Ben Sandmel

Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans-based journalist, folklorist, drummer, and producer. His published work includes a book about zydeco and a forthcoming biography of Ernie K-Doe . Sandmel has produced and played on albums including Boogie Bill Webb’s Drinkin’ & Stinkin’, and The Hackberry Ramblers’ Grammy-nominated Deep Water.



"Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans ('Mother-In-Law,' 'Ma-Naughahyde,' and Grassroots Surrealism)"

I propose a paper about the New Orleans musical/cultural traditions embodied by the late R&B singer Ernie K-Doe. K-Doe was best known for the 1961 hit “Mother-In-Law” -- a basically conventional song, apart from its unusually blunt lyrics. But K-Doe also deviated dramatically from R&B orthodoxy to create a wildly original persona with distinct aspects of grassroots surrealism. My paper will draw on material from my forthcoming book Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans, which will be out by late March, published by the Historic New Orleans Collection ( www.hnoc.org .)

K-Doe’s outrageous side first became apparent in the early 1980s when, as a DJ on New Orleans’ community radio station, WWOZ, he would spin his old records, in the background, while screaming outrageous statements such as “Ernie K-Doe, how great thou art!” He also dubbed himself “the Emperor of the World” and took to performing in regal garb and plumage. Part of this flamboyance was based on his youthful days as a Mardi Gras “Indian,” and much of his braggadocio was rooted in familiar African-American folklore, with striking similarities to Muhammad Ali. But K-Doe also created his own private language where, for example, the word “naugahyde” (a brand of synthetic leather) bizarrely became a term of celebratory sexuality. I will bring excerpts of this verbal performance art, along with samples of K-Doe’s music, and discuss how, by the late ‘90s, he emerged as an unlikely cult hero to diverse segments of New Orleans’ astounded yet affectionate citizenry.

My Speakers Sessions

Sunday, March 25

4:00pm EDT