Louis (1908-1975) Jordan's jazz-based boogie shuffle rhythms laid the foundation for rhythm and blues, modern electric blues, and rockabilly music.
At the height of his career, in the 1940s, bandleader and alto saxophonist Louis Jordan scored 18 Number One hit records. In the tradition of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, Jordan exhibited a brilliant sense of showmanship that, as music critic Leonard Feather explained in his book The Jazz Years, brought audiences first-rate entertainment "without any loss of musical integrity." Against the backdrop of house parties, fish fries, and corner grills, Jordan performed songs that appealed to millions of black and white listeners. Able to "straddle the fence" between these two audiences, Jordan emerged as one of the first successful crossover artists of American popular music.
Born on July 8, 1908, in Brinkley, Arkansas, Jordan was the son of Jim Jordan, a bandleader and music teacher. Under the tutelage of his father, Jordan began studying clarinet at age seven. After spotting a saxophone in a music store window, however, he "ran errands all over Brinkley" until he could raise the money to purchase the instrument. While on summer vacation at the age of 15, Jordan landed his first gig, with Ruby "Tuna Boy" Williams's Belvedere Orchestra, at the Green Gables in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His first professional engagement was with Fat Chappelle's Rabbit Foot Minstrels, playing clarinet and dancing throughout the South. At Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock, Jordan majored in music and played on the school baseball team. After school he played local dates with Jimmy Pryor's Imperial Serenaders.
Moving to Philadelphia in 1930, Jordan worked with trumpeter Charlie Gaines's orchestra and tuba player Jim Winters's band. Two years later, Jordan traveled to New York with Gaines's group, where he took part in a recording session with pianist Clarence Williams's band. In New York he briefly worked with the bands of Kaiser Marshall and drummer Joe Marshall. His most important job, though, came in 1936 when he joined drummer Chick Webb's orchestra—a 13-piece ensemble that featured singer Ella Fitzgerald. A small, "hunch-backed" man whose physical deformity nonetheless failed to hinder his inventive drumming talent, Webb hired Jordan as a singer, sideman, and announcer. In 1937 Jordan recorded his first vocal with Webb's band, a song titled "Gee, But You're Swell." During his stint with Webb Jordan developed his skills as a frontman. "Louis would go out and just break up the show," recalled former bandmember Garvin Bushell in his autobiography Jazz From the Beginning. "Nobody could follow him."
In the summer of 1938, Jordan left Webb's orchestra to form his own, nine-piece, band; although Jordan enjoyed performing as part of large jazz ensembles, he embarked on a career as a bandleader and more general entertainer. "I wanted to play for the people, for millions, not just a few hep cats," explained Jordan in Arnold Shaw's Honkers and Shouters. Billing himself as "Bert Williams," Jordan played shows at the Elk's Rendezvous at 44 Lenox Avenue, in Harlem. His long residency at the club eventually prompted him to name his group the Elk's Rendezvous Band. After playing various club dates on 52nd Street, he booked his band at proms and dances at Yale University and Amherst College. In 1939, this group recorded several sides for the Decca label.
That December, after changing the name of his band to the Tympany Five, Jordan reduced the size of the unit to six members (later it would number seven or eight). Invited to open for the Mills Brothers at the Capitol Theater in Chicago, Jordan played a ten-minute spot during the intermission between the featured performances. In no time, Jordan's energetic stage presence began to draw larger crowds than the headline acts, so Capitol's management decided to lengthen his performance to half an hour.
But the real turning point in Jordan's career came when he performed at a small "beer joint" called the Fox Head Tavern in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Distanced from the demanding crowds of Chicago and New York, Jordan found he was freer to experiment with new material. At the Fox Head he assembled a large repertoire of blues and novelty songs. On his return to the Capitol Theater, Jordan became a sensation. In January of 1942 he hit the charts with a rendition of the blues standard "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town."
From 1942 Jordan was rarely absent from the Harlem Hit Parade. Over the following ten years he recorded more than 54 rhythm-and-blues best-sellers. Material for his band came from a number of black and white songwriters. As Jordan's manager, Berle Adams, told Honkers and Shouters author Shaw, "When we found something we liked, an arrangement would be made up, and we'd play it on onenighters. The songs the public asked for again and again were the songs we recorded." Jordan soon produced a stream of hits, including "What's the Use of Getting Sober (When You're Gonna Get Drunk Again)," "Five Guys Named Moe," and "G.I. Jive," a boogie number intended for the entertainment of troops fighting in World War II.
Aside from the universal appeal of his material, the key to Jordan's success lay in his tight organization and the use of talented arrangers such as pianists Wild Bill Davis and Bill Dogget. Though he exhibited a casual manner, Jordan was a serious bandleader who demanded that his outfit be well dressed and thoroughly rehearsed. In An Autobiography of Black Jazz, saxophonist Eddie Johnson described how Jordan's penchant for "neatness" led him to require his band to "look right even down to their shoes." Jordan furnished bandmembers with six or seven uniforms, which displayed a post-zoot-suit style with multicolor designs.
In the mid-1940s, Jordan's Tympany Five drew thousands of listeners to white nightclubs and black theaters. Traveling by car caravan, the band toured constantly, playing shows at venues like Billy Berg's Swing Club in Hollywood, the Oriental Theatre in Chicago, the Apollo in Harlem, and the Paradise Theatre in Detroit. In black movie houses, Jordan's releases were featured in film shorts, many of which became so popular that the regular features often received second billing. Around this time Jordan also appeared in several motion pictures, including Meet Miss Bobby Socks, Swing Parade of 1946, and Beware, which was advertised as "the first truly great all-colored musical feature."
After World War II, when the big bands began to disappear, Jordan's small combo continued to find commercial success. "With my little band, I did everything they did with a big band. I made the blues jump," Jordan explained in Honkers and Shouters. The band became so popular, in fact, that Jordan toured with such sought-after opening acts as Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown, Sarah Vaughn, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Following his 1945 million-seller "Caldonia," Jordan and the Tympany Five continued to score hits, among them "Beware Brother Beware," "Boogie Woogie Blue Plate," "Nobody Here But Us Chickens," and "Open the Door Richard," a song adapted from a black vaudeville comedy routine popularized during the 1930s and '40s. In 1950, Jordan recorded a cover version of "(I'll be Glad When You're Dead) You Rascal You" with trumpeter-singer Louis Armstrong.
The following year Jordan changed course, disbanding the Tympany Five and forming a 16-piece big band. But this group did not live up to the sound or favor of the earlier unit. On leaving the Decca label in 1954, Jordan largely lost the steady stream of material, sidemen, and producers that had helped him maintain his national celebrity. Determined to keep up with the burgeoning rhythm and blues market, however, he signed with West Coast-based Aladdin Records. But after failing to score commercially, he moved to RCA's Victor X subsidiary. In the meanwhile, Jordan had recorded for more than a dozen labels in the U.S., including Mercury, Warwick, Tangerine, Pzazz, and Blue Spectrum. Despite his persistence, Jordan faced a new record-buying public dominated by teenagers who demanded rock 'n' roll lyrics, idol images, and heavy back-beat rhythms.
Health problems eventually forced Jordan to retire from one-night stands, which required that he drive hundreds of miles across the country. In 1946 he bought a home in Phoenix, Arizona, where he stayed for 18 years; he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s. During this period he devoted his time to playing occasional month-long engagements in Phoenix, Las Vegas, and New York. On a tour of England in 1962, Jordan performed and recorded with the Chris Barbers band. Two years later, he reformed the Tympany Five to appear at show lounges and music festivals. His performances in the Near East in 1967 and 1968 received enthusiastic responses. At the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival, too, crowds gave him a warm reception.
In October of 1974, Jordan suffered a heart attack while performing in Sparks, Nevada. After entering St. Mary's Hospital in Reno, he returned home to Los Angeles, where he died on February 4, 1975. His body was flown to St. Louis for burial at Mt. Olive Cemetery.
In 1987 Jordan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Though many had forgotten his contributions to popular music over the intervening years, this honor paid tribute to one of the performers most responsible for the development of rhythm and blues and rock and roll. As trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie related in his autobiography To Be or Not to Bop, " Rock n' roll had been with us a long time" and "Louis Jordan had been playing it long before Elvis Presley." Jordan helped shape the careers of rock and roll pioneers Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Bill Haley, and countless others, though his music would later become obscured by evolving trends. In 1990 Jordan's work was celebrated in the hit stage production Five Guys Named Moe, a rollicking look at a man whose "whole theory of life" was to make audiences "smile or laugh." With the many reissues of Jordan's music on compact disc, one need only listen to realize the lasting sincerity of his commitment.
Further Reading on Louis Jordan
Bushell, Garvin, Jazz From the Beginning: As Told to Mark Tucker, University of Michigan Press, 1988.
Chilton, John, Let the Good Times Roll: The Story of Louis Jordan and His Music, University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Feather, Leonard, The Jazz Years: Earwitness to an Era, Quartet Books, 1989.
(With Al Fraser) Gillespie, Dizzy, To Be or Not to Bop: Memoirs, Doubleday, 1979.
Rusch, Robert D., Jazztalk: The Cadence of Interviews, Lyle Stuart Inc., 1984.
Shaw, Arnold, Honkers and Shouters: The Golden Years of Rhythm and Blues, Collier, 1978.
Simon, George T., The Big Bands, Schirmer, 1981.
Tosches, Nick, Unsung Heroes of Rock n' Roll, Scribner's, 1984.
Travis, Dempsey J., An Autobiography of Black Jazz, Urban Research Institute, 1983.
Down Beat, March 27, 1975.
Newsweek, April 20, 1992.
Pulse!, November 1992.
Variety, November 1990.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Peter Grendysa to Just Say Moe! Mo' of the Best of Louis Jordan, Rhino Records, 1992.