Cars And Guitars: 1961 409 Impala And “Mother In Law” By Ernie K-Doe

Picture this: It’s 1961. Across America, the air bristles with change. Post-war optimism is booming, the Space Race is heating up, and a young JFK promises a new era. The Beatles, the civil rights movement, and Vietnam are still off in the distance and haven’t hit shore yet.

Prowling America’s highways were a new breed of automobile. Simple, sleek models, shorn of tail fins and chrome, epitomizing a still innocent America. The golden sounds of pre-Beatles, American rock and roll are blasting from radios across the country.

The perfect driving experience, the melding of music and machine is what Cars and Guitars are all about. So buckle up, drop it into reverse, and floor it back a thousand years to 1961 when do-wop rock and full-size muscle cars ruled the earth.

Buckle Up

For the 20th installment of Cars and Guitars, let’s look at the 1961 409 Chevrolet Impala and the song “Mother In Law” by New Orleans legend Ernie K. Doe. We’ll also zoom in on the events of the day, reconstructing the arena that sprouted these two icons. Let’s listen to Ernie K-Doe’s immortal hit that dominated the airways in 1961. A pop masterpiece, it uses a call-and-response vocal hook that propels the song from beginning to end.

Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Legend

In the smoky, neon-lit clubs of New Orleans, a charismatic figure emerged from the shadows, captivating audiences with his soulful voice and flamboyant stage presence. Ernest Kador Jr., better known as Ernie K-Doe, left an indelible mark on rhythm and blues and the budding rock scene. Let’s look back at the life, music, and legacy of this now-somewhat-forgotten artist.

Ernie K-Doe Mother In Law Record

Early Career And Rise To Fame

Born on February 22, 1933, in New Orleans, Louisiana, Ernie K-Doe honed his musical chops singing gospel in church. His journey took a pivotal turn when he joined the group The Blue Diamonds in 1954. However, it was his solo career that truly catapulted him into the spotlight.

Ernie K-Doe

In 1961, K-Doe unleashed the song “Mother-in-Law”, on the world. Written by the legendary songwriter Allen Toussaint, this catchy ditty reached #1 on both the Billboard pop and R&B charts. Across the pond, the Brits embraced it too, with the song peaking at number 29. K-Doe’s distinctive voice and playful lyrics made “Mother-in-Law” an instant classic.

The Hits And Eccentricity

While “Mother-in-Law” remained his crowning achievement, Ernie K-Doe didn’t rest on his laurels. Two other tracks stand out in his discography: “Te-Ta-Te-Ta-Ta” (1961): This infectious R&B gem reached number 21 on the charts, showcasing K-Doe’s ability to blend soulful vocals with irresistible rhythms. “Later for Tomorrow” (1967): Another R&B hit, this song reached number 37. K-Doe’s emotive delivery and storytelling prowess shone through, even as musical trends evolved.

Ernie K-Doe

The Showman and Self-Styled Emperor

K-Doe’s career wasn’t just about music; it was a spectacle. Later in life, he hosted radio shows on New Orleans community stations, where his explosive energy and frequent self-promotion became legendary. His catchphrases—like “Burn, K-Doe, Burn!” and “I’m a Charity Hospital Baby!”—added to his mystique. At one memorable benefit performance at the Aquarium of the Americas, K-Doe danced in front of a shark tank, clad in a green plumed cape, belting out seven continuous renditions of “Mother In Law.” Think Little Richard crossed with Liberace and you get the idea.

Ernie K-Doe King

1961 Impala

Meanwhile, up north in Detroit, General Motors was changing up its styling department. Harley Earl, the eccentric artisan who invented concept cars, fins, and dagmar bumpers, stepped down as head of GM Design. He passed the reigns to Bill Mitchell, his protege.

Cars like the 1963 Riviera and Corvette were the first cars that embodied Mitchell’s undistilled vision, but the 1961 Impala was a precursor of things to come. Gone were batwings and wraparound windshields, replaced by crisp lines, sheer tailoring, and minimal ornamentation.

1961 409 Impala 3/4 front

The new full-size Chevys were sleek and modern and packed a new top-of-the-line powerhouse engine. The big W-Block engine was introduced in 1958 and carried over to 1961, with a new enlarged version. Chevy bored and stroked the 348 to a now-famous 409 cubic inches. I caused a sensation and made an indelible mark on pop culture via music, movies, and motorsports.

Variety of Models

1961 409 Impala side

Chevrolet offered an impressive array of full-size models, ensuring there was something for every driver. The Impala series included various body styles, including sedans, coupes, and convertibles. The iconic triple round tail lights adorned the Impala models, carrying on the new trademark look from 1960. The Bel Air models featured elegant styling and were available as sedans and sporty hardtop coupes. The Bel Air’s two-door sports coupe introduced the bubble-top roofline, which became a hallmark of 1961 Chevrolets.

Positioned as a budget-friendly option, the Biscayne series offered practicality without compromising style. It included both two- and four-door sedans. The Fleetmaster models emphasized comfort and vinyl-trimmed interiors, ideal for families seeking reliable transportation. Chevrolet also produced six station wagon models, catering to different passenger capacities. While most wagons saw kid duty and were run hard and junked, they are highly coveted today.

1961 409 Impala interior

Engine Options

The heartbeat of the 1961 Chevrolet lineup lay in its engine choices. The base engine was the 283cid V8, available with either a two-barrel or four-barrel carburetor, delivering 170 or 230 horsepower, respectively. The 348cid V8 offered various power levels as well. These included 250 horsepower to 350 horsepower.

However, the new 409cid V8 stole the show. Introduced in the fall of 1960, it coincided with the introduction of the Super Sport models. Both became a symbol of Chevrolet’s commitment to performance and response to Ford and its 390cid engine. The 409 featured a big carburetor, staggered intake, and exhaust valves, optimizing airflow for increased power.

1961 409 Impala Engine

The Super Sport package included both trim and chassis enhancements. “SS” emblems were prominently displayed, and the springs and shock absorbers were fortified. Other goodies were power steering and brakes, metallic brake linings, a column-mounted tachometer, spinner wheel covers, and narrow whitewall tires. Most prominent was a grab bar for the right front passenger, hinting at the power that the Super Sport could deliver. Just 453 Impalas received the SS option in 1961, 311 with 348s, and a paltry 142 with the 409.

1961 409 Impala 3/4 rear

Production Numbers

Chevrolet’s production figures for 1961 were impressive with over a million produced:

  • Impala:  411,000 units.
  • Bel Air:  381,500 units.
  • Biscayne: 287,700 units.
  • Station Wagons: 212,700 units.

1961, A Milestone Year

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space. His single-orbit flight aboard Vostok 1 marked a historic milestone in the space race. Cuban exiles, backed by the U.S. government, attempted to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. However, the mission failed, leading to tensions between the United States and Cuba.

In August, East Germany began constructing the Berlin Wall, physically dividing East and West Berlin. The wall stood as a powerful symbol of the Cold War and ideological divisions. President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in March 1961. This volunteer program aimed to promote peace and understanding by sending Americans to work in developing countries.

Last but not least, astronaut Alan Shepard Jr. became the first American to travel into space. His suborbital flight aboard the Mercury-Redstone 3 marked a significant achievement for the U.S. space program.

The Final Notes

The 1961 Impala and Ernie K. Doe are now almost 63 years in the past. Both are long gone but their memory lingers on to this day.

The Impala was available until 2020 when the last unit rolled off the line. The car was superseded by the Caprice in the mid-sixties and saw many iterations over the years. The last true Impala was the big B-body SS that was produced from 1993 to 1996. Running a fairly hot version of the reverse-flow, Opti-Spark LT1 V8, it was the last hurrah of a big-bodied GM muscle sedan.

From there, we had to make do with FWD versions. One highlight was the 2006–’09 Chevy Impala SS, a transversely mounted, 303-horsepower 5.3-liter LS4 V8. It offered a 43-hp boost over the 5.7-liter LT1 that powered the big body Impala SS, and its 323 lb.-ft. peak torque essentially matched the older engine.

Tragically, Ernie K-Doe struggled with alcoholism throughout his life. In 2001, he succumbed to kidney and liver failure. His passing marked the end of an era, but his music lives on. After a traditional jazz funeral, he found his resting place in the 200-year-old Duval tomb at Saint Louis Cemetery, in his beloved New Orleans. Here he is in 1996 feeling no pain.

While both may be memories now, they live on every time you see an Impala on the street or at a car show. or hear the soulful swing of “Mother In Law” wafting out of the radio on a hot summer day. See you next time.

About the author

Dave Cruikshank

Dave Cruikshank is a lifelong car enthusiast and an editor at Power Automedia. He digs all flavors of automobiles, from classic cars to modern EVs. Dave loves music, design, tech, current events, and fitness.
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