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Louis Thomas Jordan (July 8, 1908 – February 4, 1975) was an American musician, songwriter and bandleader who was popular from the late 1930s to the early 1950s.
Known as "The King of the Jukebox", his highest profile came towards the end of the swing era. Jordan was a talented singer with great comedic flair, and he 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 was also an actor and a film personality—he appeared in dozens of "soundies" (promotional film clips), made numerous cameos in mainstream features and short films, and starred in two musical feature films made especially for him.
He was an instrumentalist who played all forms of the saxophone but specialized in the alto.
He also played the piano and clarinet.
A productive songwriter, he wrote or co-wrote many songs that were influential classics of 20th-century popular music. Jordan began his career in big-band swing jazz in the 1930s, but he became known as one of the leading practitioners, innovators and popularizers of jump blues, a swinging, up-tempo, dance-oriented hybrid of jazz, blues and boogie-woogie.
Typically performed by smaller bands consisting of five or six players, jump music featured shouted, highly syncopated vocals and earthy, comedic lyrics on contemporary urban themes.
It strongly emphasized the rhythm section of piano, bass and drums; after the mid-1940s, this mix was often augmented by electric guitar.
Jordan's band also pioneered the use of the electronic organ. With his dynamic Tympany Five bands, Jordan mapped out the main parameters of the classic R&B, urban blues and early rock-and-roll genres with a series of highly influential 78-rpm discs released by Decca Records.
These recordings presaged many of the styles of black popular music of the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and exerted a strong influence on many leading performers in these genres.
Many of his records were produced by Milt Gabler, who went on to refine and develop the qualities of Jordan's recordings in his later production work with Bill Haley, including "Rock Around the Clock". Jordan ranks fifth in the list of the most successful African-American recording artists according to Joel Whitburn's analysis of Billboard magazine's R&B chart.
Though comprehensive sales figures are not available, he had at least four million-selling hits during his career.
Jordan regularly topped the R&B "race" charts and was one of the first black recording artists to achieve significant crossover in popularity with the mainstream (predominantly white) American audience, having simultaneous Top Ten hits on the pop charts on several occasions.
Life and career
Jordan was born on July 8, 1908, in Brinkley, Arkansas. His father, James Aaron Jordan, was a music teacher and bandleader for the Brinkley Brass Band and the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. His mother, Adell, died when Louis was young. He was raised by his grandmother Maggie Jordan and his aunt Lizzie Reid. At an early age he studied clarinet and saxophone with his father. In his teens he was a member of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and was playing professionally in the late 1920s. In the early 1930s he played in Philadelphia and New York City with Charlie Gaines. He recorded with Clarence Williams and briefly was a member of the Stuff Smith orchestra. With the Chick Webb orchestra he sang and played alto saxophone. In 1938 he started a band that recorded a year later as the Tympany Five.
Jordan's first band, drawn mainly from members of the Jesse Stone band, was a nine-piece group that he reduced to a sextet after being hired for a residency at the Elks Rendezvous club at 464 Lenox Avenue in Harlem. The band consisted of Jordan (saxes, vocals), Courtney Williams (trumpet), Lem Johnson (tenor sax), Clarence Johnson (piano), Charlie Drayton (bass), and Walter Martin (drums). In his first billing as the Elks Rendez-vous Band, his name was spelled "Louie" so people could avoid pronouncing it "Lewis".
In 1942, Jordan and his band moved to Los Angeles, where he began making soundies, the precursors of music video. He appeared on many Jubilee radio shows and a series of programs for the Armed Forces Radio for distribution to American troops overseas. Jordan's career was uninterrupted by the draft except for a four-week Army camp tour. Because of a "hernia condition" he was classified "4F".
During the 1940s Jordan and the band became popular with such hits as "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie", "Knock Me a Kiss", "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby", and "Five Guys Named Moe". He recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, and Louis Armstrong and appeared in films. Within a year of his breakthrough, the Tympany Five's appearance fee rose from $350 to $2,000 per night. But the breadth of Jordan's success and the size of his combo had larger implications for the music industry. The blues singer Gatemouth Moore said, "He was playing...with five pieces. That ruined the big bands ... He could play just as good and just as loud with five as 17. And it was cheaper."
Jordan's raucous recordings were notable for the use of fantastical narrative. This is perhaps best exemplified on "Saturday Night Fish Fry", a two-part 1950 hit that was split across both sides of a 78-rpm record. It was one of the first popular songs to use the word "rocking" in the chorus and to feature a distorted electric guitar. Many sources describe this recording, and some others by Jordan, as "jump blues", because "it literally made its listeners jump to its pulsing beat", according to NPR. One source states that "Saturday Night Fish Fry" had a "lively jump rhythm, call-and-response chorus and double-string electric guitar riffs that Chuck Berry would later admit to copying".
Jordan is described by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as "The Father of Rhythm & Blues" and "The Grandfather of Rock 'n' Roll". The Hall also states that "Saturday Night Fish Fry" is "an early example of rap and possibly the first rock and roll recording". Not all critics agree with the importance of his work as a rock and roll influence. For example, Rolling Stone (magazine) offers this take on Jordan's recordings from the late 1940s: "... the early idol of both Berry and Bill Haley, came closest, but his jump 'n' jive story songs were aimed as much at adults as teens, and any hillbilly flavor in his records was strictly a comedic device". The article agrees with Sam Phillips that rock and roll "specifically addressed and was tailored to teenagers".
Another source describes Jordan's jump blues style as combining "good-natured novelty lyrics (some with suggestive double meanings); [pushing] the tempo; [strengthening] the beat; [layering] the sound with his bluesy saxophone and playful melodies."
During this period Jordan again placed more than a dozen songs on the national charts. However, Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five dominated the 1940s R&B charts, or (as they were known at the time) the "race" charts. In this period Jordan had eighteen number 1 singles and fifty-four in the Top Ten. According to Joel Whitburn's analysis of the Billboard magazine charts, Jordan ranks fifth among the most successful musicians of the period 1942–1995. From July 1946 through May 1947, Jordan had five consecutive number one songs, holding the top slot for 44 consecutive weeks.
Jordan's popularity was boosted not only by his hit Decca records but also by his prolific recordings for Armed Forces Radio and the V-Disc transcription program, which helped to make him popular with whites and blacks. He starred in short musical films and made "soundies" for his hit songs.
Stepping away from his rhythm and blues style, Jordan started a big band in the early 1950s that was unsuccessful. Illness kept him near home in Arizona throughout the 1950s.
In 1952, Jordan performed on June 1 at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles for the eighth Cavalcade of Jazz concert produced by Leon Hefflin, Sr. Jordan and His Tympany Five returned for the tenth Cavalcade of Jazz concert on June 20, 1954.
Jordan signed with Aladdin for which he recorded 21 songs in early 1954. Nine singles were released from these sessions; three of the songs were not released. In 1955, he recorded with "X" Records, a subsidiary of RCA which changed its name to Vik Records while Jordan was with them. Three singles were by released by "X" and one by Vik; four tracks were not released. In these sessions Jordan intensified his sound to compete with rock and roll. In 1956, Mercury signed Jordan and released two albums and a handful of singles. His first album for Mercury, Somebody Up There Digs Me (1956), showcased updated rock-and-roll versions of previous hits such as "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens", "Caldonia", "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie", "Salt Pork, West Virginia", and "Beware!" Mercury intended this to be a comeback for Jordan, but it was not commercially successful, and the label let him go in 1958. Jordan later expressed his dislike of rock 'n' roll and commented "A lot of companies have asked me to record, but they insisted that I go into rock 'n' roll, and I didn't want to change my style". He recorded sporadically in the 1960s for Warwick (1960), Black Lion (1962), Tangerine (1962–1965), and Pzazz (1968) and in the early 1970s for Black & Blue (1973), Blues Spectrum (1973), and JSP (1974).
In the early 1960s he toured in England with Chris Barber. Speaking in 2012, Barber recalled seeing Jordan at the Apollo Theater in New York:
Jordan remade some of his top hits for a 1973 LP, I Believe in Music: "Caldonia," "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby," "Saturday Night Fish Fry" and "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town". New material was also added.
According to a Billboard book, cited by the Blues Hall of Fame, Jordan had "18 No. 1 hits on the race and R&B charts spent a total of 113 weeks in the top slot, almost twice as many weeks as any other artist in the history of rhythm & blues".
One publication of the Smithsonian Institution provided this summary of Jordan's music.
Jordan and the Tympany Five perform "Deacon Jones" in the 1944 film Meet Miss Bobby Socks.
The release of the 1945 musical short film Caldonia boosted Jordan's career due to roadshow screenings in support of his live performance. In addition to his performances in other mainstream films, such as Follow the Boys (1944), Jordan's appearance in Caldonia (1945) and that film's success led to roles for him in other race films, including those made by Astor Pictures: Beware! (1946), Reet, Petite, and Gone (1947), and Look-Out Sister (1947).
His prolific use of film as a promotional vehicle broke new ground, garnering praise from Billboard, which wrote, "The movies have helped the one-nighters, which have also been helped by recordings, which have also helped the movies, which in turn have become more profitable. It's a delicious circle, and other bands are now exploring the possibilities."
Jordan was married five times. His first wife Julia (also called Julie) was from Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Soon after their wedding Julia gave birth to a daughter, Patty, who turned out to be another man's child. In 1932, Jordan met Ida Fields, a Texas-born singer and dancer, in Hot Springs. They married that year. Ida was six years his senior and a member of a traveling dance troupe called the Florida Orange Blossoms. Ida sued Jordan for bigamy in 1943. He claimed she was aware that he was still married. Ida was awarded a $70,000 judgment, later reduced to $30,000. She began billing herself as "Mrs. Louis Jordan, Queen of the Blues, and her Orchestra" before Jordan stopped it by stalling payments. In another court case, Ida was awarded a settlement of $50,000. In 1942, Jordan married his childhood sweetheart, Fleecie Moore; they were later divorced. In 1947, Fleecie discovered Jordan was having an affair with dancer Florence "Vicky" Hayes and attacked him with a knife. She was arrested and charged with assault. Jordan married Vicky on November 14, 1951, in Providence, Rhode Island; they separated in 1960. He married Martha Weaver, a singer and dancer from St. Louis, in 1966.
Jordan's popularity and success had waned by 1953. By that time, "rock 'n' roll had captured the world's attention, and Jordan's jumping R&B became a thing of the past". While he continued performing, this did not generate the level of income that million selling recordings had provided.
In 1961, the Internal Revenue Service filed an income tax lien against Jordan. As a result, he sold property well below its worth to pay off debts. Musician Ike Turner stated in his autobiography, Takin' Back My Name, that he heard about his tax problems and contacted Jordan's booking agency in Chicago. Turner convinced the president of the company to send Jordan a check for $20,000. Jordan was unaware of this deed.
Jordan wrote or co-wrote many of the songs he performed, but he did not benefit financially from them. Many of the hit songs he wrote, including "Caldonia", were credited to his wife Fleecie Moore to avoid an existing publishing arrangement. Their marriage was acrimonious and short-lived. After their divorce she retained ownership of the songs. However, Jordan may have taken credit for some songs written by others—he is credited as the co-writer of "Saturday Night Fish Fry", but the Tympany Five pianist Bill Doggett claimed he wrote it.