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Excerpt: Chapter 19: I’m Giving Away Diamonds!

Perhaps the most highly sought recording of the Ernie K-Doe Show was made in late June 1984, when K-Doe announced that he was staging his own jazz fest to compete with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. From then on, he told “everyone under the sound of [his] voice,” he would perform at his own Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Blues Festival Picnic, in the small town of New Sarpy, just upriver from New Orleans. K-Doe had played the Jazz and Heritage Festival annually since 1973, the festival’s fourth year, and he was featured on a live album recorded there in 1976. But he continually argued with festival producer Quint Davis regarding his pay. The mere mention of K-Doe’s name elicited eye rolling at the festival office; several people would sing a two-line parody of “Mother-in-Law” that went “The worst person I know—Ernie K-Doe!” The accent was placed on the last syllable of his name to underscore the rhyme.

K-Doe boycotted the 1984 event because of this pay dispute, and because of a perceived slight in terms of scheduling. At the time, Jazz Fest had two components, one outdoors, one in-. The outdoor component made the festival famous—and has kept it in business since 1970, a remarkable achievement. Originally held in Armstrong Park, since 1972 the Jazz Fest has been held on the grassy infield of the Fair Grounds Race Course, a thirty-three-acre site. The festival also used to stage a series of evening concerts. (The latter segment was discontinued; now the entire festival takes place at the Fair Grounds as an outdoor, daylight event.) K-Doe objected to being scheduled for a daytime show. He found this al fresco venue demeaning. A man of his stature, he felt, should appear on evening concerts only—why not save the best for last? “I’m sick and tired of playing out in the yard!” K-Doe complained, even though many global headliners played there quite happily. No matter. Attempting to make his point, K-Doe staged his own event and promoted it relentlessly:

Ernie K-Doe got one of the biggest shows that has ever happened in the state of Louisiana. Burn, K-Doe, burn, number one, Mr. Ma-Naugahyde himself, is giving the biggest festival that’s ever been held in the state of Louisiana. I would like for all the Charity Hospital babies to come to New Sar-pee on the Fourth of July. I am the first black man in the state of Louisiana, with a period behind it, to give his own festival. Elvis Presley didn’t do it, B. B. King haven’t did it, Bobby Bland haven’t did it, them people ’cross the seas haven’t did it, named the Beatles, they haven’t did it. But guess what? I’m a Charity Hospital baby, AND I DID IT! I DID IT!

I’m giving away diamonds! You can take ’em to your jeweler or you can take ’em to my jeweler, BUT I’M GIVIN’ AWAY DIAMONDS! DIAMONDS! AIN’T NOBODY DONE IT! Kool and the Gang, Zap, Gap, ain’t nobody givin’ ’em away, the Commodores—ooooh I can just go on—Diana Ross, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, ain’t nobody ever give diamonds away! I am the only one in the United States of America that’s going to give away diamonds, and ain’t ask you for a dime when I give it to you! You know, some people in the world has never had a diamond in they whole life, ain’t never put they hands on a real diamond. You have a chance on the Fourth of July in New Sarpy. I’m not giving one or two or three or four or five or six, I done got happy and I’m givin’ a bunch of ’em away! Some people say, “K-Doe, WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE BOY?” I say, “There ain’t nothin’ wrong with me—I just want to show the public HOW GREAT THOU ART!” On the Fourth of July, the mayor is coming down, and also my people tell me that the governor is gonna come because this is history—and I love to make history. And then October the nineteenth is Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Day across the country.

(In 1982 the US Congress did create a National Mother-in-Law Day, to be celebrated on the fourth Sunday of October—but K-Doe was not mentioned in the resolution.) K-Doe’s rant quickly veered into a dialogue with himself:

[K-Doe 1:] But right now all I want to do is just spin records, and I’m gonna tell you more about the Fourth of July, hear?

[K-Doe 2:] Really?

[K-Doe 1:] Really! I am Burn, K-Doe, Burn! Number one, Mr. Ma-Naugahyde-Thuh himself, giving the biggest blues festival that’s ever been held in the state of Louisiana. . . . But the most important thing, something that never happened in the state of Louisiana, that a black man give his own festival, and something that never happened in the United States of America with a period behind it—that an artist is still throwing away trinkets and cuff links! Elvis Presley didn’t do it, he throwed away a few handkerchiefs and neck scarves and things; when the Beatles came here they didn’t do none of this, you understand? Many, many more that you can name. Boy George, he don’t throw away nothin’! Oooooh, on the Fourth of July it’s gonna be a wonderful day, the Fourth of July is gonna be a glorious day! You dealing with the man this time and not the boy. . . . New Sar-pee! New Sar-pee! I am on my way! . . . [Y]ou gonna see things that you never saw before . . . I’m gonna be giving away big blue-white diamonds—that’s right—on the Fourth of July! Some people say, “Is he retarded?” or, “Has he gone crazy?” It’s not none of that! I don’t have the problem! You gonna have the problem if you don’t be at the Lone Star Picnic Grounds on the Fourth of July for the Ernie Mother-in-Law K-Doe Blues Festival Picnic!

[K-Doe 2:] K-Doe, you gon’ give away all them diamonds?

[K-Doe 1:] As fast as I can! The man above done blessed me and the people done stuck by me—why shouldn’t I? . . . Burn, K-Doe, burn, with your bad self!

K-Doe suddenly turned contemplative, soft spoken:

It’s a thing that happens to all great mens that reach that peak where things happen to them as they start digging into life. You know I sit down one day and I said, “The world been good to me. I been all over the world twice and I enjoyed myself and I’m fittin’ to go a third time.” But a rose that is pretty will wither away and die. You don’t know when it’s gonna happen, but you know it will happen.

But the pensive moment quickly passed, and K-Doe raised the volume again:

The state troopers gonna ask them people, say, “What is wrong with y’all tonight? What is wrong with y’all this morning?” And the people gonna tell them state troopers, say, “Don’t you know what’s happening? You ought to pull your badge off, you ought to be in line with us, we goin’ to New Sar-pee to the Lone Star Picnic Ground to see Ernie K-Doe. The man can dance, the man can perform!” And you see, on the Fourth of July, while I’m settin’ history, every woman under the sound of my voice and every man under the sound of my voice, just come up and shake my hand, fellas, and every woman come up and give me a kiss, and you will get a chance to shake hands with all of my kids. I want all my kids to be there to see they father make history.

From this paternal sentiment, K-Doe’s mercurial mind ricocheted from a passing thought of lust to shout-outs to his musical colleagues, a brief spell of messianic delusion, and, finally, to sincere reflection:

Sunday I must have me some! . . . The only one man I found that can go toe-to-toe with me—see, at one time it was five of us, but now it’s only two of us left. When I speak about the Big Five it was Little Willie John, Joe Tex, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, and Ernie K-Doe. There’s two of us left behind, that’s Ernie K-Doe and James Brown! Once you go against us and you win, please believe me you will have a star in your crown! . . . I learned my dancing by watching Sammy Davis Jr. I learned how to act from the one and only Sidney Poitier. I learned how to have a heart and grab and take it and walk with it from Frank Sinatra. I learned from a young man who weighed only one hundred forty-five pounds, from the Five Blind Boys, Mister Archie Brownlee. I wouldn’t say that the battalion is not good as the general that’s in the front, but a battalion need the general to show them the way. I am the way! Believe in me and follow me, ’cause I can’t keep that door open like I did in the early ’60s as long as I did. . . . So we like for you to always listen to WWOZ where we play the best. . . . We be playing the records that everybody in the country like. It’s just like a good pot of red beans and ham hocks or pigtails or whatever you want to say it—everybody want a piece of the pie, and if the pie is good, why not give them a piece? We making a little bitty station be bigger than what we are, because our American dream will come true! Twenty-two years I waited for this chance, and I did it my way! I did it everybody else’s way before, and I failed, so if I go out now, let me go out smiling, my way. Thank y’all out there for sticking by Ernie K-Doe, and I won’t let you down!