A 4-Way Portrait of Ernie K-Doe – Emperor of the World
By Richard Thomas
Ernie K-Doe’s life traced a
hyperbolic arc: In 1961 he became a pop icon singing one of the first
hits to crossover the Billboard
Pop & R&B charts with the Allen Toussaint (JF09)
written & produced hit, “Mother-in-Law.” Despite having only
regional hits after “Mother-In-Law” (“A Certain Girl,” “Hello, My
Lover,” “T’aint It the Truth,” and “Te Ta Te Ta Ta”), his indomitable
character forged an unlikely lifetime career. By 1966 he was on stage
with the Godfather of Soul, the inimitable James Brown, in an
R&B smack down at Municipal Auditorium; a battle K-Doe claimed
to have won.
But a single hit can only be ridden so far. Gigs
became scarce as the 70’s wore on and no more hits were forthcoming.
The pompadour gave way to a process doo. He began to drink. Still, his
boundless quirkiness landed him a spot on the Jazz & Heritage
Foundation’s radio station, WWOZ, where he spun his own records and
extolled his greatness by screaming over them, “Burn K-Doe Burn” and,
“I am the Emperor of the World!” Despite his vivacious surreality and a
cult following, he lost this perch in 1987.
The 90’s found him homeless and adrift until an old
friend, Antoinette Fox, resurrected him with patient love. She opened
the Mother-in-Law Lounge in 1995 to give him a performance venue and
became his wife in 1996. The process doo gave way to Lord Fauntleroy
wigs, flamboyant outfits and bling to delight his fans. Within a few
years he elevated himself to “Emperor of the Universe,” with attendant
crown and cape. On the Fourth of July 1999 he sang to 60,000 people
gathered at the Washington Monument and broadcast nationally to
millions more. On his death in 2001, he lay in state as a luminary in
Gallier Hall and was honored by one of the largest jazz funerals ever
held in the city. Antoinette commissioned a bewigged blue-toned
mannequin, enthroning it in the lounge, taking it out to Mardi Gras and
to brunch at Galatoire’s. Only New Orleans allows dreams to be held so
tight. Only New Orleans affords the grace to outlive them.
Richard Thomas needs no introduction to collectors
of Jazz Fest and Congo Square posters. His portrait of Fats Domino (JF89),
commemorating the 20th Anniversary of Jazz Fest, launched the portrait
series that continues to this day. His 2006 Congo Square poster (CS06)
showed him making this early form truly his own. He is an artist,
gallerist and teacher. His work is instantly recognizable even as it
continues to evolve. Less obvious are all the students he encourages
and trains, including Terrance Osborne (JF14),
whom he still mentors.
His approach to his subject is masterful. K-Doe went through many
phases, not all of them pretty. Thomas curated K-Doe’s career highs and
matched each one to a style he developed and utilized during his own
artistic arc. The upper left 1961 portrait tracks the pop 60’s style
Thomas used in his Fats Domino classic. The upper right concert era of
the later 60’s is appropriately done in a solarized psychedelia motif.
K-Doe’s WWOZ years showcases Thomas’ return to the realism he used so
effectively in his early political paintings. He imparts his current
artistic innovations to his portrait of the emperor in all his glory.
This lower right quadrant is a culmination of the styles that led to
it; realism amplified by expressionism overlaid with exuberantly joyful
Any one of these portraits would be coveted on its own. Having all four
tie together the artist’s and his subject’s trajectory in a stunning
singularity is a gift from the heart, soul and genius of a remarkable
talent and astute educator. Faced with a challenging narrative, Thomas
fuses 40 years of master classes onto a single sheet of paper with
bravado equal to K-Doe’s own. This time-spanning print echoes the
techniques of the prized ProCreations-produced Jazz Fest posters from
1975-1990 as it displays 21st century silk-screen virtuosity that keeps
pace with its artist’s growth – an apt achievement on this 40th
anniversary of the first 1975 limited-edition Jazz Fest poster effort.
3,000 Numbered prints on archival paper, 22” x 27”,
500 Artist-signed & numbered prints on 100% rag paper, 23” x
350 Artist signed and pencil remarqued, estate stamped with Ernie
K-Doe’s signature & numbered Remarque prints on 100% rag paper,
24” x 31”, $395
100 Artist-overpainted and estate stamped with Ernie K-Doe’s signature
& numbered C-Marque canvas screen prints, suitable for
stretching, 24” x 40”, $595
Poster and specifications may vary slightly.