Louis Jordan (July 8, 1908 – February 4, 1975) was a pioneering American jazz, blues and rhythm & blues musician, songwriter and bandleader who enjoyed his greatest popularity from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. Known as "The King of the Jukebox", Jordan was highly popular with both black and white audiences in the later years of the swing era. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him #59 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
Learn more about Louis Jordan, and hear him perform, free from LouisJordan.com. Louis 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 black bandleader of his day. But in contrast to almost all of his colleagues of all races, he was a major personality in his own right, an all-round entertainer of enormous and diverse accomplishments.
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 and Ella Fitzgerald. Jordan was also an actor and a major black film personality, appearing in dozens of "soundies" (promotional film clips), making numerous cameos in mainstream features and short films, and starring in two musical feature films made especially for him. He was an instrumentalist who specialized in the alto saxophone but played all forms of the instrument, as well as piano and clarinet. A productive songwriter, many of the songs he wrote or co-wrote 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 electronic 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 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
Louis Thomas Jordan was born 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 Baptist College in Arkansas and majored in music. After a period with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, 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. Webb died after a spinal operation on June 16, 1939, aged only 30; 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).
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 #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. Declared the same month, the ban 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. It had been imposed in order to secure royalty payments for union musicians for each record sold.
"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 #2 on Billboard's Harlem Hit Parade. His next side, "What's The Use of Gettin' Sober (When You're Gonna Get Drunk Again)", became Jordan's first #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 #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 #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 #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.
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 #1 and stayed in the Top Ten for a remarkable 21 weeks, and it reached #11 in the general "best-sellers" chart.
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", 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", the 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.
"The 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 #1 single "G.I. Jive"/"Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?" in 1944, thanks in large part to his performance in the Universal film 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.
During this period Jordan again placed more than a dozen songs on the national charts. However, Louis Jordan And His Tympany Five dominated the 1940's R&B charts, or as they were known at the time, the "race" charts. In this period Jordan scored a staggering eighteen #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 #1 position (the runner-up being Stevie Wonder with 70 weeks). From July 1946 through May 1947, Jordan scored five consecutive #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 filmed a series of short musicals, 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. Jordan also had a cameo role in the Hollywood wartime musical Follow the Boys.
Influence on popular music
Jordan is one of a number of seminal black performers who are often credited with inventing rock and roll, or at least providing many of the building blocks for the music. Jordan was the greatest post-war exponent of the jump blues style, one of the prototypes of rock and roll, and he paved the way for Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, Tiny Bradshaw and others. Jordan also strongly influenced Bill Haley & His Comets, whose producer, Milt Gabler, had also worked with Jordan and attempted to incorporate Jordan's stylings into Haley's music. Haley also honored Jordan by recording several of his songs, including "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" (which Gabler co-wrote) and "Caldonia."
Among Jordan's biggest fans were Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Berry clearly modeled his musical approach on Jordan's, changing the text from black life to teenage life, and substituting cars and girls for Jordan's primary motifs of food, drink, money and girls. Jordan's guitarist, Carl Hogan, was a particularly direct influence on Berry's guitar style, as can be heard on the 1946 hit "Ain't That Just Like A Woman"; Hogan's opening single-note solo on the song was lifted essentially note-for-note by Berry on his iconic opening riff on "Johnny B. Goode". Jordan was also an obvious and substantial influence on British-based jump blues exponent Ray Ellington, who became famous through his appearances on The Goon Show.
James Brown has also specifically cited Jordan as a major influence because of his multi-faceted talent. In the 1992 documentary Lenny Henry Hunts The Funk, Henry asked Brown how Jordan had influenced him; Brown replied, "Oh, in every way. He could sing, he could dance, he could play, he could act. He could do it all."
Jordan's vocal style was arguably an important precursor to rap. His 1947 sister tracks, "Beware (Brother Beware)" and "Look Out (Sister)", entirely delivered as spoken rhyming couplets, can arguably be classified as one of the very first true "raps" in popular music. "Saturday Night Fish Fry" (1950) also features a rapid-fire, highly syncopated semi-spoken vocal delivery that is strongly reminiscent of the modern rap style.
As well as singing in many films, and appearing in Meet Miss Bobby Sox (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).
Decline of popularity
In 1951, Jordan put together a short-lived big band, 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 began switching labels. At Mercury Records, Jordan managed to update his sound to full rock and roll with such non-charting songs as "Let the Good Times Roll" and "Salt Pork, West Virginia". After this, however, Jordan's popularity waned and he recorded only for a small following of enthusiasts. He seldom recorded at all after the early 1960s.
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, a statement contradicted by the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, both black artists playing what they considered to be rock and roll.
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. The 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 was also apparently not above taking credit for songs written by others - Jordan 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.
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.