In 1955, Art Rupe signed two solo singers to his Los Angeles-based Specialty Records. One was Macon, Georgia native Little Richard, whose first recordings had been for RCA Victor in 1951 and '52. The other was Ernest Kador of New Orleans, former member of The Blue Diamonds, a group with one single on Savoy to its credit. Sessions for both artists were held on the same day. Each had a clean slate; one or the other, or both, or neither, might score a top-selling hit. Little Richard won out with the screamin', shoutin' "Tutti-Frutti," not merely a hit song but one of a handful of recordings key to rock and roll's ascendance into the mainstream. Kador's single, "Do, Baby Do," had its own kind of frenetic energy but wasn't successful. After about six years, Ernie made up for lost time in a big way.
Though his father was a minister, Ernie's was a broken home. Born in 1936, his formative years were spent in the Crescent City under his aunt's guardianship and by his teens he had performed with a few local gospel groups. At 16 he went to live with his mother in Chicago and sang for a brief time with various bands in nightclubs, a tricky prospect considering his age. On returning to New Orleans in 1954, he became a member of the Blue Diamonds, performing at local spots like the Dew Drop Cafe on Lasalle Street and the Club Tijuana. He sang lead on the group's only single, "Honey Baby," which was much too similar to Lloyd Price's major hit "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and failed to generate interest.
Larry McKinley, a popular disc jockey at WYLD in New Orleans, became his manager a few years later. The two, with Reynald Richard, wrote "My Love For You," a ballad, and the midtempo "Tuff-Enuff," recorded with Lee Allen's band in '59 and credited to the purposely misspelled Ernie Kado on Ember, a Herald Records subsidiary that counted saxophonist Allen among its roster. Then McKinley started Minit Records with Joe Banashak, a label that grew to be one of Louisiana's best outlets for local talent. Deejays had trouble pronouncing Kador/Kado, so Banashak suggested Ernie spell his last name phonetically. Strange as it seems, Ernie K-Doe became the singer's permanent name.
Allen Toussaint was hired to produce and write songs for many of the label's artists; while early K-Doe efforts like "Make You Love Me" and "Hello My Lover" had potential, it was with Jessie Hill's terrifically twisted "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" in the spring of 1960 that Toussaint, and the Minit label, first had nationwide success. K-Doe's breakthrough came by chance when he found a song Toussaint had written and rejected and thrown in the trash. The lyrics of "Mother-In-Law" struck a chord with him; the timing was right, as he was having marital problems and put most of the blame on his mother-in-law's meddling ways. The session featured backup vocals by Benny Spellman (his bass voice the first thing you hear) and a horn section Toussaint had been developing as a signature sound for much of the label's output. Banashak had arranged for distribution through Imperial Records not long before, which didn't exactly hurt the song's chances, though it was the image of a mother-in-law ('Satan should be her name...to me they're about the same') all too familiar to married couples that made it work as kind of an inside joke. It debuted on the charts at the end of March 1961, taking just two weeks to reach the top ten on its way to number one in May, an across-the-board smash for Minit Records that earned Ernie a Grammy nomination for Best Rhythm and Blues Recording.
Other artists reacted quickly, recording answers to Ernie's hit. Just as he was reaching the top of the charts, The Blossoms and the more motherly-sounding Louise Brown appeared with different "Son-In-Law" songs equally critical of the title character, followed by Paul Peek (previously a member of Gene Vincent's band The Blue Caps) railing about a loser who usually comes with the territory: "Brother-In-Law (He's a Moocher)." Less specific but obvious takeoffs flooded the market, one of the more popular being "Nag" by The Halos, a top 30 hit in July '61. Dozens of other 45s popped up in the coming months offering varying takes on the pitfalls of so-called domestic bliss. Toussaint (writing under his mom's name Naomi Neville, an alias he often used) even got into the act with "Always Naggin' (Grumblin' Fussin' Nag Nag)," released on Minit by The Del Royals (two of the group's singers, Calvin Lee and Willie Harper, had provided backing vocals on "Mother-In-Law").
Ernie made some great records after that, overshadowed by the one impossible-to-top smash but decent sellers (and big hits in New Orleans) regardless; the breezy "Te-Ta-Te-Ta-Ta" fared best. "I Cried My Last Tear" proved K-Doe had a way with a ballad (it was a minor hit when remade by The O'Jays in '65) and its flip, "A Certain Girl," is nothing less than a Big Easy R&B classic (a favorite of latter-day rockers, it was revived by The Yardbirds a few years later and a version by Warren Zevon hit the charts in 1980). Ernie jumped on a brand new bandwagon in early '62 with "Popeye Joe," his last single to make the pop charts. Then he repaid the favor Spellman had given him, singing backup on Benny's "Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)," but it was a lopsided trade-off (despite the excellence of the finished recording) as the song peaked far below the hard-to-reach height of "Mother-In-Law."
After five more singles on Minit, K-Doe made a couple of records for the affiliated Instant label, then parted ways with Allen Toussaint and signed long-term with Houston-based Duke Records towards the end of 1964. The first disc, "My Mother-In-Law (Is in My Hair Again)," reeked of desperation, but many later singles were quite good and he reached the R&B charts twice in '67 with "Later For Tomorrow" and a soul-injected updating of '30s tune "Until the Real Thing Comes Along." He stayed with Duke through the end of the '60s, then reunited with Toussaint, resulting in at least one great song, "Here Come the Girls" on Janus in 1970, that has stood the test of time. He recorded briefly for the Island and Sansu labels later in the decade.
Ernie K-Doe fell out of the national spotlight rather quickly, but remained a local favorite until his passing in 2001. In the early 1980s he hosted a show on community radio station WWOZ at 90.7 FM, gaining a following drawn to his over-the-top personality (favorite phrase: "Burn, K-Doe, burn!"). By the 1990s he had taken to wearing flashy outfits in keeping with the pretentious nickname he had bestowed upon himself: "The Emperor of the Universe." In 1994, Ernie opened a nightclub on Claiborne Avenue in the Tremé neighborhood, logically calling it the Mother-In-Law Lounge and running it with his wife, Antoinette (born Antoinette Dorsey, she was singer Lee Dorsey's cousin). She kept the club going after his death, memorializing him with a large, lifelike statue of Ernie as a somewhat bizarre centerpiece. After Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, the club was in severe need of repair (the statue managed to survive intact) and through fundraisers, and a lot of determination on the part of "Miss Antoinette," as she was affectionately known, the club reopened the following summer. Today the Mother-In-Law Lounge is a must-see landmark of New Orleans and a tribute to one of the city's most colorful entertainers.