On a recent Tuesday morning, OffBeat’s Elsa Hahne visited Antoinette K-Doe at the Mother-in-Law Lounge as she cooked gumbo, red beans, jambalaya, stewed turkey, stuffing and baked macaroni for a welcoming party for visiting musicians in town for a benefit for Sweet Home New Orleans. I was there at the end of the night when K-Doe surveyed the crock pots, started bagging the leftovers and handed them to the last to leave.
“I spend my tip money on bags,” she says, stuffing jambalaya in one until it was full.
It was the start of a busy week in the Mother-In-Law Lounge, with events almost every night concluding Saturday evening with a benefit for singer Tommy Singleton, who needs help with his medical bills after major surgery. Since the bar opened in 1994, Antoinette has made it a place that serves a social good, and her focus has engendered goodwill throughout the New Orleans music community and around the country. After Katrina flooded the Mother-In-Law, R&B singer Usher paid for the lounge’s rehabilitation, with the work done by the non-profit agency, Hands On.
The Mother-in-Law Lounge was borne of necessity. When musicians and contemporaries found out that Ernie K-Doe was often at her house, they came over to hang out. “I had beer cans all over the place and cigarette burns on the furniture, so I converted my garage into a rehearsal space,” she says. That soon got too small, so when a bar owner she had worked for offered her the space at 1500 N. Claiborne Ave., she asked K-Doe how he felt about opening a club. “I figured, if you’re going to reminisce with all these musicians, why not have a bar? I really wanted a small place where musicians could come and get their drinks and bullshit. Some place for them to go, and I’m like every other woman; you don’t want that in your house, with the smoking and drinking and cursing.”
The club became her home, but her hospitality didn’t change. “I used to cook breakfast for them at three in the morning and lay it out on the bar.” She points around the room. “Johnny Adams liked to sit at the bar, Tommy Ridgley’d sit at that end of the table, Jessie Hill would sit at this end, and K-Doe, he’s walking around because he’s holding court.”
Because of the unique nature of K-Doe’s fame—part musical hero, part cult icon—the Mother-in-Law Lounge soon became a place where musicians and music fans from different generations gathered. For some, the Lounge was a place to see a chapter of their musical history come to life, and for others, it was a place to see one of rock ’n’ roll’s genuine characters play a show that was a pure extension of his larger-than-life personality. As word of the Mother-in-Law spread, more and more visiting musicians dropped in. Ray Davies went to see K-Doe on one trip, and Antoinette recalls others who came in to reminisce including Tyrone Davis and Bonnie Raitt. “She came in one night after Jazz Fest and she sat right on the floor.”
While the Mother-in-Law was created with K-Doe’s generation in mind, he and Antoinette developed friendships with many younger musicians including Quintron and Miss Pussycat. “Anything I needed, they were there. If I get a flat tire, I’ll call one of them. And they’ll say, “I’m at work, I can’t do it. I’ll call somebody,’ and somebody will change my tire.” Antoinette still reaches out to young musicians, continuing the tradition K-Doe established when he’d talk with them when they came in. “He taught them music,” she says. Bethany Bultman asked K-Doe to encourage them to go to the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic by example when it first opened, and Antoinette today encourages them to get free health care “in memory of K-Doe.”
Her efforts define grass roots activism. She has made herself and the Mother-in-Law Lounge part of the New Orleans community, and she takes care of her community. She raised money for Wardell Quezergue’s health care by holding a gumbo party for him. “He likes my gumbo,” she says, and asked all who attended to put something in a jar for him in exchange for a bowl of gumbo. When the college students from Hands On were looking for a place to hold a debate-watching party, she offered the Mother-in-Law, even though the room full of chairs made it so hard to get to the bar that she didn’t ring much for the hour and a half—or the hour and a half of each subsequent debate. “They asked,” she says, “but I did all of it in memory of K-Doe. That’s the key to getting people to come here.”
She is selling herself short. Many learn about K-Doe through Antoinette now, and she has become even more of a personality on her own, often traveling with the K-Doe Statue or the Baby Dolls. When people come to the lounge, they’re often coming to see her. She, though, remains humble if quietly proud about her efforts, and she never forgets where the club came from.
“This bar’s in memory of K-Doe, but it’s really in memory of all the musicians who’ve gone to heaven.”