“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty-odd years.
Few embraced their one-hit wonder status as enthusiastically as New Orleans R&B singer Ernie K-Doe. “Mother in Law” went to number one in 1961 – the first ever chart-topper out of New Orleans – and he never again came close. Eventually, he stopped trying, and leaned into it. With the help of his wife, he founded the live music venue Mother-in-Law Lounge in New Orleans. He would perform there regularly – and if people wanted to hear “Mother in Law” a whole bunch of times during one set, he’d play it a whole bunch of times during one set!
Back in 1961, the song became a standard almost immediately upon release. That didn’t help Ernie all that much, though; he didn’t write it. The great Allen Toussaint did, but he considered it a throwaway – so much so that he literally threw it away, before a backing singer rescued it from the trashcan and handed to K-Doe. Here’s a video of K-Doe performing with the song’s writer on piano in the ’90s (starts at the ten-minute mark):
“Mother in Law” has been covered hundreds of times (maybe thousands if you count cheeky wedding bands). Here are some of the high points…
“Mother in Law” got covered many times immediately upon release. Many of those covers shared a common theme: The artists performing them were white. 1961 is not that far past Pat Boone having a bigger hit with “Tutti Frutti” than Little Richard did, and within a year or two of Ernie K-Doe’s song coming out, groups like The Newbeats and Herman’s Hermits jumped aboard the “Mother-in-Law” bandwagon. They’re mostly, by design, extremely similar to the original. The best of the bunch came from another one-hit wonder: The Kingsmen, who a couple years after “Louie Louie,” delivered this “Mother in Law.” It’s no “Louie Louie,” but I like the garage grit and extra dose of organ.
One other early-I-think version I love, which I can find next to no information on, came from The Halos. The Bronx doo-wop group had a 1961 hit with the novelty song “Nag,” about a nagging wife, so “Mother in Law” must have seemed a logical successor. The gimmick didn’t work, as this wasn’t a hit. It’s so obscure, in fact, that I can’t even figure out when this was actually released – the usually reliable Discogs has no record of it – but I assume the early ’60s, since it looks like their entire career only lasted a couple years.
The first version I found to really do something different with “Mother in Law” came in 1967, from Gary Paxton. A hit producer not averse to a novelty song – the man had produced “Monster Mash,” after all – Paxton had recently grown so drawn to the Bakersfield country sound that he moved to Bakersfield itself. On this record, he recruited several members of the Byrds and soon-to-be Flying Burrito Brothers to back him.
If that’s the first different cover, here’s the first great cover: The Ohio Players. They recorded the song on their obscure 1969 debut album Observations in Time, a few years before they would become ’70s funk royalty. It sounds quite different than their later hits, like something that might have come out of Stax.
Next up, Huey Lewis and the News tackled the song on their 1994 album Four Chords & Several Years Ago. That sounds more exciting than it is. They’re more than capable playing bar-band music, but that’s what it sounds like: A bar band. If this played at your wedding, you’d dance, but it’s hard to think of a reason to play it otherwise. (Fun fact: Bruce Springsteen performed “Mother in Law” at an actual wedding back in 1979. Sadly, no recording circulates.)
Masked Nashville outlaws Los Straitjackets, years before they became Nick Lowe’s never-ending backing band, tackled this song on their fourth album, Sing Along with Los Straitjackets. Though mostly an instrumental group, they recruited a number of vocalists to sing, from Mike Campbell to the Reverend Horton Heat to – well, whaddya you know, turns out they were Nick Lowe’s backing band in 2001. Big Sandy, of California Western swing band Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, tackles “Mother-in-Law,” using the Spanish translation “La Suegra” that was first performed back in 1961 by Los Teen Tops.
We’ll end with a cool live version. On trips to New Orleans, My Morning Jacket has occasionally performed the song, sometimes accompanied by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Here’s a short video of them performing it at Preservation Hall itself. You can hear a complete version, from a different show, at Archive.org.
Veteran trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, who now runs the Mother in Law Lounge, is raising money to help it survive the pandemic. Learn more at GoFundMe.