Click to add text...
“I was writing for Ernie K-Doe at the time”, explained songwriter Allen Toussaint, “My grandmother called me when she heard about the song’s popularity and said, ‘Don’t you know I’m your mother’s mother-in-law…how dare you?’ But after it became #1 in the country, she calmed down.” (1)
Toussaint was born in the Gert Town section of New Orleans in 1938. He took informal music lessons from an elderly neighbor, Ernest Pinn while soaking up the boogie-woogie rhythms of Albert Ammons, Pinetop Smith and the master of the distinctive New Orleans rolling piano style, Professor Longhair (aka Henry Byrd).
At the age of 13, he joined the Flamingos, an R&B band that also included the guitarist Snooks Eaglin. “We were in heaven and we played sock hops, school dances, proms. We’d play out in the countryside in joints we were too young to be in, but we got away with it.” (2)
By his senior year at Booker T. Washington High School, he was working with blues singer and songwriter, Earl King who introduced Toussaint to the music community at New Orleans Dew Drop Inn. The late nights clashed with school so he dropped out. He did return but when offered the chance to take Huey “Piano” Smith’s place on a tour with Shirley and Lee, he left school for good. “Nothing gave me anything like the pleasure playing the piano and writing and singing gives me. There was never a question of what I was going to do. I was going to be a musician. I knew right away, nothing else interested me, this was a lifetime vocation for me,” Allen stated. (2)
It was at the Dew Drop that Toussaint, now a member of the house band, caught the attention of Dave Bartholomew, a record producer who needed someone to lay down piano tracks for upcoming Fats Domino songs while Fats was on the road. Domino dubbed the vocal tracks later as the tunes, I Want You To Know and Young School Girl, hit the pop chart in late 1957 and late 1958. (3) “He (Bartholomew) said, ‘just play like Fats’, so I did because I knew all of Fats Domino’s songs, I knew the type of playing they needed. Fats saw me in town and said he wasn’t sure if it was me or him playing on the record. That was one of the biggest compliments I could get.” (2)
In 1958, Allen became the house pianist for the studio at J&M Record Shop where he honed his producing and arranging talents. He began performing regularly in Bartholomew's band, and he recorded with Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Lee Allen and other leading New Orleans performers.
In late 1959, Larry McKinley, a popular disc jockey at WYLD in New Orleans and local talent manager, teamed with record promoter and record shop owner, Joe Banashak to launch Minit Records. McKinley had just one client, a young and hungry Ernie Kador, on his roster. “When they started Minit they were holding auditions at a radio station and out of most of the young musicians - the young kids around town - I was known as someone who knew all the songs of the day. So if they wanted someone to play behind them as they would audition, then I was their guy,” Allen recalled. (4)
An early photo of Allen Toussaint.
Photo courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Those auditions from early 1960 yielded five very gifted performers. Jessie Hill, Benny Spellman, Joe Tex, Irma Thomas and Aaron Neville. Only Tex wasn’t offered a contract because he was already signed to another label. However, the best hire of the day came in the person Toussaint himself. “So when the day of auditions was over, the two gentlemen called me in. At that time, they had thought that Harold Batiste was going to be their A&R man, however he was on the West Coast with Sonny & Cher, who were having their hey day at the time. They asked me to fill the role until they could secure Harold. I immediately said yes, and right away they were very satisfied with me and I was elated to be with them. Batiste stayed on the West Coast and I stayed with Minit and then Instant Records,” Toussaint stated. (4) Adding Lee Dorsey and Ernie Kador (DJ’s had problems pronouncing his last name so at the suggestion of Banashak, he changed it K-Doe) to the roster, Minut Records was ready to become the best outlet for local New Orleans talent.
Allen’s work as a session musician also allowed him to develop his talents as a songwriter. “Many times, the artist wouldn’t have but three songs, and the talent scout maybe wanted four,” he recalled. “So they would take a break and I would write that fourth song in the studio.” When Minit Records was formed in New Orleans in 1960, the 22-year-old Toussaint became the label’s musical director and the hits poured out for local artists including Hill, Thomas and Chris Kenner. (5)
Still living at home with his parents, Allen would write tunes in the back of the house and bring them to the front room where the artists made a habit of hanging out daily. He would show them a new composition, the singers would tinker with it and eventually took it to the studio to record. “I’d write a song for Irma, and the rest would sing background behind her. Then I’d write one for Aaron, and Irma and the rest would sing behind him, and so on,” he said. “We were having a good time and it happened to bring in money.” (6)
Within a few months, Toussaint’s arranging skills paid off when Jessie Hill’s self-penned tune, Ooh Poo Pah Doo, hit the charts, giving Minit it’s first big hit. Unfortunately, it would be the only hit Hill would ever have.
Ernie Kador came from a broken home in Chicago where his father was a minister. His early years were spent in New Orleans with his aunt. By the time he was a teenager, he was performing with gospel groups. Returning to Chicago to live with his mother at 16, he sang in various bands and performed in nightclubs. He returned to New Orleans in 1954 and became a member of the Blue Diamonds, performing at clubs like the Dew Drop Inn and the Club Tijuana. He sang lead on the group’s only single Honey Baby, which failed to generate any interest. However, his stage persona caught the attention of Larry McKinley, who would sign Kador to his Minit label.
Photo courtesy of HooDoo Records.
The first two recordings by Ernie K-Doe for Minit, Make You Love Me and Hello My Love, enjoyed only modest success. The third song would become his biggest hit of all. “Mother-In-Law was written the same day as T'aint It The Truth, Wanted $10,000 Reward and Hello My Lover. And we had a great time with it,” Allen recalled. Toussaint came up with the song when he was playing piano in his family's living room, messing around with bits of a song he had heard from the gospel group the Harmonizing Four. Toussaint didn't have a mother-in-law at the time - he was single - but he kept hearing comedians making mother-in-law jokes on TV, so he knew it would get a reaction. Trying to think up lyrics, he came up with the title and quickly fabricated the story about a guy who is put though hell by his mother-in-law. (7) “When Ernie first attempted to sing it in the front room, it didn't come off nearly the way I thought it should have. So I discarded that song, like I had done so many others and threw it in the trashcan,” recalled Allen in an interview with NPR. (8)
The story hits a fork in the road as various sources cite backup singer, Willie Harper as the person who retrieved it from the trash. Toussaint continued, "What happened is I wrote four songs for him to do, because we always recorded four songs at a time, and Mother-In-Law was one of them. When I tried it out on him the first time, he began to shout and preach at it and I really didn't like his approach to it. I thought it was a waste of time to try to get him to do it, so I balled it up and put it in the trash can, like I did with other songs. Willie Harper, thought it was just a wonderful song, so he took it out of the trash can and said, 'K-Doe, why don't you calm down and listen closer to the way Allen is doing it and try to do it like that? This is a good song.' So he calmed down and didn't preach at it, but did it like it finally came out. (9)
Other sources say it was K-Doe who fished the balled up paper from the trash, thereby saving his destiny. (10) Ernie wanted to record the song because he related strongly to its sentiments: his mother-in-law was living in his house at a time of marital turmoil. (7)
Toussaint arranged the three-hour recording session for the four songs at J&M studios. However, the session wasn’t coming together. Allen was missing one crucial piece to his arrangement of Mother-In-Law. Present in the studio but not participating was another of Minit’s minor artists who, like K-Doe, hung around making extra money as a backing vocalist. Toussaint called the baritone singer, Benny Spellman, to the studio floor and found the song’s missing puzzle part. With Benny Spellman’s bellowing of the song title laced throughout, Mother-In-Law skyrocketed to the top of the charts. (11)
Photo courtesy of Shout Records.
The song debuted at #55 on the Billboard Hot 100 on March 27, 1961, sat at #2 behind Del Shannon’s Runaway for three weeks before taking over the #1 slot on May 22. The chart lifespan of Mother-In-Law was fourteen weeks. (12) (13)
K-Doe, ever the showman, inspired Toussaint to write more for him. “He got it going because he was heavy on promoting himself. So, he would get out there. He didn't watch grass grow. He was all over place,” Toussaint said. (8)
That attitude didn’t sit well with Spellman. “He didn't know what it was worth at the time we were doing it, but when Mother-In-Law came out and sold and went to number one, Spellman made sure that everyone within the sound of his voice got to know that he sang that bass part,” stated Toussaint. (10) “Spellman (tried) to convince me that the reason the song was a big hit was because he sang his part so well. It was so good (that it was the reason) why Ernie K-Doe was out there at #1. So, I got Benny off my back by writing Lipstick Traces. The reason this song was written was the line don’t leave no more — was sung like the line, mother in law,” remembered Allen. “Benny didn’t wait around for inspiration. He pushed me quite hard.” (1)
The A-side, Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette) featured the same structure as Mother-In-Law. Backup harmonies were supplied by Irma Thomas, Willie Harper and Ernie K-Doe, who reprised the tag line of don’t leave me no more as the song fades. The flip side, Fortune Teller, eventually became the side disc jockeys would plug. The two sides topped at #80 in the summer of 1962. (14) Each song did have an afterlife. In 1965, the O’Jays revived Lipstick Traces. The Rolling Stones eventually covered Fortune Teller. British beat/R&B outfits, such as The Merseybeats, The Who and The Downliners Sect also took a turn at the song.
Ernie K-Doe’s trip on the pop charts flamed out within a year. He hit the upper reaches of the pop chart four times after Mother-In-Law. After five more non-charted singles on Minit and a few more on the affiliate label, Instant, Ernie signed a deal with Duke Records in 1964. A few songs hit the R&B chart as K-Doe stayed with Duke until 1970. He recorded for three labels in the 70s — Janus, Island and Sansu. In the 80s, he hosted a radio show in New Orleans and gained a following with his over-the-top personality. In the 90s, he proclaimed himself, The Emperor Of The Universe and opened a nightclub aptly named, the Mother-In-Law Lounge. (15) K-Doe died in 2001 of kidney and liver failure from years of alcoholism. (21)
Allen Toussaint performs during day 6 of the 2011 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at the Fair Grounds Race Course on May 7, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jeffrey Ufberg/WireImage)
Many musicians recorded Toussaint's compositions, including Java (Al Hirt), I Like It Like That (Chris Kenner), Ride Your Pony, Get Out of My Life, Woman, Working in the Coal Mine, Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (Lee Dorsey), Yes We Can Can (Pointer Sisters), Play Something Sweet (Three Dog Night), and Southern Nights (Glen Campbell). He was a producer for hundreds of recordings, among the best known of which are Right Place, Wrong Time, by his longtime friend Dr. John ("Mac" Rebennack), and Lady Marmalade, by Labelle. (16)
Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2009, the Songwriter's Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011. In 2013 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. In 2016, he posthumously won the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player title at the Blues Music Awards. Toussaint died in the early hours of November 10, 2015, in Madrid, Spain, while on tour. Following a concert at the Teatro Lara on Calle Corredera Baja de San Pablo, he had a heart attack at his hotel and was pronounced dead on his arrival at the hospital. He was 77. (17)
Benny Spellman believed he was being exploited at Minit, and he left in late 1963 to try his luck with other local labels. The hits were not forthcoming, and after a series of 45s for the likes of Ace, Watch, Alon, Bandy, Mor Soul and Sansu, he turned his back on the music scene in 1968. Spellman carved out a living as a beer salesman for Miller Beer, although he did make a brief return to the local New Orleans circuit in the late '80s. (18) Sadly, a stroke felled Spellman around 1996 and he was placed in an assisted living home. Spellman was elected to the Louisianna Music Hall of Fame in 2009, an honor he deeply appreciated. (20) Spellman died of respiratory failure on June 3, 2011. (19) He is buried in his hometown of Pensacola. (20)
Ernie K-Doe Mother-In-Law.
Just as Mother-In-Law was reaching the top of the charts, The Blossoms released an answer song, Son-In-Law.
Benny Spellman Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette)
1) YouTube, Will B, Allen Toussaint Documentary, July 11, 2013. Link.
2) Alice Clark, Louder Sound, Allen Toussaint 1938-2015, November 10, 2015, Link.
3) Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 202.
4) John Duran, The Quietess, Born To Do This: Allen Toussaint Interviewed, November 10, 2015, Link.
5) The Telegraph UK, Allen Toussaint, Songwriter – Obituary, November 12, 2015, Link.
6) Grace Lichtenstein, Laura Dankner, Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans, June 1, 1993, Page 112.
7) Songfacts, Mother-In-Law by Ernie K-Doe, Link.
8) Rachel Martin, host and Karyn Michel, byline, NPR, The Rise, Fall And Redemption Of New Orleans' 'R&B Emperor', December 23, 2012, Link.
9) Bruce Pollock, Songfacts, They’re Playing My Song – Allen Toussaint – “Southern Nights”, January 29, 2014, Link.
10) Dave Davies, host, NPR, 'Fresh Air' Remembers Hit Songwriter, Pianist And Producer Allen Toussaint, November 13, 2015, Link.
11) Detroit Bob, Still Singing The Blues, Lipstick Traces, June 7, 2011. Link.
12) Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 376.
13) Joel Whitburn, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties, May 22, 1961.
14) Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 663.
15) Michael Jack Kirby, Way Back Attack, Ernie K-Doe – Mother-In-Law, Link.
16) Wikipedia, Allen Toussaint Discography, Link.
17) Wikipedia, Allen Toussaint, Link.
18) Dominic Turner, Black Cat Rockabilly Europe, Benny Spellman, Link.
19) The Dead Rock Stars Club, 2011 January to June, Link.
20) Jeff Hannusch, Offbeat Magazine, Obituary: Benny Spellman (1931-2011), July 1, 2011, Link.
21) Wikipedia, Ernie K-Doe, Link.
Photo courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
© 2019 Jerry Reuss