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Beyond The Music In St. Louis Cemetery No. 2

Jul 5, 2012
Originally published on July 5, 2012 10:25 pm

There's so much water in, around and underneath New Orleans, that the dead spend eternity in tombs above ground.

Most of the tombs now have a similar design: On top, there's space for a wooden coffin or two, and at the bottom lies a potpourri of decanted family remains. Sooner or later, whoever is up high must vacate and settle lower, making room for the newly dead. That's how families stay together — in a desiccated jumble of grandpas, grandmas, siblings and cousins.

Well, in one of the city's oldest cemeteries, the final resting place of a white, aristocratic New Orleans family is also the eternal home of black musical royalty: an emperor, a king, a consort and a mother-in-law.

From Chitlin' Circuit To Pop Charts

In 1961, Ernie K-Doe managed something that no one from New Orleans had ever done before — not Fats Domino, not Louis Prima, not even Louis Armstrong at that point. K-Doe scored a No. 1 pop hit with a song about his — and apparently a lot of other people's — mother-in-law:

She's the worst person I know

Mother-in-Law, Mother-in-law!

She worries me so

Mother-in-Law, Mother-in-Law!

If she'd leave us alone

We'd have a happy home

Sent from down below

Mother-in-Law. Mother-in-Law!

Written by the New Orleans impresario Allen Toussaint, "Mother-in-Law" is still irresistibly sing-able.

" 'Mother-in-Law' was No. 1 on the R&B charts for five weeks," says Ben Sandmel, who wrote Ernie K-Doe, The R&B Emperor of New Orleans. "It was No. 1 on the pop charts for one week. This is when the black and white music worlds were considered to be very separate. And he went from playing the Chitlin' Circuit and being a local artist to having huge success in a very short time."

K-Doe maintained that only three songs would stand the test of time: "Amazing Grace," "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Mother-in-Law," because, as he put it, "There's gonna be mothers-in-law until the end of time."

The singer was just exciting, Sandmel says.

"He was young, he was in great shape ... did all the microphone tricks and the dance moves that had been made famous by James Brown and Jackie Wilson. And he would take whatever material was put in front of him and just sing the hell out of it," he says.

But to most who knew him, Ernie K-Doe had a problem with self-esteem: He had too much of it. He even challenged James Brown to a showdown in New Orleans. Later, K-Doe declared himself "Emperor of the Universe."

St. Louis Cemetery No. 2

Ernie K-Doe never returned to the top of the charts. Instead, he hit bottom, facing alcoholism and homelessness. But in the late 1990s, K-Doe and his wife, Antoinette, opened a club and had a growing cult of young followers.

Then on July 5, 2001, Ernie K-Doe surprised nearly everyone when he died of cancer.

"I was hugging and kissing on Antoinette and doing the typical thing, 'What are you going to do? Where are you going to bury him?' " says Anna Ross, a champion of cemetery preservation in New Orleans, who paid a call on K-Doe's widow when he passed away.

"And she said, well, they have a family cemetery in Erwinville, and he didn't want to be buried there. They have a couple of plots at this cemetery on Airline Highway; he didn't want to be buried there. He really wanted to be buried in St. Louis No. 2, because it was down the street from the bar."

St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 is prime real estate in New Orleans and dates all the way back to Reconstruction. By happy coincidence, Ross' then-21-year-old daughter had just inherited a family tomb there. So young Heather Twichell offered the K-Does a berth, and Antoinette accepted.

"Then there was this gossip running around town: 'What is this white woman and her daughter and Antoinette doing? They burying a black man in a white man's tomb,' " Ross says. "My daughter thought it was the right thing to do. So we went ahead and had a funeral. People were dancing on top of tombs and vaults around here. It was wild."

The funeral was as grand as the Emperor had hoped. Thousands came to see Ernie K-Doe's services at the city's most regal hall. The second line parade to the cemetery was so long, it shut down the central business district. And sure enough, K-Doe's coffin desegregated the Twichell family tomb.

"He's the one who's made such a great impact on New Orleans ... and our music," Twichell says. "It's a gift."

Ernie's second mother-in-law — Antoinette's mother — joined him in the tomb shortly thereafter. He liked her. A couple of years later, Twichell opened the door again and welcomed a King.

'Those Lonely, Lonely Nights'

Ernie K-Doe may have had a national No. 1 hit, but Earl King was by far the greater artist. By the time of his death — on April 17, 2003 — King had written briefcases full of blues and R&B standards, including this one:

Those lonely, lonely Nights.

There's been some lonely, lonely nights

Oh baby, yes, since you've been gone

Lay my head on my pillow

How I cry all night long

The things you used to say to me

I thought that we would never part

Yes, you know I love you darling

Why did you break my heart?

Johnny Guitar Watson, Robert Palmer and Teena Marie were among the many who recorded Earl King songs. As was Jimi Hendrix. Remember "Come On (Part 1)"?

People see me but they just don't know

What's in my heart and why I love you so

I love ya baby like a miner love gold

So come on baby, let the good times roll

And then there's the Mardi Gras anthem that King wrote for his mother, "Big Chief." If you ever go to New Orleans and don't hear "Big Chief," then you should ask for your money back, because somebody took you to the wrong town.

"I'd rank Earl King at the very top in importance of anybody we ever recorded," says Hammond Scott, who was a co-owner of Blacktop Records and recorded King in his later years. "He was one of the most unique songwriters that came out of New Orleans and that ever will. He was dynamite."

Scott calls Earl King a complete artist — singer, songwriter, guitar player, raconteur, cartoonist and beautician. When King died, a horse-drawn hearse carried him to glory and his tomb in St. Louis No. 2.

Antoinette K-Doe joined King, her husband, her mother, and the Twichell ancestors in the tomb in 2010. Heather Twichell says when her time comes, she plans to join the cast of characters inside.

"I'm having a party," she says. "I mean, Earl King and Ernie K-Doe are up there. Miss Antoinette. Hopefully she'll be making some gumbo and her ridiculously strong coffee when I get up there. I'm gonna be cremated and jump on in."

Whether she gets a word in edgewise is another matter entirely.

Gwen Thompkins is the host of member station WWNO's Music Inside Out.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There's so much water in, around, and under New Orleans, that if you were to dig a grave it might well fill with water. So the dead spend eternity above ground. Over time, you place many coffins in a family tomb; newcomers on the top, the remains of everybody else must move toward the bottom.

In one of the city's oldest cemeteries, the final resting place of an aristocratic white New Orleans family is also the eternal home of African-American musical royalty.

Gwen Thompkins has the story for our summer series Dead Stop, in we're visiting unusual cemeteries around the country.

GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: In 1961, Ernie K-Doe managed something that no one from New Orleans had ever done before; not Fats Domino, not Louis Prima, not even Louis Armstrong at that point. K-Doe scored a number one pop hit with a song about his, and apparently a lot of other people's mother-in-law.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER-IN-LAW")

ERNIE K-DOE: (Singing) The worst person I know, mother-in-law, mother-in-law. She worries me so, mother-in-law, mother-in-law. If she leaves us alone, we would have a happy home...

THOMPKINS: "Mother-in-Law" is still irresistibly singable. Ben Sandmel has just published "Ernie K-Doe, Emperor of New Orleans."

BEN SANDMEL: So "Mother-in-Law" becomes a number one hit on the R&B charts for five weeks. It was number one on the pop charts for one week. This is when the black and white music worlds were considered to be very separate. And he went from playing the Chitlin Circuit and being a local artist to having huge success in a very short time.

THOMPKINS: K-Doe maintained that only three songs would stand the test of time: "Amazing Grace," "The Star-Spangled Banner," and "Mother-In-Law" because, as he put it, there's going to be mothers-in-law until the end of time.

SANDMEL: He was just exciting. He did all the microphone tricks and the dance moves that had been made famous by James Brown and Jackie Wilson. And he would take whatever material was put in front of him and just sing the hell out of it.

THOMPKINS: But to most who knew him, Ernie K-Doe had a problem with self-esteem - he had too much of it. Later, K-Doe declared himself Emperor of the Universe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'TAINT IT THE TRUTH")

K-DOE: (Singing) Yeah. You know it's the truth. Yeah. You know is the truth. Whoa-oh...

THOMPKINS: Ernie K-Doe never returned to the top of the charts. Instead, he hit bottom facing alcoholism, homelessness. But in the late 1990s, K-Doe and his wife Antoinette opened a club and had a growing cult of young followers. Then, on July 5th, 2001, Ernie K-Doe surprised nearly everyone when he died of cancer.

Anna Ross, a champion of cemetery preservation in New Orleans, paid a call on the widow, Antoinette.

ANNA ROSS: And I was hugging and kissing on Antoinette. And, you know, I was doing the typical thing - what are you going to do? Where are you going to bury him? And she said, well, they have a family cemetery in Erwinville, he didn't want to be buried there. They have plots out at this cemetery on Airline Highway, and he didn't want to be buried there.

He really wanted to be buried here in St. Louis 2, because it's down the street from the bar.

THOMPKINS: By happy coincidence, Ross's then-21-year-old daughter had just inherited a family tomb there. So, young Heather Twichell offered K-Doe a berth and Antoinette accepted.

ROSS: And then there was this gossip running around town: What is that white woman and her daughter and Antoinette doing? They're burying a black man in a white man's tomb. And my daughter thought it was the right thing to do, and she plays the harp - she's a musician herself. So we went ahead and had this incredible funeral. People were dancing on top of tombs and vaults around here. It was wild.

THOMPKINS: The funeral was as grand as the emperor had hoped. The second line parade to the cemetery was so long it shut down the central business district. And sure enough, K-Doe's coffin desegregated Heather Twichell's family tomb.

HEATHER TWICHELL: He's the one that made such a great impact on New Orleans and music. It's just a gift.

THOMPKINS: Ernie's second mother-in-law, Antoinette's mother, joined him in the tomb shortly thereafter. He liked her. Then a couple years later, Heather Twichell opened the door again and she welcomed a king. Ernie K-Doe may have had a national number one hit, but Earl King was, by far, the greater artist. By the time of his death, King had written briefcases full of blues and R&B and rock and roll standards, including this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THOSE, LONELY, LONELY NIGHTS")

EARL KING: (Singing) There's been some lonely, lonely nights. Baby, yes, since you've been gone.

THOMPKINS: Johnny Guitar Watson, Robert Palmer, and Teena Marie were among the many who recorded Earl King songs, as was Jimi Hendrix. And then there's the Mardi Gras anthem that King wrote for his mother.

If you ever go to New Orleans and you don't hear Big Chief, then you should ask for your money back, because somebody took you to the wrong town.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPKINS: That's Earl King whistling, while Professor Longhair plays piano. Hammond Scott was a co-owner of Blacktop Records and recorded King in his later years.

HAMMOND SCOTT: I'd rank Earl King at the very top in importance of anybody we ever recorded. He was one of the most unique songwriters that ever came out of New Orleans and that ever will. He was dynamite.

THOMPKINS: Hammond Scott calls Earl King a complete artist: singer, songwriter, guitar player, raconteur, cartoonist, and beautician. When King died, a horse-drawn hearse carried him to glory.

Antoinette K-Doe joined King, her husband, her mother, and the Twichell ancestors in the tomb in 2010. And Heather Twichell says when her time comes she plans to join the cast of characters inside.

TWICHELL: I'm having a party. I mean, Earl King and Ernie K-Doe are up there. Miss Antoinette, hopefully she'll be making some gumbo and her ridiculously strong coffee when I get up there. I'm going to go in there. I'm going to be cremated and jump on in.

THOMPKINS: Whether she gets a word in edgewise, is another matter entirely.

For NPR News, I'm Gwen Thompkins in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: All of our Dead Stop stories live on the Web at NPR.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.