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.