s as this strange iconic New Orleans character. He had his own radio show where he proclaimed himself Emperor of the Universe. He would make all kinds of comments like, “I’m cocky but I’m good!”

He reinvented himself as this character and married a woman called Antoinette, who helped get him sober, and they started a club called Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge. It became this outpost of weird New Orleans where there was this life-size mannequin of him and people from the underground music scene really took to him. You would go to the club and there would be elderly African Americans from the neighbourhood and young tattooed hipsters from the artsy part of town. It became this really interesting mix of people that hung out around him, and that is how it was for the last few years of his life.

He basically anointed Ben as his biographer one night, telling him that he had to write a book about him, so that is what Ben did! He’s been gathering anecdotes and research for a number of years in order to write the book that captures K-Doe in all his fabulousness.

He sounds like one of the fathers of music in New Orleans. But when he started his career in the 1960s, when New Orleans was still segregated, how difficult was it to break into the white market?

That is one of the things that New Orleans accomplished, to the benefit of the country as a whole. Another character who helped with this is Fats Domino. He really broke down some of the racial barriers. He was one of the first artists to cross over from a strictly rhythm and blues market, which tended to be a black market – there were radio stations and clubs dedicated to this type of music. But Fats also reached a more popular market. He played to mixed audiences much earlier than a lot of other people did. Music was definitely one of the means by which segregation was broken down.
Read about another book Spera tagged at The Browser.

--Marshal Zeringue