Louis JordanAug 5th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1908-1975 Louis Jordan was one of the most successful African American musicians of his era, achieving success and popularity across jazz, blues, R&B, and the nascent Rock and Roll genres. He was one of the first black artists to “cross over” to the mainstream, scoring with white audiences and on the pop music charts.
Studies with Father
Jordan was born on July 8, 1908, in Brinkley, Arkansas. His father, James Jordan, led several local bands and taught music in the region. His mother died while Jordan was still young, and the talented boy grew up deeply exposed to his father’s music, playing in the elder Jordan’s bands after school while other boys were doing farm work. Jordan began playing clarinet, and then added the piano to his early repertoire, although he would ultimately concentrate on the alto saxophone.
For a short period, Jordan studied music at Arkansas Baptist College, and played with local bands including the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and Bob Alexander’s Harmony Kings. He is believed to have been married during this time. He then headed north with his family to Philadelphia and on to New York, where by 1932, he was playing with Clarence Williams’ big band, and had married for a second time. Greater success followed when he joined Chick Webb’s Savoy Ballroom orchestra, considered one of the great big bands. Jordan was also singing lead by this time, and developing the comedic charisma that would mark his popularity, so much so that many believed he was the band’s leader. A young Ella Fitzgerald often joined him in duets as the group’s lead female vocalist.
Jordan had begun planning for his own group, and was fired by Webb in 1938 for trying to lure Fitzgerald and others away. The new band began with nine members, but when Jordan settled into a steady gig at the Elks Rendezvous Club in Harlem, he pared it down to a sextet with Jordan on saxes and vocals, joined by tenor sax, piano, bass, trumpet, and drums. Early recordings for the Decca label in the same year featured several sides backing another vocalist, and some novelty tunes by the band, which Jordan then renamed the Tympany Five. These were followed by recording dates in 1939, 1940, and 1941 that included some of Jordan’s early standards.
After signing with the General Artists Corporation for representation in 1941, Jordan’s band was booked into the Capitol Lounge in Chicago, backing the better-known Mills Brothers and increasing Jordan’s visibility. A subsequent booking in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at the Fox Head Tavern, offered the band an opportunity to further develop and refine their novelty performance skills. During this period, Jordan was first exposed to a number of tunes that he turned into hits early in his career, including “Ration Blues” and “If It’s Love You Want Baby.”
Decca Records, perceiving that certain artists had the potential to “cross over” from strictly “race” labels, audiences, and sales charts to mainstream and mostly white appeal, created the Sepia Series in 1941 and moved Jordan’s band to it. There, they joined such talented crossover acts as the Nat King Cole Trio. Back in New York later that year, the band’s recordings grew in sales strength reaching their first #1 ranking on Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade in 1942. Also in 1942, Jordan divorced his second wife and married for the third time. Later that year, the band moved to Los Angeles, and in 1943, achieved its first crossover hit with “Ration Blues” on both the race and mainstream charts. Jordan’s raucous, often comedic energy, his use of distorted electric guitar, and a syncopated vocal delivery was emerging as a distinctive style, and his “Saturday Night Fish Fry” of this period is considered by some to be the first Rock and Roll song.
Jordan also had begun experimenting with short musical films of the band, a precursor to modern music videos, and expanded his range to include appearances in feature films. The recording of the song “Is You or Is You Ain’t My Baby” was popularized by Jordan’s performance in Universal’s film Follow the Boys. Later in the 1940s, he also starred in several “race films.” Over the course of the decade, his fame soared as indicated by sales statistics: Jordan had18 R&B chart #1 rankings, and 57 recordings in the top 10, complemented by more than 10 songs on the national crossover charts. His popularity was further enhanced by his contributions to the war effort, with many recordings for Armed Forces Radio and the V-Disc program.
Jordan’s “jump blues style” directly influenced a number of rock music’s progenitors, including Bill Haley & His Comets, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, and arguably launched the creation of that genre. But after reaching the pinnacle of success in the 1940s, Jordan himself began to drift out of the limelight. A big band he formed in 1951 fared poorly, as popular tastes had moved on. His record sales dwindled as he changed labels, attempting an overt Rock and Roll style with little commercial success. Another divorce and marriage occurred in 1951, this one lasting until 1960 when he separated from his fourth wife. By the early 1960s, Jordan had essentially stopped recording. His fifth marriage took place in 1966. Jordan died on February 4, 1975, from a heart attack.
Jordan is ranked as the top black recording artist in history, based on the number of weeks his records were in the #1 chart position. His impact on the development of popular music cannot be overstated. Cited by luminaries such as Ray Charles and James Brown as a formative influence, commemorated in the Broadway musical Five Guys Named Moe, and memorialized by blues artist B.B. King with the tribute album Let the Good Times Roll—the Music of Louis Jordan, Jordan lives on through the priceless genres he helped create.