Louis Thomas Jordan
(July 8, 1908 – February 4, 1975) was a pioneering American musician, songwriter and bandleader who enjoyed his greatest popularity from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. Known as "The King of the Jukebox", he was highly popular with both black and white audiences in the later years of the swing era. In 2004, Rolling Stone
magazine ranked him no. 59 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.Jordan was one of the most successful African-American musicians of the 20th century, ranking fifth in the list of the all-time most successful black recording artists according to Billboard
magazine's chart methodology. Though comprehensive sales figures are not available, he scored at least four million-selling hits during his career. Jordan regularly topped the R&B "race" charts, and was one of the first black recording artists to achieve a significant "crossover" in popularity into the mainstream (predominantly white) American audience, scoring simultaneous Top Ten hits on the white pop charts on several occasions. After Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Louis Jordan was probably the most popular and successful African-American bandleader of his day.Jordan was a talented singer with great comedic flair, and he fronted his own band for more than twenty years. He duetted with some of the biggest solo singing stars of his day, including Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Jordan was also an actor and a major black film personality—he appeared in dozens of "soundies" (promotional film clips), made numerous cameos in mainstream features and short films, and starred in two musical feature films made especially for him. He was an instrumentalist who played all forms of the saxophone, but specialized in the alto, in addition to playing piano and clarinet. A productive songwriter, he wrote or co-wrote many songs that became influential classics of 20th-century popular music.Although Jordan began his career in big-band swing jazz in the 1930s, he became famous as one of the leading practitioners, innovators and popularizers of "jump blues", a swinging, up-tempo, dance-oriented hybrid of jazz, blues and boogie-woogie. Typically performed by smaller bands consisting of five or six players, jump music featured shouted, highly syncopated vocals and earthy, comedic lyrics on contemporary urban themes. It strongly emphasized the rhythm section of piano, bass and drums; after the mid-1940s, this mix was often augmented by electric guitar. Jordan's band also pioneered the use of electric organ.With his dynamic Tympany Five bands, Jordan mapped out the main parameters of the classic R&B, urban blues and early rock'n'roll genres with a series of hugely influential 78 rpm discs for the Decca label. These recordings presaged many of the styles of black popular music in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and exerted a huge influence on many leading performers in these genres. Many of his records were produced by Milt Gabler, who went on to refine and develop the qualities of Jordan's recordings in his later production work with Bill Haley, including "Rock Around The Clock".
Early life and musical career
Jordan was born on July 8, 1908 in Brinkley, Arkansas, where his father, James Aaron Jordan, was a local music teacher and bandleader for the Brinkley Brass Band and for the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. His mother, Adell, died when Louis was young.Jordan studied music under his father, and started out on clarinet. In his youth he played in his father’s bands instead of doing farm work when school closed. He also played piano professionally early in his career, but alto saxophone became his main instrument. However, he became even better known as a songwriter, entertainer and vocalist.Jordan briefly attended Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock, Arkansas, and majored in music. After a period with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, with one of his band colleagues having been Leon "Pee Wee" Whittaker, and with local bands including Bob Alexander’s Harmony Kings, he went north to Philadelphia and then New York. In 1932, Jordan began performing with the band of Clarence Williams, and when in Philadelphia played clarinet in the Charlie Gaines band.In late 1936 he was invited to join the influential Savoy Ballroom orchestra led by drummer Chick Webb. Based at New York's Savoy Ballroom, Webb's orchestra was renowned as one of the very best big bands of its day and they regularly beat all comers at the Savoy's legendary "cutting contests". Jordan worked with Webb until 1938, and it proved a vital stepping stone in his career—Webb (who was physically disabled) was a fine musician but not a great showman. The ebullient Jordan often introduced songs as he began singing lead; he later recalled that many in the audience took him to be the band's leader, which undoubtedly boosted his confidence further. This was the same period when the young Ella Fitzgerald was coming to prominence as the Webb band's lead female vocalist; she and Jordan often duetted on stage and they would later reprise the partnership on several records, by which time both artists were major stars.In 1938, Jordan was fired by Webb for trying to convince Fitzgerald and others to join his new band. By this time Webb was already seriously ill with tuberculosis of the spine. He died at only 34 years old after a spinal operation on June 16, 1939. Following his death, Ella Fitzgerald took over the band.
Early solo career
Jordan's first band, drawn mainly from members of the Jesse Stone band, was originally a nine-piece, but he soon scaled it down to a sextet after landing a residency at the Elks Rendezvous club at 464 Lenox Avenue in Harlem. The original lineup of the sextet was Jordan (saxes, vocals), Courtney Williams (trumpet), Lem Johnson (tenor sax), Clarence Johnson (piano), Charlie Drayton (bass) and Walter Martin (drums). In his first billing, as "Louie Jordan's Elks Rendez-vous Band", his name was spelled as "Louie" so people would know not to pronounce it "Lewis".The new band's first recording date for Decca Records (on December 20, 1938) produced three sides on which they backed an obscure vocalist called Rodney Sturgess, and two novelty sides of their own, "Honey in the Bee Ball" and "Barnacle Bill The Sailor". Though these were credited to "The Elks Rendezvous Band", Jordan subsequently changed the name to the "Tympany Five" due to the fact that Martin often used tympany drums in performance. (The word "tympany" is also an old-fashioned colloquial term meaning "swollen, inflated, puffed-up", etymologically related to "timpani", or "kettle drum," but historically separate.)The various lineups of the Tympany Five (which often featured two or three extra players) included Bill Jennings and Carl Hogan on guitar, renowned pianist-arrangers Wild Bill Davis and Bill Doggett, "Shadow" Wilson and Chris Columbus on drums and Dallas Bartley on bass. Jordan played alto, tenor and baritone saxophone and sang the lead vocal on most numbers.Their next recording date in March 1939 produced five sides including "Keep A-Knockin'" (originally recorded in the 1920s and later covered famously by Little Richard), "Sam Jones Done Snagged His Britches" and "Doug the Jitterbug". Lem Johnson subsequently left the group, and was replaced by Stafford Simon. Sessions in December 1939 and January 1940 produced two more early Jordan classics, "You're My Meat" and "You Run Your Mouth and I'll Run My Business". Other members who passed through the band during 1940 and 1941 included tenorist Kenneth Hollon (who recorded with Billie Holiday); trumpeter Freddie Webster (from Earl Hines' band) was part of the nascent bebop scene at Minton's Playhouse and he influenced Kenny Dorham and Miles Davis.
In 1941 Jordan signed with the General Artists Corporation agency, who appointed Berle Adams as Jordan's agent. Adams secured an engagement at Chicago's Capitol Lounge, supporting The Mills Brothers, and this proved to be an important breakthrough for Jordan and the band.The Capitol Lounge residency also provides a remarkable yardstick of the scale of Jordan's success. During this engagement, the group was paid the standard union scale of US$70 per week – $35 per week for Jordan and $35 split between the rest of the band. Just seven years later, when Jordan played his record-breaking season at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco during 1948, he reportedly grossed over US$70,000 in just two weeks.During this period bassist Henry Turner was sacked and replaced by Dallas Bartley. This was followed by another important engagement at the Fox Head Tavern in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Working in the looser environment of Cedar Rapids, away from the main centers, the band was able to develop the novelty aspect of their repertoire and performance. Jordan later identified his stint at the Fox Head Tavern as the turning point in his career, and it was also while there that he found several songs that became early hits including "If It's Love You Want, Baby", "Ration Blues" and "Inflation Blues".In April 1941 Decca launched the Sepia Series, a 35-cent line that featured artists who were considered to have the "crossover potential" to sell in both the black and white markets, and Jordan's band was transferred from Decca's "race" label to the Sepia Series, alongside The Delta Rhythm Boys, the Nat King Cole Trio, Buddy Johnson and the Jay McShann Band.By the time the group returned to New York in late 1941, the lineup had changed to Jordan, Bartley, Martin, trumpeter Eddie Roane and pianist Arnold Thomas. Recording dates in November 1941 produced another early Jordan classic, "Knock Me A Kiss", which became a significant jukebox seller, although it did not make the charts. However Roy Eldridge subsequently recorded a version, backed by the Gene Krupa band, which became a hit in June 1942, almost a year after the Jordan recording came out; it was also covered by Jimmie Lunceford.These sessions also produced Jordan's first big-selling record, "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town", originally recorded by Casey Bill Weldon in 1936, although again it did not make the charts. It too was covered by Lunceford, in 1942, whose version reached No. 12 on the pop charts, and it was also covered by Big Bill Broonzy and Jimmy Rushing.Sessions in July 1942 produced nine prime sides, allowing Decca to stockpile Jordan's recordings as a hedge against the American Federation of Musicians' recording ban, which was declared the same month. The ban—imposed in order to secure royalty payments for union musicians for each record sold—led to Jordan's enforced absence from the studio for the next year, and it also prevented many seminal bebop performers from recording during one of the most crucial years of the genre's history."I'm Gonna Leave You on the Outskirts of Town" was an "answer record" to Jordan's earlier "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town", but it became Jordan's first major chart hit, reaching No. 2 on Billboard's Harlem Hit Parade. His next side, "What's the Use of Getting Sober" (When You're Gonna Get Drunk Again)", became Jordan's first No. 1 hit, reaching the top of the Harlem Hit Parade in December 1942. A subsequent side, "The Chicks I Pick Are Slender, Tender and Fine", reached No. 10 in January 1943. Their next major side, the comical call-and response number "Five Guys Named Moe", was one of the first recordings to solidify the fast-paced, swinging R&B style that became the Jordan trademark and it struck a chord with audiences, reaching No. 3 on the race charts in September 1943. The song was later taken as the title of a long-running stage show that paid tribute to Jordan and his music. The more conventional "That'll Just About Knock Me Out" also fared well, reaching No. 8 on the race charts and giving Jordan his fifth hit from the December 1942 sessions.In late 1942, Jordan and his band relocated to Los Angeles, working at major venues there and in San Diego. While in L.A., Jordan began making "soundies", the earliest precursors of the modern music video genre, and he also appeared on many Jubilee radio shows and a series of programs made for the Armed Forces Radio for distribution to American troops overseas. Unlike many musicians, Jordan's career was uninterrupted by the draft, except for a 4-week Army camp tour. Due to a "hernia condition" he was classified 4F.Decca was one of the first labels to reach an agreement with the Musicians' Union and Jordan returned to recording in October 1943. At this session Jordan and his band recorded "Ration Blues", which dated from their Fox Head Tavern days but had a new timeliness with the imposition of wartime rationing. It became Jordan's first crossover hit, charting on both the white and black pop charts. It was also a huge hit on the Harlem Hit Parade, where it spent six weeks at No. 1 and stayed in the Top Ten for a remarkable 21 weeks, and it reached No. 11 in the general "best-sellers" chart.Within a year of his breakthrough, the Tympany Five's appearance fee rose from $350 to $2,000 per night. But the breadth of Jordan's success and the size of his combo had larger implications for the music industry. Blues singer Gatemouth Moore said, "He was playing... with five pieces. That ruined the big bands... He could play just as good and just as loud with five as seventeen. And it was cheaper." Jordan's position as his band's lead vocalist was also uncommon, and proved influential. The artistic innovations and economic advantages were symbiotic, and helped pave the way for black pop's shift from big band swing music to rock 'n roll. The word "rock," originally black slang for coitus, began to be popularly used in its musical sense in the early 1940s. Following Jordan, many other small bands began achieving success including Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers and Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, while single acts such as Big Joe Turner, Ivory Joe Hunter, T-Bone Walker and Wynonie Harris travelled the circuit without bands.
In the 1940s, Jordan released dozens of hit songs, including the swinging "Saturday Night Fish Fry" (one of the earliest and most powerful contenders for the title of "First rock and roll record"), "Blue Light Boogie", the comic classic "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens", "Buzz Me," "Ain't That Just Like a Woman (They'll Do It Every Time)", and the multi-million seller "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie".One of his biggest hits was "Caldonia", with its energetic screaming punchline, banged out by the whole band, "Caldonia! Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?" After Jordan's success with it, the song was also recorded by Woody Herman in a famous modern arrangement, including a unison chorus by five trumpets. Muddy Waters also cut a version. However, many of Jordan's biggest R&B hits were inimitable enough that there were no hit cover versions, a rarity in an era when poppish "black" records were rerecorded by white artists, and many popular songs were released in multiple competing versions.Jordan's raucous recordings were also notable for their use of fantastical narrative. This is perhaps best exemplified on the freewheeling party adventure "Saturday Night Fish Fry", a two-part 1950 hit that was split across both sides of a 78. It is arguably one of the earliest American recordings to include all the basic elements of the classic rock'n'roll genre (obviously exerting a direct influence on the subsequent work of Bill Haley) and it is certainly one of the first widely popular songs to use the word "rocking" in the chorus and to prominently feature a distorted electric guitar.Its distinctive comical adventure narrative is strikingly similar to the style later used by Bob Dylan in his classic "story" songs like "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" and "Tombstone Blues". "Saturday Night Fish Fry" is also notable for the fact that it dispenses with the customary instrumental chorus introduction, but its most prominent feature is Jordan's rapid-fire, semi-spoken vocal. His delivery, clearly influenced by his experience as a saxophone soloist, de-emphasizes the vocal melody in favor of highly syncopated phrasing and the percussive effects of alliteration and assonance, and it is arguably one of the earliest examples in American popular music of the vocal stylings that eventually evolved into rap.Jordan's original songs joyously celebrated the ups and downs of African-American urban life and were infused with cheeky good humor and a driving musical energy that had a massive influence on the development of rock and roll. His music was popular with both blacks and whites, but lyrically, most of his songs were emphatically and uncompromisingly "black" in their content and delivery.Loaded with wry social commentary and coded references, they are also a treasury of 1930s/40s black hipster slang, and through his records Jordan was probably one of the main popularizers of the slang term "chick" (woman). Sexual themes often featured strongly and some sides—notably the saucy double entendre
of "Show Me How To Milk The Cow"—were so risqué that it seems remarkable that they were issued at all.
"King of the Jukebox"
The prime of Louis Jordan's recording career, 1942–1950, was a period of segregation on the radio. Despite this he was able to score the crossover No. 1 single "G.I. Jive"/"Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?" in 1944, thanks in large part to his performance with his orchestra of the song in the Universal 1944, all-star wartime musical Follow the Boys
. Two years later, MGM had its cartoon cat Tom sing "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?" in the 1946 Tom and Jerry
cartoon short "Solid Serenade". He appeared in the 1946 Monogram Pictures movie Swing Parade of 1946 and starred in the 1947 all-black, full-length Astor Pictures film Reet, Petite and Gone
.During this period Jordan again placed more than a dozen songs on the national charts. However, Louis Jordan And His Tympany Five dominated the 1940s R&B charts, or as they were known at the time, the "race" charts. In this period Jordan scored a staggering eighteen No. 1 singles and fifty-four Top Ten placings. To this day Louis Jordan still ranks as the top black recording artist of all time in terms of the total number of weeks at #1—his records scored an incredible total of 113 weeks in the No. 1 position (the runner-up being Stevie Wonder with 70 weeks). From July 1946 through May 1947, Jordan scored five consecutive No. 1 songs, holding the top slot for 44 consecutive weeks.Jordan's popularity was boosted not only by his hit Decca sides, but also by his prolific recordings for Armed Forces Radio and the V-Disc transcription program, which helped to make him as popular with whites as with blacks. He also starred in a series of short musical films, as well as making numerous "soundies" for his hit songs. The ancestor of the modern music video, "soundies" were short film clips designed for use in audio-visual jukeboxes. These were in addition to guesting in Follow the Boys
Decline of popularity
In 1951, Jordan put together a short-lived big band that included musicians such as Pee Wee Moore and others, at a time when big bands were on their way out; this is considered the beginning of his commercial decline, even though he reverted to the Tympany Five format within a year. By the mid-1950s, Jordan's records were not selling as well as they used to and he ended up leaving Decca Records.The next label to sign Jordan was Aladdin Records, with whom Jordan recorded 21 songs in early 1954; nine singles were released from these sessions, with three of the songs remaining unreleased. In 1955, Jordan recorded with RCA "independent" subsidiary "X" Records, who changed their name to Vik Records while Jordan was with them. Three singles were released under the "X" imprint and one under the Vik imprint; four of the tracks went unreleased. It was in these sessions that Jordan intensified his sound to compete with rock 'n roll.In 1956, Mercury Records signed Jordan, releasing two LP's and a handful of singles. Jordan's first LP with Mercury, Somebody Up There Digs Me
(1956), showcased updated rock n' roll versions of previous hits such as "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens", "Caldonia", "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie", "Salt Pork, West Virginia", and "Beware!"; its follow-up, Man, We're Wailin'
(1957), featured a more laid back "late night" sound. Although Mercury intended this to be a comeback for Jordan, it did not turn out to be a success, and the label let Jordan go in 1958. Jordan would record sporadically in the 1960s with Warwick (1960), Black Lion (1962), Tangerine (1962–1965), Pzazz (1968), and again in the early 1970s with Black and Blue (1973), Blues Spectrum (1973), and JSP (1974).In 1962 he appeared on the album Louis Jordan Sings
by British trumpeter and bandleader Chris Barber. Speaking in 2012, Barber recalled seeing Jordan in the early 1960s at The Apollo in New York, with the intention of bringing him to record in the UK for the first time. Barber said:
".. playing with him was just frightening. It's a bit like an amateur guitar player from a back street who has just bought a Spanish guitar, working with Segovia. He didn't make you feel small, but he was just so perfect in what he did. ... I still remember watching him singing, but he would accompany himself on the alto, and you were convinced he was playing the alto while he was singing... the breath hadn't gone from his last word before he was playing his alto and it seemed to be simultaneous... He got a very raw deal from history... In the Chick Webb band there were two regular singers - Ella (Fitzgerald) and Louis Jordan. And yet really history has consigned him to just being a comedy vocal thing with a bit of rock and roll, and the first alto... but he was such a consumately good singer that it's sad that he wasn't known more for it."
Jordan died in Los Angeles, California, from a heart attack on February 4, 1975. He is buried at Mt. Olive Cemetery in his wife Martha's hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.During an interview late in life, Jordan made the controversial remark that rock and roll music was simply rhythm and blues music played by white performers.Although Jordan wrote (or co-wrote) a large proportion of the songs he performed, he did not benefit financially from many of them. Many of his self-penned biggest hits, including "Caldonia", were credited to Jordan's then wife Fleecie Moore as a means of avoiding an existing publishing arrangement. Their marriage was acrimonious and short-lived. On two occasions, Moore stabbed Jordan after domestic disputes, almost killing him the second time — and after their divorce Fleecie retained ownership of the songs. However, Jordan may have taken credit for some songs written by others—he is credited as the co-writer of "Saturday Night Fish Fry", but Tympany Five pianist Bill Doggett later claimed that in fact he had written the song
As well as singing in many films, and appearing in Meet Miss Bobby Sox
(1944) and Follow the Boys
(1944), Jordan starred in several race films: Beware
(1946), and Reet, Petite, and Gone
and Look Out Sister
(both 1947, when the race films ended).His prolific use of film as a promotional vehicle broke new ground, garnering admiration from the trade press, including Billboard
, which gushed, "The movies have helped the one-nighters, which have also been helped by recordings, which have also helped the movies, which in turn have become more profitable. It’s a delicious circle, and other bands are now exploring the possibilities..."
Jordan is believed to have been married five times. His first wife was named Julia or Julie, but by 1932 he was married to Texas singer and dancer Ida Fields. He and Fields divorced, and in 1942 he married childhood sweetheart Fleecie Moore. After their divorce, he married dancer Vicky Hayes in 1951, and separated from her in 1960. Finally, he married singer and dancer Martha Weaver in 1966.