Louis Jordan (July 8, 1908 – February 4, 1975) was a pioneering American jazz, blues and rhythm & blues musician and songwriter 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.
Although he began his career in big band swing jazz in the 1930s', Louis Jordan became famous as one of the leading practitioners and popularisers of "jump blues", a swinging, up-tempo, dance-oriented hybrid of jazz, blues and boogie-woogie. Often performed by smaller bands (typically five or players), jump music featuring shouted, highly syncopated vocals and earthy, comedic lyrics on contemporary urban themes. Musically it placed strong emphasis on the rhythm section of piano, bass and drums, which (from the mid-1940s on) was often augmented by electric guitar.
After Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Louis Jordan was probably the most popular and successful black bandleader of his day, but in contrast almost all of his colleagues (black or white) he was a major personality in his own right, an all-round entertainer of enormous and diverse accomplishments.
He was a talented singer with great comedic flair, and he fronted his own band for more than twenty years. He 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 specialised in the alto saxophone but played all forms of the instrument, as well as piano and clarinet. He was a productive composer, and many of the songs he wrote or co-wrote are now acknowledged as 20th-century popular classics.
Jordan is notable in the history of American popular music for being one of the first black recording artists who achieved a significant "crossover" in popularity into the mainstream, (predominantly white) American audience, and he was one of the first black artists to score hits on both the (black) "race" charts and the mainstream (white) pop chart, and he duetted with almost some of the biggest solo singing stars of his day, including Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald. Jordan is acknowledged as 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. He scored at least four million-selling hits during his career, regularly topping the "race" charts, as well as scoring simultaneous Top Ten hits on the white pop charts on several occasions.
With his dynamic Tympany Five bands -- which also pioneered the use of electric guitar and electronic organ -- 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 that presaged virtually all of the dominant black music styles of the 1950s and 1960s and which exerted a huge influence on many leading performers in these genres.
Early life and musical career
Louis Jordan was born in Brinkley, Arkansas, where his father was a local music teacher and bandleader. Jordan started out on clarinet, and 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.
In 1932, Jordan began performing with the band of Clarence Williams. In late 1936 he was invited to join the influential 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.
Jordan left the Webb band in 1938, by which time Webb was already seriously ill with tuberculosis of the spine. Webb died after a spinal operation on 16 June 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 20 December 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. The band's sound was similar to that of Fats Waller and his Rhythm, but with a touch of the Caribbean sound commonly called "the Spanish tinge".
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 centres, 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, it led to Jordan's enforced absence from the studio for the next year and it also (regrettably) 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 Decemebr 1942 sessions.
In late 1942, just before the U.S. entered World War II, 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 they recorded "Ration Blues", which dated from their Fox Head Tavern days, but which had become newly timely 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 where poppish "black" records were rerecorded by white artists, and where 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 songs in popular music 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-emphasises the vocal melody in favour 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 empahtically 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 popularisers of the slang term "chick" (woman). Sexual themes often featured strongly and some sides -- notably the saucy double entredre of "Show Me How To Milk The Cow" -- were so risqué that even now it seems remarkable that they were issued at all.
Among Jordan's biggest fans were Little Richard and Chuck Berry, who clearly modelled his musical approach on Jordan's, changing the text from black life to teenage life, and subsituting cars and girls for Jordan's primary motifs of food, drink, money and girls. 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.
Jordan reached Number Four on Billboard Magazine's chart for R&B in 1950 for a cover version of Ruth Brown's hit "Teardrops from My Eyes".
"King of the Jukeboxes"
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 lip-sync Jordan's recording of "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?" in the 1946 Tom & Jerry cartoon short Solid Serenade.
Jordan also placed another 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 forty-four consecutive weeks.
As well as his hit Decca sides, Jordan's popularity was further boosted by his prolific recordings for Armed Forces Radio and the V-Disc transcription program, which helped to broaden his popularity with white audiences. 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 is often credited with, if not inventing rock and roll, certainly providing most of the building blocks for the music. He was the progenitor and foremost practictioner of the jump blues style, later to be followed by Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, Tiny Bradshaw. etc. Jump blues was a direct precursor of rock 'n roll. Aside from the aforementioned influence on Chuck Berry and Little Richard, 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."
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 track "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.
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 4 February, 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, which contradicted 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 shortlived -- 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.
Tributes and collections
There are many collections currently available, so this only mentions some of the most notable.
The Bear Family label in Germany has released a comprehensive 9-CD collection of Jordan's work (Let the Good Times Roll: the Complete Decca Recordings 1938-1954).
The Proper Records label in the UK has also released a low priced 4-CD 102 track compilation (Jivin' With Jordan) that includes all of Jordan's seminal work from his Decca years.
Blues Guitarist B.B. King recorded an album called "Let The Good Times Roll-The Music of Louis Jordan"