African-American History Month - "tunes that you know and love so"
What do a disco-singing trio and a New Orleans R&B singer have in common? Well, you know it has to be about this 22nd day of African-American history Month, right? A number #1 hit (two charts each)? And?
Ernie K-Doe was born on this day in 1933 New Orleans. He had a voice and a “presence” that score him hits and great songs - unfortunately not always the same - as part of the New Orleans R&B sound. His first hit was his biggest, a recurring theme in music that usually leads to later troubles for a singer or group. I don’t know if that contributed to his personal problems. That first hit was famously rescued from the trash after the producer didn’t like K-Doe’s approach and tossed it. Not only did it help define a rebirth of sorts for New Orleans music, but became a brand for Ernie K-Doe. In April of 1961, it topped Billboard’s Soul Singles chart and stayed there for five weeks. Near the end of that run, it caught the top spot in the Hot 100 for one week. Not bad for a “trash” talking song written by a single 23 year old. After gaining help in his battle with alcoholism, the singer and his wife - his second, whose Mother he reportedly was close to, opened a lounge named for the song. That signature chart-topper was of course “Mother-in-Law” which K-Doe said would last forever “because someone’s always getting married.” Ernie K-Doe ultimately lost his fight with alcoholism, dying from cirrhosis in 2001, but his impact will go on as long as folks get married, some to that “Certain Girl” another of my favorites he performed which of course I discovered through a remake years later.
1975 - just before I learned “The Hustle” at a 7th grade dance - was a great year for music, if you like dance tunes. We had the “ooga-chaca” remake of Memphis song “Hooked on a Feeling,” “The Hustle” topped the charts, everybody was “Kung-Fu Fighting” - “balanced” out by Gordon Lightfoot, John Denver, and a couple of gems. Then there was LaBelle. Now Patti Labelle has an amazing voice, but there was one reason their hit, well hit, and sold - sex. In French. With a disco beat. Accompanied by disco balls - I mean the kind that scattered light. Like “Mother in Law” their smash disco classic defines the era. “Voulez-vous…” well anything, “Lady Marmalade” was IT. That song was not played at our Catholic elementary school dances, at least not that I remember. But it captured the moment, the trio singing about the stuff that may or may - in the free ‘70’s - lead to dealing with the girl’s parents. On this day in 1975, the love it or leave it - or love it AND leave it disco anthem topped Billboard’s R&B list on it’s way to the pinnacle of the Hot 100 in March.
And? What else did the two have in common? They had the same producer, who also played keyboards/piano on both. The same 23 year old single songwriter of “Mother-in-Law” arranged LaBelle’s hit and their best-selling album ‘Nightbirds’ was the same co-creator of that “New Orleans sound” of the early 60’s, the same writer of “Certain Girl” which I first heard by Warren Zevon. I can’t really do New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint justice, but K-Doe, Lee Dorsey (and Devo-“Working in a Coal Mine”), The Rolling Stones (“Fortune Teller”), Al Hirt (“Java”), Robert Palmer (“Sneaking Sally Through The Alley”), the Pointer Sisters (“Yes We Can Can”), LaBelle, The Meters, the Band, Dr John - who recorded among the hundreds of records he produced, and Glenn Campbell - yes Allen Toussaint wrote “Southern Nights” - all did, and do, and will. All I can do is share my story. Some of you have seen it before. Meeting this legend in New Orleans while I was wandering around the country was one of the absolute highlights of that year-plus of discovery.
I was in New Orleans last year, listening to The Dirty Dozen, when I looked over at the VIP area and thought “I know that guy from TV”. I was just beginning to learn about the world of influence and involvement this man had. I talked to some locals-they thought I was goofy. To them, Allen Toussaint was just part of their life in New Orleans. I was goofy-I had to meet the man. As I worked my way through the crowd I was thinking “what do I say?” As I got to the barrier and asked him to come over, I knew. He graciously came to meet me, some bum on a country-wide jaunt, and I leaned in so he would hear me and said “I’ve been a fan since I heard Devo do “Working in a Coal Mine.”(which of course I didn’t know was his in the ‘80’s)” He laughed and graciously autographed my trip notebook-something I don’t normally do-but he was such a giant that I was and still am just learning about it seemed OK. It was the peak of my visit to New Orleans and one of the high points of my entire trip.
I was at an outdoor show (Lafayette Square) listening to The Dirty Dozen, when I looked over at the VIP area and thought “I know that guy from TV”. I was just beginning to learn about the world of influence and involvement this man had in music. I talked to some locals-they thought I was goofy. To them, Allen Toussaint was just part of their life in New Orleans. I was goofy-I had to meet the man. As I worked my way through the crowd I was thinking “what do I say?” As I got to the barrier and asked him to come over, I knew. He graciously came to meet me, some bum on a country-wide jaunt, and I leaned in so he would hear me and said “I’ve been a fan since I heard Devo do “Working in a Coal Mine.”” He laughed and graciously autographed my trip notebook-something I don’t normally do, but he was such a giant that I was and still am just learning about it seemed OK.
There he was. The binder, the glue, that common thread over decades and genres. One of those incredible talents that put this thing we call music, a representation of our American culture, together. I never saw him play live, something he only stepped out to do later in life. We lost him in 2015 to a heart attack right after a show in Madrid. Here’s his own, complete with backstory. Just sit back and relax for a few minutes.