“The King of the Jukebox”
Louis Jordan was a pioneering jazz and blues musician, songwriter, bandleader and dynamic stage cat. James Brown said, “Jordan influenced me in every way. He could sing, he could dance, he could play, he could act. He could do it all.” Born 1908 in Arkansas, the son of a music-teacher father, Jordan ran away at 12 to dance with Ma Rainey’s Minstrels. Along with Jolsen and Cab Calloway, Jordan was one of the first to make singing a song an “event”. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him the 59th Greatest Artists of All Time. Billboard ranks him 5th on their all-time list. Ray Charles called him “a complete original.”
Jordan’s songs celebrated the ups and downs of black urban life. He infused his lyrics with cheeky humor and his music with a driving jitterbug energy. His rabid alto sax and stage persona had a massive influence on the development of rock n roll. Jordan was also a major black film personality and a music video pioneer producing the 1st “soundies”.
In 1936, Jordan’s career began to zoom when he joined the influential Savoy Ballroom orchestra, led by drummer Chick Webb. Come 1938 Jordan formed the Tympany Five and left Webb’s circle. Jordan said about his small band, “I did what the big bands do with my little band, I made the blues jump.” Bill Honky Tonk Doggett was part of Jordan’s jumpin band.
Late 1938 saw the band’s 1st recording date with Decca Records. Their 1939 session produced Keep-A-Knockin. This song, originally recorded in the 1920s, later became a Little Richard smash. Recording sessions in late 1939 produced two more Jordan classics: You’re My Meat and You Run Your Mouth and I’ll Run My Business. Jordan became a cross-over hit long before they invented the phrase.
In 1941, Jordan and his Tympany Five began a stint at the Fox Head Tavern in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In that looser environment, the creative band was able to master the novelty aspect of repertoire and performance. Jordan later identified the gig at the Fox Head Tavern as the turning point of his career. While there, he found several songs that became early hits, including If It’s Love You Want Baby, Ration Blues & Inflation Blues.
After returning to New York, a 1941 Decca session produced Jordan’s first hot-selling record, I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town. 1942 resulted in the answer record, I’m Gonna Leave You on the Outskirts of Town. This song reached #2 on Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade. His next side, What’s the Use of Getting Sober became Jordan’s first #1 hit, topping the Harlem Hit Parade in December 1942. The band’s next major side, the comical call-and-response, Five Guys Named Moe was one of the 1st recordings to solidify the fast-paced, swinging R&B style that became a Jordan trademark. Back when Hadicol was a cure-all, this song reached #3 on the race (R&B) charts.
At the next Decca session, Jordan re-recorded Ration Blues, which had new timeliness because of World War II. Ration Blues spent 6 weeks at #1 on the Harlem Hit Parade and stayed in the Top 10 for a remarkable 21 weeks. Dozens of hit songs were released during the 1940s including his swinging boogie Saturday Night Fish Fry which sold a million breakable shellac 78s to anyone who had a Victrola no matter their race.
Saturday Night Fish Fry, a rollicking 2-sided 78 rpm hit, is one of the earliest recordings to include all the essential elements of classic rock n roll. And certainly one of the first hit songs to use the word “rocking” in the chorus and feature a distorted electric guitar.
Other successes followed: Blue Light Boogie, Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens, Buzz Me, Ain’t That Just Like a Woman and the million seller Choo Choo Ch’Boogie which had penny loafers tearing up sandy dance floors.
One of Jordan’s biggest hits was Caldonia, with its chorus’d screaming punch line, banged out by the whole band, “Caldonia! Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?” Numerous other artists, including Woody Herman and Muddy Waters, cut their own versions of this song. But covering a Louis Jordan hit was a tough row to hoe. Jordan could weave together poetic lyrics like the baddest rappers of today.
The prime of Louis Jordan’s recording career, 1942-50, was a period of intense radio segregation. Despite this, he kept scoring crossover #1 singles like G.I. Jive/Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby. During the 40s, Jordan scored a staggering 18 #1 singles and 54 Top Tens. To this day, Louis Jordan ranks as the top black recording artist of all time in terms of the total number of weeks at #1. His records spent an incredible 113 weeks in the #1 position (runner-up: Stevie Wonder with 70 weeks). From 1946 through 1947, Jordan had 5 consecutive #1 songs, holding the top spot for 44 straight weeks.
Louis Jordan is described by the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame as “the Father of Rhythm & Blues” and “Grandfather of Rock and Roll”. He is one of the black performers credited with providing many of the building blocks for the music. Huey Piano Smith said, “If you ask me rock n roll started with Jordan.” Other Jordan fans were Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Jordan’s guitarist, Carl Hogan, was possibly a direct influence on Berry’s guitar licks. Hogan’s single-note solo on the 1946 hitAin’t That Just Like a Woman was lifted almost note-for-note by Berry as his iconic opening riff on Johnny B. Goode.
Maybe Chuck Berry said it best. “The music was here long before Jordan but Louis Jordan was the first one I heard play rock n roll.” As Jordan might say, “Nuff said”, for one of the most influential artists who transitioned from jazz to blues to R&B. We proudly welcome this pioneer into the Beach Music Hall of Fame.