From 1995 until 2010, Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-In-Law Lounge served as a music venue, community center, and shrine to singer Ernie K-Doe, the self-styled “Emperor of the Universe.” K-Doe was 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 helped him get back on his feet and open the lounge. 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.
Often accompanied on keyboard by Rico Watts, K-Doe played to a diverse crowd. Veterans of the city’s black R&B scene mingled with younger, predominantly white rock and experimental musicians. The K-Does embraced all comers: Murals on the building’s exterior featured local artists from Quintron and Miss Pussycat, known for “Swamp Tech” dance music, to Mardi Gras Indian Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana, who masked along this stretch of North Claiborne Avenue.
After K-Doe’s 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 caused by levee failures 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 died on Fat Tuesday 2009, and the lounge closed the following year.
In 2014, New Orleans trumpeter Kermit Ruffins reopened the club under the name Kermit Ruffins’ Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge. Ruffins has been known to feed patrons from a grill he tends in the back of a truck parked outside.
About North Claiborne Avenue
Built over a drained swamp, North Claiborne Avenue began to take shape in the mid-1800s, with a canal running down its center flanked by rows of trees (which is why it’s nearly 200 feet wide).
Around 1900, in the formative years of jazz, the surrounding neighborhoods—Treme and the Seventh Ward—were home to African-Americans, Creoles of color, and working-class families of various European backgrounds.
Segregation intensified toward mid-century, with the new Lafitte public housing development admitting black families only. Under Jim Crow, an array of black-owned businesses took root on North Claiborne, catering to those who were denied service elsewhere.
By this time the drainage canal was filled in and live oak branches created a canopy overhead, making the Claiborne neutral ground (median) an ideal promenade for black residents’ parading traditions: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, and Skeleton Gangs all attracted crowds here.
In 1966, over the protests of residents, public officials chose to uproot the oaks and build an elevated expressway above North Claiborne. As in other cities, the interstate paved the way for white flight to the suburbs.
A community of artists maintained the cultural vitality of the Claiborne corridor despite the ensuing divestment. Then, in 2005, the flood following Hurricane Katrina devastated the area. An uneven recovery followed, with many former residents unable to resettle in their neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, and their followers still throng their traditional parade routes along North Claiborne, with brass bands and percussionists using the acoustics of the overpass to amplify their sound.
Though some post-Katrina plans proposed removing the overpass, today the city is trying to revitalize the space beneath it. Ironically, some now see it as a bulwark against the wave of gentrification that has displaced black households from sections of Treme and the Seventh Ward closer to the river.
As part of the revitalization effort, in 2018 local artist Ceaux Young painted murals of local musicians on the underside of the bridge. “It’s hard to control the space you don’t own,” he told OffBeat. “My main job is to protect that footprint.”
Ernie K-Doe and band perform "T'aint It the Truth" at Winnie's in New Orleans in 1982, shot by Alan Lomax and crew.
The official Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame Induction video for Ernie K-Doe, including footage of a Jazz Fest performance and his appearance with Antoinette in the movie Happy, Now & Then.
Ernie K-Doe in action at his Mother-in-Law Lounge with The Egg Yolk Jubilee, April 27th, 2001.
An interview with Mother-in-Law Lounge proprietor Antoinette K-Doe from 2008, three years after Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophic levee failures.