Jordan, Louis (1908-1975)

views updated

Jordan, Louis (1908-1975)

One of America's most prominent musicians of the 1940s, Louis Jordan was a singer, a baritone and alto sax player, a clarinetist, and a bandleader. From 1942 to 1951, he had 18 number one hits on the R&B chart and was one of the biggest African-American box office draws in the country, besides being an important figure and role model in black popular entertainment. His music reflected his African-American roots while appealing to both black and white audiences. His combo, Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five helped to define the shuffle boogie rhythm as well as "jump," a term first used in jazz and later in rhythm and blues, that referred to the instrumentation of trumpet, alto and tenor sax, piano, bass, and drums. The innovative Jordan was the first jazz musician to make a short film based on one of his popular hit songs ("Caldonia"), an early precursor of the contemporary music video. His influence on rock and roll can be heard in the music of Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and James Brown, among others.

From his earliest years, Jordan was guided and motivated by a strong conviction and desire to become an entertainer. "I wanted to give my whole life to making people enjoy my music. Make them laugh and smile. So I didn't stick to what you'd call jazz. I have always stuck to entertainment," he once said. Jordan embodied a melding of visual showmanship, detached humor, impeccable musicianship, and a gratifying original and rhythmic vocal style.

Born Louis Thomas Jordan on July 8, 1908 in Brinkley, Arkansas, Louis Jordan was the son of James Jordan, a musical talent, and of a mother who died when he was young. James Jordan, his father was a multi-instrumentalist, organizer of the local Brinkley Brass Band, and a motivational figure in his life. As a boy, Jordan sang in the local Baptist church, mastered the clarinet and saxophone family of instruments, and during the summer, along with his father, toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and Ma Rainey's TOBA Troupe. These early experiences developed in Jordan a passion for perfecting his music through disciplined rehearsals and an appreciation for showmanship. Jordan worked as a sideman with Ruby Williams's band in Hot Springs, Arkansas before moving on to Philadelphia.

Once in Philadelphia, professional opportunities presented themselves to Jordan. He met Ralph Cooper, bandleader and coordinator of the amateur night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. who hired him as member of the Apollo house band. Jordan joined Chick Webb's band, playing at the Savoy Ballroom from 1936-1938. He left the Webb band confident enough to organize his own group, "The Louie Jordan Elks Rendezvous Band," (the "Louie" spelling was intentional since people often mispronounced his name as Lewis), which began its engagements at The Elks Club in Harlem. The band's name was later changed to Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, which remained constant despite personnel changes. The word tympany was included for a period because drummer Walter Martin actually played that instrument in the group.

Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five became one of the most successful small bands in jazz history. Jordan signed a Decca contract that lasted from 1938-1955, recording many compositions in its "Race Series." His recording of "A Chicken Ain't Nothing but a Bird" signaled a pivotal point in the direction and kind of material Jordan would record. This song's novelty lyrics, shuffle and boogie rhythm, and the soloing of lead instrumentalists all proved to be a successful formula. The subsequent recording of "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town," a 12-bar blues, launched Jordan as a major recording star. Then followed a string of major hits posting in the top ten on the R&B chart, including "What's the Use of Getting Sober" (1942), "Five Guys Named Moe" (1943), "Ration Blues" (1943), "G.I. Jive" (1944), "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't (Ma' Baby)" (1944), "Mop Mop" (1945), "Caldonia," (1945), "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin"' (1946), "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" (1946), "Ain't That Just Like a Woman" (1946); "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens" (1946), "Let the Good Times Roll" (1946), "Open the Door Richard" (1947), "Beans and Corn Bread" (1949), and "Saturday Night Fish Fry (Part I)" (1949), among others. Jordan's recording of "Caldonia" and the short film of the same name marked the first time that a film was based on a tune. This arrangement was a huge success with both white and black audiences. When rock and roll came into its own in the 1950s, Jordan's career began to decline and his contract with Decca ended. He signed with Mercury records and rerecorded old hits, including "Caldonia." Jordan moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s and recorded one album with Ray Charles's Tangerine label. He formed Pzazz, his own record label in 1968.

A number of Jordan's recordings can be classified as blues, which Jordan sang with perfect diction in a sophisticated, cosmopolitan, smooth, and crooner style that attracted black and white audiences. For a number of his touring engagements, promoters booked his band to play two separate engagements in the same evening—one for a white and one for a black audience. He also led a big band from 1951-52.

Jordan was a competent jazz improviser, and his work on alto sax is memorable. His choice of songs as well as his own compositions were based on gospel, blues, jazz, and the vernacular of black speech and African-American folk culture. Jordan sang about the subjects of black folk, women (chicks and chickens), Saturday night fish frys, drinking, love, and partying—in sum the travails and pleasures of African-American experience in urban areas after their postwar migration. Jordan's music epitomized an era of good times, paving the way for rhythm and blues. He continued to tour until he collapsed and died of a heart attack on February 5, 1975 in Los Angeles. Since his death, there has been a gradual rebirth of interest in his work, with his music featured in various movie sound tracks such as The Blues Brothers. Five Guys Named Moe, a musical that featured Jordan's music, opened on Broadway in 1992 and captured a Tony Award nomination for best musical.

—Willie Collins

Further Reading:

Chilton, John. Let the Good Times Roll: The Story of Louis Jordan and His Music. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1994.

About this article

Jordan, Louis (1908-1975)

Updated About content Print Article