Earl King was one of New Orleans’ finest songwriters and a world-class raconteur. Born Earl Silas Johnson IV in New Orleans in 1934, King was raised by his mother and grandmother after his father, a blues pianist, died when he was a child. After singing in church and on street corners, King’s high school band won several talent shows at the Dew Drop Inn. He spent his early professional years there, with owner Frank Paina serving as his manager. He eventually became so involved at the Dew Drop that he wrote and illustrated a newsletter including the latest gossip among its patrons.
As a young man King hit the road to perform as his hero and mentor Guitar Slim (not an uncommon practice when fans didn’t know artists’ faces), and charted nationally as himself in 1955 with “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights.” Later, King earned a reputation producing sessions and writing hits for other artists, including “Do-Re-Me” for Lee Dorsey, “Teasin’ You” for Willie Tee, and the Mardi Gras standard “Big Chief” for Professor Longhair. He also found time to wax some classics of his own, including “Come On” (later recorded by Jimi Hendrix, known to some as “Let the Good Times Roll”) and “Trick Bag.” His footprint could have been even larger if not for some tough luck with the recording industry (the stellar album Street Parade, for example, sat unreleased through most of the 1970s).
King spent his later career recording for Black Top Records and touring the world. And he never stopped writing. Most days, he held court at the Tastee Donuts at the corner of Prytania Street and Louisiana Avenue, booking gigs, receiving guests, and filling a briefcase with notes for new songs. He passed away in 2003 at age 69, leaving music fans with a treasure trove of incredible music.
Earl King’s tomb in St Louis Cemetery No. 2 is also the final resting place of Ernie and Antoinette K-Doe (and Antoinette’s mother). Thanks to Heather Twitchell, who donated this precious space in her family crypt, it is possible to commune with three great figures in New Orleans music in one fell swoop. Singer Ernie K-Doe, the self-styled “Emperor of the Universe,” was best known for his song “Mother in Law,” a national No. 1 hit in 1961. A dynamic performer, K-Doe toured widely and recorded numerous other regional favorites in the 1960s. In the 1980s, as a DJ on community radio station WWOZ, he became known for outlandish, stream-of-consciousness rants.
K-Doe had fallen on hard times by the 1990s, but a bartender named Antoinette Fox (cousin of R&B singer Lee Dorsey) helped him get back on his feet and open the Mother-in-Law Lounge on North Claiborne Avenue. The couple married and lived on the second floor. The first floor displayed memorabilia from K-Doe’s career and included a performance space where he jump-started a late-career revival. After his death in 2001, Antoinette celebrated her husband’s legacy with the help of a lifelike statue of K-Doe fashioned from a mannequin, which she dressed in his suits and jewelry.
The 2005 flood following the levee breaks during Hurricane Katrina inundated the lounge, though Antoinette reopened in 2006, using the facility to feed returning neighbors and visiting volunteers. On Mardi Gras mornings, in keeping with a Carnival tradition, she led a walking parade of women dressed as baby dolls from the lounge. Antoinette K-Doe died on Fat Tuesday 2009.
Concert footage of Earl King performing "The Things That I Used To DO," a hit by his mentor, Guitar Slim.
Concert footage of Earl King performing "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights," his biggest hit, with Dr. John on piano.