Listen to this track by Crescent City R&B singer, radio personality, and self-styled “R&B Emporer of New Orleans” Ernie K-Doe. It’s “Mother-in-Law” his 1961 number one single that would become his signature tune.
The song was written and produced by indispensable musical renaissance man Allen Toussaint, although it was something of a throwaway tune from him almost literally. The right take on the song proved to be very elusive during the three-hour recording session. In frustration, Toussaint took the songsheet and threw it away. Luckily for Ernie K-Doe and also for Allen Toussaint, backing singer Willie Hopper fished it out of the trash and encouraged the singer to give it another shot, convinced that the song was a hit. It was.
“Mother-in-Law” scored the number one spot on the R&B charts in May of 1961 and stayed there for a week. Ernie K-Doe (born Ernest Kador, Jr.) would trade on this song for decades, singing it during live appearances until the end of his life in 2001. As much as it was signature for him, being his best chart showing by far, the song itself can be viewed as a mark of the times out of which it came, too.
By the end of the fifties and into the early sixties, the charts were littered with teen idols, girl groups, and novelty tunes where first wave rock n’ roll songs once rested. “Mother-in-Law” would appear on “As seen on TV”compilation records for years afterwards along with songs like “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”(1960), “Purple People Eater” (1958), “Babysittin’ Boogie” (1962), and so many others from that same era. I first heard it on the Looney Tunes compilation record on the K-Tel label, which I got as a Christmas present one year sometime in the mid-to-late 1970s.
This one was certainly in the novelty song category, with some quirky lyrics that covered a subject matter that wasn’t really well represented in pop music in quite this way before; the meddling mother-in-law. This contemptible figure was a trope that Hollywood and TV had put forward during that period, a time when the nuclear family concept was rapidly eclipsing the extended family in the average North American home thanks to economic booms and cultural portrayals as put forward in movies and TV to help set the norm. The Mother-in-Law (and significantly with no Father-in-Law in sight) seemed to single-handedly embody a resistance to a hard-working breadwinners’ freedom and kingship of his castle. How could she stoop so low (eight-year old me: “Maybe she’s really short?”)? This set of assumptions and portrayals resting solely on the Mother-in-Law’s shoulders is perhaps of no surprise to anyone today who’s taken a basic women’s studies course, or has some conception of gender politics.
As catchy and appealing as this song is, there is some edginess to this tune even now that serves as a reflection of some real dynamics at work during the period this song was in the charts. In this, “Mother-in-Law” isn’t quite as silly as some of the other novelty songs of the era. It seems to contain bona fide anger and resentment; “Satan is her name/To me, they’re about the same”, “Sent from down below…”. That doesn’t mince words, especially for the time. It hit the number one spot albeit briefly, which is an indicator of its resonance. Among all the “Sunshine and Lollipops” style songs of the era this one’s actually pretty dark, even if at the time it would never have been viewed as such. In period TV shows like The Flintstones and Bewitched, the mean-spirited Mother-in-Law figure was also reinforced in a comedic light, a fixture of mid-century culture.
Ernie K-Doe would record other songs in the sixties, even teaming up with Allen Toussaint again at the beginning of the 1970s. But this one would be his primary vehicle as a professional performer. Even though it has something of a cultural date stamp on it, it still managed to go over well with crowds and to make it onto the kinds of record compilations they marketed on TV when I was a kid.
After a period spent down and out for a while, and then as a stint as a (very) eccentric radio personality in New Orleans, Ernie K-Doe would still be found performing this song during live shows, most notably on one occasion singing seven consecutive versions of “Mother-in-Law” while draped in a green cape in front of the Gulf of Mexico shark tank at the Aquarium of the Americas during a charity show. There’s an image for you!
After Ernie K-Doe’s death in 2001, The Mother-in-Law lounge, a music venue founded by him in 1994 with his wife Antoinette (I wonder what her mother thought of it all?), suffered damage during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But it stands today under new ownership in part as a shrine to a singer who represented a golden period in New Orleans musical history, novelty song or not.
For more about Ernie K-Doe and “Mother-in-Law”, here’s a transcript of a segment all about both from NPR.