In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“Mother-In-Law” is a perfectly lovely New Orleans R&B jam masquerading as a novelty song. Louisiana legend Allen Toussaint wrote and produced the song, and he also played its effortlessly rolling piano solo. Ernie K-Doe, a local institution who sang backup on a lot of other people’s records, was known as a larger-than-life showman, but his vocal on “Mother-In-Law” is a calm and graceful tenor, and it reminds me of the early reggae vocalists who came soon after. (That’s probably not a coincidence. New Orleans R&B, heard on radios in Jamaica, was a key influence on early reggae.)
But “Mother-In-Law” didn’t hit #1 because of the way it sounds. There were a lot of better New Orleans R&B songs that never got anywhere near #1. “Mother-In-Law” hit because its lyrics are straight-up sitcom plot: “Satan should be her name / To me, they’re ’bout the same / Every time I open my mouth / She steps in, tries to put me out.”
How many people really have that kind of experience with their in-laws? Maybe I’m just blessedly ignorant here. My mother-in-law is a saint. She babysits, she watches This Is Us with me, and she and my father-in-law rent a giant beach house for the whole family once a year. I can’t relate to this song. Neither could Toussaint, who was unmarried when he wrote it. K-Doe was married, and his mother-in-law lived with him when he recorded it, but I can’t hear him channeling any boiling frustration. It’s just a pretty good song about something goofy. There are worse ways to get to #1.
BONUS BEATS: Genuine lunatic and future Bob Marley producer and dub reggae pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry, along with his band the Upsetters, released a song called “Mother-In-Law” in 1964. It wasn’t a cover of Ernie K-Doe’s song, but it was certainly inspired by it. Here’s that: