Louis Jordan: 'Jukebox King'

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Louis Jordan, ca. 1950. i

Louis Jordan, ca. 1950. George Pickow/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption George Pickow/Getty Images
Louis Jordan, ca. 1950.

Louis Jordan, ca. 1950.

George Pickow/Getty Images

One of the most popular and successful bandleaders of his day, saxophonist and singer Louis Jordan broke from the jazz mainstream to become a founding father of rhythm & blues.

In the late '30s and early '40s, Jordan made a conscious decision to turn away from the big band sound, a dominant trend in popular music of the day. His smaller, tighter groups — the Tympany Four and Tympany Five — developed a loose, hard-driving sound that came to be known as "jump music." Jordan's musical departure fueled a successful string of novelty swing hits through the '40s and early '50s, and created a bridge to the pop music that arrived in the second half of the 20th century. Chuck Berry, James Brown and Ray Charles all cited Jordan's influence on their work.

Born in tiny Brinkley, Ark. in 1908, Jordan learned to play the saxophone from his father, a bandleader for a leading vaudeville minstrel group called the Rabbit's Foot Company. After playing with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels as a youth and attending college as a music major, Jordan moved to Philadelphia, eventually joining up with bandleader Chick Webb. Jordan performed with Webb's band for two years, but when he tried to leave the group, with singer Ella Fitzgerald and two others in tow, Webb fired him. Jordan left the gig at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom and never looked back.

Within three months of the firing, Jordan and the newly formed Tympany Four had earned top billing at the Elks Rendezvous club, where they played regularly. Performing only a few blocks from the Savoy, Jordan tapped into his Southern past — and created a musical revolution. According to historian John Chilton, Jordan amalgamated "the music of his childhood, the rural blues, with the jazz music which was then popular in nightclubs." This new form earned the moniker "jump music," or "jump blues," because it literally made its listeners jump to its pulsing beat.

Jordan coupled his musical ability with a gift for comedy and a dynamic, theatrical stage presence. His colorful delivery and stage antics during songs like "Deacon Jones" were straight out of the minstrel show canon. Jordan's dramatic presentation became popular with white audiences at a time when other black acts had not yet gained crossover appeal.

After only four months at the Elks Rendezvous, Jordan's band, now the Tympany Five, landed a recording contract with Decca Records. It wasn't long before fellow Decca artist Bing Crosby took note of Jordan's rising star and asked to record with him. In 1944, when Jordan and Crosby recorded their duet number, "Your Socks Don't Match," Jordan solidified his unprecedented strength in the pop market.

Jordan then moved into movies, when he found his band being filmed by Universal Pictures during a recording gig in Hollywood. Universal used the footage in a feature and Jordan made the most of the opportunity, appearing in the films Meet Miss Bobby Socks and Swing Parade.

In 1946 Jordan completed a world tour by taking his band into the studio to record their landmark hit, "Caldonia." Three months after the recording date, Jordan made "Caldonia" into a 'soundie' — a type of three-minute film that presaged the modern music video. Jordan's musical film career reached its zenith with the recording of "Beware, Brother, Beware!" The song's talking, lyrical style evokes today's rap recordings, and its title was later used for a full-length, one-hour film featuring Louis Jordan.

Jordan's appeal peaked in the late '40s. "Buzz Me" sold more than 800,000 copies, and when Jordan melded country 'n' western with the blues in "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie," the album reached an unthinkable two million in sales.

Louis Jordan had helped to redefine popular music, but by 1950 the revolution he fostered began to overtake his own success. Manager and friend Berle Adams left him, and Jordan's ill-advised attempt at fronting a big band failed. By the time he returned in early 1953 with his Tympany Five, rock 'n' roll had captured the world's attention, and Jordan's jumping R&B became a thing of the past. Reacting to the new power of rock, Decca released Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan to clear the path for its new star: Elvis Presley.

Jordan never again achieved the popular success he enjoyed in the '40s, but that never dulled his artistic passion. In the '60s and '70s Jordan switched from alto to tenor saxophone as he searched for a deeper sound. Jordan hired a female singer to accompany his Tympany Five, and the band also dabbled in calypso music. In 1973, jazz impresario George Wein staged a successful comeback tour for Jordan that included performances in Europe and at the Newport in New York Jazz Festival. Jordan spent time living and working in New Orleans, where he often played with trumpeter Wallace Davenport.

When Louis Jordan died in February of 1975, the world lost a musical giant. His creativity broke down both musical and social barriers. Jordan's eminently danceable music, steeped in southern blues, contained an undeniably organic potency. His influence is still heard in broad segments of contemporary music, and even today his profile continues to rise.

Link to NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library:

Louis Jordan: The Best of Louis Jordan

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