Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Famous Singer Gives Neighborhood Eyesore Overdue Extreme Makeover

by Maniko Barthelemy

Like film production companies strategically plan the release of blockbuster films around holidays, an award-winning New Orleans trumpeter and singer hit grand opening gold when he re-opened the doors of a landmark. “I kept trying to figure out when to open and I picked MLK day because it’s one of the most important holidays in the world,” said Kermit Ruffins.
Kermit Ruffins is all smiles at the grand opening of his "Kermit's Treme' Mother-In-Law Lounge." Photo courtesy of Kim Welsh
Ruffins is one of the founding members of the Grammy award-winning Rebirth Brass Band and leads his highly popular jazz/swing band, Kermit Ruffins & The Barbecue Swingers. On Jan. 20, he officially opened “Kermit’s Treme’ Mother-in-Law Lounge,” his third New Orleans bar. A parade of brass bands played for hours, as hundreds of family, friends, and fans packed the cozy Treme neighborhood staple, waving and clapping their hands, smiling and capturing the moment on cell phones. “The place looks beautiful,” said Justin Trimm. “This shows Kermit has a love and respect for the history of this neighborhood,” said Trimm.  
Washington Post Photo
The building’s significance at 1500 N. Claiborne Avenue dates back to 1994. Ernie K-Doe, one of New Orleans’ most flamboyant rhythm and blues singers opened the club for musicians and the community. K-Doe’s career spiked with a bold 1961 song, “Mother-in-Law.” The mega-hit put K-Doe on an international stage While he enjoyed meteoric rise to fame, K-Doe’s awe and respect for local musicians inspired him to open the “Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge.”  “I remember the great stories my dad told me about this place,” said Trimm.
The lounge was an open stage for local musicians who often free-styled with each other and treated customers to unscheduled jam sessions. K-Doe, the self-appointed “emperor of the world” died in 2001. His widow, Antoinette, kept the doors open for several years. In 2009, she died, leaving the lounge in the hands of her daughter, Betty Fox. Financial challenges and the hovering pressure of living up to her mother’s reputation put a strain on Fox and stressed the overall operation of the lounge. The sound of New Orleans music often heard at the neighborhood hot spot went silent in 2010, when the lounge closed. “I used to pass here and see it was abandoned and I was lucky to be able to pay a lease and make it happen,” said Ruffins.
From 2011 to 2014, Ruffins cleared legal and logistical hurdles, remodeled the building and heavily promoted his plans. The reward and relief were symbolic of an overdue family reunion, complete with music, food and fun. The grand opening was so lively nearly 50 people couldn’t get inside to jam. In typical New Orleans fashion, the overflow crowd turned the sidewalk into an extended party. Well-wishers swayed, jumped and shouted to the hypnotic sounds flowing out of the lounge. Many applauded Ruffins’ commitment to giving an eyesore an extreme makeover.  “Everything Kermit touches is successful. He has the personality and the drive to make things work and it’s great to see he’s the guy who turned this building back into something that’s going to thrive,” said Mark Samuels, president of Basin St. Records.
Financially reinvesting in a neighborhood often overlooked and unappreciated is not foreign to Ruffins. He owns Bullets Lounge, which sits in the 7th Ward of New Orleans and is just as popular as his other Treme restaurant and bar, Kermit Ruffins’ Speakeasy. Ruffins knows his awards, raspy Louis Armstrong-like voice and reputation as an advocate for musicians, pull people wherever appears but he’s  keenly aware of the reality of a fickle business, after the nostalgia wears off. “The grand opening is the easy part because everybody comes out, next week no one may come out but I’ll see what happens in a year,” said Ruffins.
What do you think about the re-opening of the Mother-in-Law Lounge? E-mail your response directly to Maniko Barthelemy at or comment directly on this page.

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