ERNIE K-DOE / “Certain Girl”
1961. Hardin playground. The swings. Down the street from Emmarose’s house. Emmarose and I were good friends, platonic, talked about everything with each other—she told me (was the first girl who ever talked to me about periods) how her menstruation affected her. It was near the end of 9th grade. My life was about to change, drastically, but at the time I knew it and didn’t know it. I knew I was going to be sent to a high school I didn’t want to attend. All my friends were going to another school and I of course wanted to go with them but couldn’t. Worse than that, I didn’t have a clue that this was the last of the typical teenage years. At the time, on that warm spring day in the park (if I remember it correctly—which I probably don’t, pretty sure I’ve got details wrong or missing—nevertheless) I know I was having a ton of fun. My current amnesia notwithstanding—forty-some, almost fifty years later—the import and feeling of that particular afternoon remains fresh. My middle school years at Rivers Frederick Junior High School had been a stupendously enjoyable coming-of-age time. I won my first and only in-school fight. First girl friends, sort of, not really but real enough at that time to seem like the truth. Seventh grade at Frederick High was where Mr. Conrad, my industrial arts teacher, taught me photography after school. Taking pictures has stayed with me all my life, except now I do video as well as still photography. In eight grade, thanks to Mrs. O. E. Nelson, I got turned on to Langston Hughes and picked up the pen. Later that same year I started seriously listening to music, joined the RCA Victor record club, became a budding record collector, and shortly thereafter totally hooked up with jazz. Those were sweet, sweet years of innocence wonderfully unraveling, sort of like the way cherry blossoms petals fall away preceding the development of dark, sweet fruit. That spring, Ernie K-Doe was a major source of my youth’s soundtrack. Most people outside New Orleans who know of this man, know only the song “Mother-in-Law” but for me it was “Certain Girl,” “Hello My Lover” and “T’ain’t It The Truth.” (All the K-Doe tracks in the jukebox are available on Burn! K-Doe! Burn.) Those three in particular are from among a string of regional and local hits recorded by a man whose early rep was that he would always challenge James Brown whenever Mr. Brown came to town. Burn, K-Doe, Burn. Good gracious, my man could dance like James, could handle up on a microphone like James, could sing like James—actually could do all that better (according to K-Doe) than James. I’d give the edge to James as a dancer, they both could whip a microphone chord and make the mike stand dance and twirl and fall perfectly into the palm of their hand when they did a split and let out a scream as they hit the floor, but as a singer, hey, I know I’ve got some home town chauvinism but in his youth K-Doe could croon, K-Doe could scream, K-Doe could whoop, holler and growl like as if he really was “the emperor” of R&B, an honorific he vociferously claimed in his later years. Back then it was the combination of K-Doe’s raw talent and the refinement of composer/producer Allen Toussaint's writing. Toussaint knew the tones K-Doe favored and not only picked appropriate keys and chord changes, but also gave K-Doe the lyrics that sketched out serious relationship issues while leaving room for non-standard English elaboration, like “Te-Ta-Te-Ta-Ta” (for which there is no English translation). Almost all of K-Doe’s songs had a subtext of hearty humor. As a teenager I loved those two and three minute social relationship epics. K-Doe was one truly eccentric New Orleans character, and let me tell you, you’ve got to be really, really way out to be considered way out in New Orleans. New Orleans is the home of African American idiosyncrasy. Hell, my home town is a veritable “character” factory. Ernest Kador Jr. was born in New Orleans on the fourth floor of Charity Hospital. (Or was it the sixth floor? Charity, New Orleans' longstanding popular public hospital, was closed after Katrina and is not going to re-open.) K-Doe died July 5, 2001 — they reported his secondline funeral on the evening news. (Yes, I was there for my man’s send off.) He had a little night club (actually it was a sizable joint) called Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge. He married Antoinette who became the keeper of his kingdom, a kingdom which includes a life-sized wax statue that attends numerous social events. Really, I’m not kidding! (Check the photo below.) Anyway, this particular day I was remembering, our ninth grade class was having a spring picnic. I was on the swings with Sandra. Sandra could have been a track star. She could out-run everybody at Frederick, male, female, two or four legged. Sandra could jet. Sandra and Emmarose were friends and so I was Sandra’s friend also. Every day, we used to walk the same route after school. I can’t remember the first girl’s name, but she and I were born on the same day, March 24th; she was the first to peel off from our procession because she only lived two and half blocks from the school. Then it was Patricia, and then Sandra, and finally Emmarose. After that, I would circle back to the Galvez bus stop for my long ride down across the canal into the Lower Ninth Ward. (Frederick was in the seventh ward, a good four miles or so from my house.) Sandra and I were swinging. I was sitting and she was standing, her feet planted on either side of my hips, I would kick on the up-stroke and she was push on the down-stroke; the swing was going as high as it could without looping over the bar. We were screaming and laughing. Just kicking it, literally. At that point neither of us had the other on our minds in terms of relationships, it was just a moment of fun. Across the street somebody’s front door or window was wide open, the music was pouring out (as was usually the case all over New Orleans). It was Ernie K-Doe. I was laughing then and still to this day every time I hear K-Doe crooning about a “Certain Girl,” I just have to smile. Those were my last care-free years. By the fall I would be full-out involved in the Civil Rights movement: picketing, sitting-in, voter registration. A different soundtrack for those years. But in the spring of ’61, it was New Orleans R&B, especially the Emperor, who didn’t go for no faking the funk, no naugahyde (imitation leather, aka ‘pleather’) allowed. Ernie “burn K-Doe burn” was the joyful noise that blessed the springtime of my budding adulthood. —Kalamu ya Salaam Without knowing it This is the music of my father's teenage years, but it's also music I grew up on without knowing it. When Kalamu told me he was doing Ernie K-Doe songs, the only one that came to mind was "Mother In Law." He told me the titles of some of the other tunes, including "Certain Girl." I didn't recognize them at all. Then he sang a little of "Certain Girl." Even as bad as he sings (and believe me, it's pretty bad), I recognized the tune. I've heard that call-and-response refrain ("What's her name?" / "Can't tell you!" / "Nooo!") so many times, I doubt that I'll ever forget it. I don't know if these songs were popular outside of the Crescent City, but down in N.O., all of these are well known records. I probably couldn't have told you that any of these songs were by Ernie K-Doe, but I've heard them all. Just as my Baba remembers from back in the day, it's the kind of music you wouldn't be surprised to hear coming out of somebody's open window on a hot, sticky summer afternoon. Sounds like New Orleans to me. —Mtume ya Salaam
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