I’ve been wanting to write about Jordan practially since the day I started this blog. It’s time. He was not only the “King of the Jukebox’ but a major influence on early rock and roll and bluesmen like B.B. King.* Here’s his story:
Wikipedia: Louis Thomas Jordan (July 8, 1908 – February 4, 1975) was an American saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and bandleader who was popular from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. Known as “the King of the Jukebox,” he earned his highest profile towards the end of the swing era.
Specializing in the alto sax, Jordan played all forms of the saxophone, as well as piano and clarinet. He also was a talented singer with great comedic flair, and fronted his own band for more than twenty years. He duetted with some of the biggest solo singing stars of his time, including Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.”
Jordan hailed from Brinkley, Arkansas, about 80 miles (130 km) northwest of Clarksdale, MS in the Mississippi Delta. The Delta has some of the most fertile soil on earth and musically it is responsible for more blues than you can shake a stick at. Hailing roughly from just in or near that small town were Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker.
Jordan’s father was a music teacher and bandleader and from an early age hs studied clarinet and saxophone. He became a member of the so-called Rabbit’s Foot Minstrel show which, as near as I can tell, did not have white men wearing blackface but was “known as one of the few ‘authentic negro’ vaudeville shows around, as all its performers were African American.”
According to NPR, “Jordan moved to Philadelphia, eventually joining up with bandleader Chick Webb. Jordan performed with Webb’s band for two years, but when he tried to leave the group, with singer Ella Fitzgerald and two others in tow, Webb fired him. Jordan left the gig at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom and never looked back.
Within three months of the firing, Jordan and the newly formed Tympany Four had earned top billing at the Elks Rendezvous club, where they played regularly. Performing only a few blocks from the Savoy, Jordan tapped into his Southern past — and created a musical revolution.
Jordan amalgamated “the music of his childhood, the rural blues, with the jazz music which was then popular in nightclubs.” This new form earned the moniker “jump music,” or “jump blues,” because it literally made its listeners jump to its pulsing beat.”
Jordan’s first recorded tune (now with the Tympani Five) is “I’m Gonna Leave You on the Outskirts of Town” and it is a straight-up blues:
I see you wigglin’ and gigglin’, but I’m as mad as I can be
Now we got seven children and none of `em look like me
I’m gonna leave you baby, right out here on the outskirts of town
I ain’t gonna stand for nobody who always hangin’ round.
Jordan and his band moved out to LA in the early forties and with his outsize personality and show biz skills from the minstrel show, wound up making “soundies.” Soundies were three-minute videos, well ahead of MTV forty years later. Many of your very favorite artists such as Harry “The Hipster” Gibson, Benny Fields, Frances Faye, Gloria Parker, Charles Magnante, Milton DeLugg**, and Gus Van made soundies. (And on to the dustbin of history).
In 1943, the band released a tune called “Five Guys Named Moe.” My first introduction to this lively tune was years later when a bass player in a band I was in clued me into a Joe Jackson album with this song on it. This may well be one of the soundies:
But you may well know him best for the tune “Caldonia.” “Little Richard often spoke of being influenced by Louis Jordan; Caldonia was the first non-gospel song he learned. The shriek on the Jordan record ‘sounds eerily like the vocal tone Little Richard would adopt’ in addition to the “Jordan-style pencil-thin moustache.”
In 1998, Jordan’s version (as “Caldonia Boogie”) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2013, it was added to the U.S. National Recording Registry’s list of songs that “are culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.”
Some critics dispute his influence on rock and roll because his music was still very much in the jump blues genre and was not aimed at teenagers. This critique, I think, misses the point. If Little Richard and Chuck Berry cite him as an influence, then that’s good enough for me. And BTW, Chuck grew up in the big band era. And he was in his 30s when he first recorded “Maybellene,’
In fact, guess where Chuck got his intro to Johnny B. Goode? Copped it right out of “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman.”
In the forties, Jordan had eighteen number 1 singles and fifty-four in the Top Ten. From July 1946 through May 1947, Jordan had five consecutive number one songs, holding the top slot for 44 consecutive weeks.
Ironically, Jordan was no real fan of the rock and roll he helped influence. By the time the Fifties rolled ar0und, the market had shifted over to Check and Elvis and Richard and Buddy and jump blues and big-band jazz were, if not dead, at the very least on life support. Louis re-recorded some of his tunes in a rock and roll style and that went about as well as you might expect.
I leave you with the raucous ‘Saturday Night Fish Fry.”
Louis Jordan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “early influence” in 1987.
*In the late 90’s, B.B. King released an album called Let the Good Times Roll: The Music of Louis Jordan. The band included saxophonists Hank Crawford and “Fathead” Newman from Ray Charles’ orchcstra as well as the ubiquitous Dr. John on keys.
**DeLugg was briefly the musical director of the late night American talk show, Tonight with Johnny Carson.