Last weekend, we flew down to New Orleans to witness an outpouring of love, as hundreds of residents turned out to help save the Mother-in-Law Lounge. And we learned this: When a community mobilizes to save a cultural institution, the results can hearten and inspire.
The Mother-in-Law has been a veritable living room for many of New Orleans’ blues and R&B musicians and their fans. Opened in the 1990s by R&B singer Ernie K-Doe (and named after his 1961 hit “Mother-in-Law”) and his wife Antoinette K-Doe, it has survived the deaths of both founders, as well as Hurricane Katrina. Part of its appeal is the K-Doe memorabilia that covers practically every inch of wall space, including a life-size mannequin of Ernie on his throne and a June 1961 poster from the Dew Drop Inn advertising a night of music-making that featured Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, Art Neville, and Earl King. Much of the appeal, though, comes from the place’s warmth. Everyone is made to feel welcome by owner Betty Fox, Antoinette’s daughter, and if you show up at the right time, you’re likely to be fed a free bowl of Betty’s red beans, rice, and cornbread.
This year has been especially rough. Not only has the recession hurt all New Orleans bars, but Mother-in-Law was cursed by a car that crashed into its front door one morning last March (the sixth such collision). Betty hasn’t had the money to fix the damage, as her lease requires her to. (Her landlord received the insurance proceeds, she says.) As a result, the bar has a boarded-up look, which in turn has driven business down. Despite her day job selling auto parts, Betty has fallen thousands of dollars behind in the rent.
Last month, Betty announced she was giving up. “I’m losing weight,” she told the Times-Picayune. “I’ve been living upstairs with no plumbing or electricity, and mold in the room for a year and a half.”
The announcement brought such an outpouring of grief, love, and support that Betty had a change of heart. Last Sunday night, both the musicians’ community and Mother-in-Law’s customers turned out in full force for a musical tour de force that lasted from 6 p.m. until 1 a.m. Admission was a way-too-low five dollars, and there were separate tip jars for the musicians, the door fund, and the bartenders.
And what a night of music! The evening opened with John T. Lewis, a charismatic R&B and blues guitarist and singer who played with Ernie K-Doe back in the ’90s, and who Sunday night served as emcee. There was an unannounced appearance by pianist and vocalist Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, whose nickname comes from one of the most anthemic Mardi Gras tunes. Big Chief Alfred Doucette, a Mardi Gras Indian with the the Flaming Arrows tribe, sang some tunes with John T. Lewis. And Alton “Big Al” Carson, a powerful blues vocalist who got his musical start playing tuba for New Orleans’ brass bands, performed a long and joyful set. So did Guitar Lightnin’ Lee, a native of the Lower Ninth Ward who long ago traveled from New Orleans to Chicago to learn electrified Delta blues directly from the master, Jimmy Reed, and who and has played with such greats as Fats Domino.
One highlight for us was the scorching set played by Ernie Vincent and The Top Notes. Back when Ernie K-Doe was alive, the Top Notes was the warm-up band at the Mother-in-Law Lounge. Over his career, Vincent has performed R&B, funk and pure blues, always with a band of young, talented musicians. When Mike Kobrin blew his trumpet or James Martin took a sax solo, the room shook; we also delighted in the appearances of such veterans as Robert “BJ” Harvey, the bass guitarist for Soul Queen Irma Thomas.
The night felt like a party. People spilled outside, into the Mother-in-Law’s side yard, where tiki torches and clawfoot-bathtubs-cum-planters provided the ambiance and people caught up with old friends. When we caught up with Betty Fox the next day, she felt heartened by the turnout. It’s too early to say the Mother-in-Law has been saved. But there is surely reason for hope.
Tomorrow: Stay tuned for more photos.