Known as “The King of the Jukebox”, Jordan was a pioneering entertainer, popular from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. Between 1942-1950 he scored eighteen #1 singles and fifty-four Top Ten hits on the US R&B chart and was highly popular with both black and white audiences in the later years of the swing era who had simultaneous Top Ten hits on the pop charts on several occasions, and at least four million-selling hits during his career. 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 major black film personality that 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 famous as one of the leading practitioners, innovators and popularizes 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’s father, James Aaron Jordan, was a music teacher and bandleader for the Brinkley Brass Band and for the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. His mother, Adell, died when Louis was young. Jordan studied music under his father, starting out on the clarinet. In his youth he played in his father’s bands instead of doing farm work when school closed. He also played the piano professionally early in his career, but alto saxophone became his main instrument. However, he became even better known as a songwriter, entertainer and vocalist.
Jordan briefly attended Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock and majored in music. After a period with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels (in which one of his colleagues was Leon “Pee Wee” Whittaker) and with local bands, including Bob Alexander’s Harmony Kings, he went to Philadelphia and then New York. In 1932, Jordan began performing with the Clarence Williams band, and when he was in Philadelphia he played clarinet in the Charlie Gaines band.
In late 1936 he was invited to join the influential Savoy Ballroom orchestra, led by the drummer Chick Webb. Based at New York’s Savoy Ballroom, Webb’s orchestra was renowned as one of the best big bands of its day and regularly beat all comers at the Savoy’s legendary cutting contests. Jordan worked with Webb until 1938, and it proved a vital stepping-stone in his career as Webb (who was physically disabled) was a fine musician but not a great showman. The ebullient Jordan often introduced songs as he began singing lead; he later recalled that many in the audience took him to be the band’s leader, which undoubtedly boosted his confidence further. This was the same period when the young Ella Fitzgerald was coming to prominence as the Webb band’s lead female vocalist; she and Jordan often sang duets on stage, and they later reprised their partnership on several records, by which time both were major stars.
In 1938, Webb fired Jordan for trying to persuade Fitzgerald and others to join his new band. By this time Webb was already seriously ill with tuberculosis of the spine. He died at the age of 34, after spinal surgery on June 16, 1939. Following his death, Fitzgerald took over the band.
Jordan’s first band, drawn mainly from members of the Jesse Stone band, was originally a nine-piece group, but he soon scaled it down to a sextet after landing a residency at the Elks Rendezvous club, at 464 Lenox Avenue, in Harlem. The original lineup of the sextet was 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 Louie Jordan’s Elks Rendez-vous Band (after the Harlem nightspot that he frequently played at), his name was spelled Louie so people would know not to pronounce it Lewis. After only four months at the Elks Rendezvous, Jordan’s band, now the Tympany Five, landed a recording contract with Decca Records.
The new band’s first recording date, for Decca Records on December 20, 1938, produced three sides on which they backed an obscure vocalist, Rodney Sturgess, and two novelty sides of their own, “Honey in the Bee Ball” and “Barnacle Bill the Sailor”. These recordings were credited to the Elks Rendezvous Band, but Jordan subsequently changed the name to the Tympany Five, since Martin often used tympani in performance. (The word tympany is also an old-fashioned colloquial term meaning “swollen, inflated, puffed-up”, etymologically related to timpani, or kettledrums, but historically separate.) The various lineups of the Tympany Five (which often featured two or three extra players) included Bill Jennings and Carl Hogan on guitar, the renowned pianist-arrangers Wild Bill Davis and Bill Doggett, “Shadow” Wilson and Chris Columbus on drums and Dallas Bartley on bass. Jordan played alto, tenor and baritone saxophone and sang the lead vocal on most songs.
Their next recording date, in March 1939, produced five sides, including “Keep a-Knockin'” (originally recorded in the 1920s and later famously covered by Little Richard), “Sam Jones Done Snagged His Britches” and “Doug the Jitterbug”. Lem Johnson subsequently left the group and was replaced by Stafford Simon. Sessions in December 1939 and January 1940 produced two more early Jordan classics, “You’re My Meat” and “You Run Your Mouth and I’ll Run My Business”. Other musicians who passed through the band in 1940 and 1941 included the tenorist Kenneth Hollon (who recorded with Billie Holiday) and the trumpeter Freddie Webster (from Earl Hines’s band), who was part of the nascent bebop scene at Minton’s Playhouse and influenced Kenny Dorham and Miles Davis.
In 1941 Jordan signed with the General Artists Corporation, and the agency appointed Berle Adams to be his agent. Adams secured an engagement at Chicago’s Capitol Lounge, supporting the Mills Brothers, and this proved to be an important breakthrough for Jordan and the band.
The Capitol Lounge residency also provides a remarkable yardstick of the scale of Jordan’s success. During this engagement, the group was paid the standard union scale of $70 per week – $35 per week for Jordan and $35 split between the rest of the band. Just seven years later, when Jordan played his record-breaking season at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco in 1948, he reportedly grossed over $70,000 in just two weeks.
During this period the bassist Henry Turner was fired and replaced by Dallas Bartley. This was followed by another important engagement, at the Fox Head Tavern, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Working in the looser environment of Cedar Rapids, away from the main centers, the band was able to develop the novelty aspect of their repertoire and performance. Jordan later identified his stint at the Fox Head Tavern as the turning point in his career. While there he found several songs that became early hits, including “If It’s Love You Want, Baby”, “Ration Blues” and “Inflation Blues”.
In April 1941 Decca launched the Sepia Series, a 35-cent line that featured artists who were considered to have the “crossover potential” to sell in both the black and white markets. Jordan’s band was transferred from Decca’s “race” label to the Sepia Series, alongs with the Delta Rhythm Boys, the Nat King Cole Trio, Buddy Johnson and the Jay McShann Band.
By the time the group returned to New York in late 1941, the lineup had changed to Jordan, Bartley, Martin, the trumpeter Eddie Roane and the pianist Arnold Thomas. Recording dates in November 1941 produced another early Jordan classic, “Knock Me a Kiss”, which had significant jukebox sales but did not make the charts. However, Roy Eldridge subsequently recorded a version, backed by the Gene Krupa band, which became a hit in June 1942, almost a year after the Jordan recording came out; it was also covered by Jimmie Lunceford.
These sessions also produced Jordan’s first big-selling record, “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town” (1941), originally recorded by Casey Bill Weldon in 1936. It also did not make the charts. It too was covered by Lunceford, in 1942, whose version reached #12 on the pop chart; it was also covered by Big Bill Broonzy and Jimmy Rushing.
Sessions in July 1942 produced nine prime sides, allowing Decca to stockpile Jordan’s recordings as a hedge against the recording ban declared by the American Federation of Musicians in the same month. The ban (imposed in order to secure royalty payments for union musicians for each record sold) led to Jordan’s enforced absence from the studio for the next year, and it also prevented many seminal bebop performers from recording during one of the most crucial years of the genre’s history.
“I’m Gonna Leave You on the Outskirts of Town” was an “answer record” to Jordan’s earlier “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town”. It became Jordan’s first major chart hit, reaching #2 on Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade. His next side, “What’s the Use of Getting Sober (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again)”, became Jordan’s first #1 hit, reaching the top of the Harlem Hit Parade in December 1942.
In late 1942, Jordan and his band relocated to Los Angeles, working at major venues there and in San Diego. While in Los Angeles, Jordan began making “soundies”, the earliest precursors of the modern music video, and also appeared on many Jubilee radio shows and a series of programs made for the Armed Forces Radio for distribution to American troops overseas. Unlike many musicians, 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”.
A subsequent side, “The Chicks I Pick Are Slender, Tender and Fine”, reached #10 in January 1943. Their next major side, the comical call-and response number “Five Guys Named Moe”, was one of the first recordings to solidify the fast-paced, swinging R&B style that became Jordan’s signature, and it struck a chord with audiences, reaching #3 on the race chart in September 1943. The song was later taken as the title of a long-running stage show that paid tribute to Jordan and his music. The more conventional “That’ll Just About Knock Me Out” also fared well, reaching #8 on the race chart and giving Jordan his fifth hit from the December 1942 sessions.
Decca was one of the first labels to reach an agreement with the musicians’ union, and Jordan returned to recording in October 1943. At this session Jordan and his band recorded “Ration Blues”, which dated from their Fox Head Tavern days but had a new timeliness with the imposition of wartime rationing. It became Jordan’s first crossover hit, charting on both the white and the black pop charts. It was also a huge hit on the Harlem Hit Parade, where it spent six weeks at #1 and stayed in the Top Ten for a remarkable 21 weeks, and it reached #11 in the general “best-sellers” chart. 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.
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 position as the band’s lead vocalist was also uncommon and proved influential. The artistic innovations and economic advantages reinforced each other and helped pave the way for black pop music to shift from big-band swing to rock and roll. The word rock, originally black slang for coitus, began to be popularly used in its musical sense in the early 1940s. Following Jordan, many other small bands began achieving success, including Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers and Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, while single acts such as Big Joe Turner, Ivory Joe Hunter, T-Bone Walker and Wynonie Harris traveled the circuit without bands.
In the 1940s, Jordan released dozens of hit songs, including the swinging “Saturday Night Fish Fry” (one of the earliest and most powerful contenders for the title of first rock and roll record), “Blue Light Boogie”, the comic classic “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens”, “Buzz Me,” “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman (They’ll Do It Every Time)”, and the multimillion seller “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”.
One of his biggest hits was “Caldonia”, with its energetic screaming punchline, banged out by the whole band, “Caldonia! Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?” After Jordan’s success with it, the song was also recorded by Woody Herman in a famous modern arrangement, including a unison chorus by five trumpets. Muddy Waters also recorded a version. However, many of Jordan’s biggest R&B hits were inimitable, and no hit cover versions of them were recorded, a rarity in an era when black pop music was often rerecorded by white artists, and many popular songs were released in multiple competing versions.
Jordan’s original songs joyously celebrated the ups and downs of African-American urban life and were infused with cheeky good humor and a driving musical energy that had a massive influence on the development of rock and roll. His music was popular with both blacks and whites, but lyrically most of his songs were emphatically and uncompromisingly “black” in their content and delivery.
Loaded with wry social commentary and coded references, they are also a treasury of 1930s and 1940s black hipster slang. Through his records Jordan was probably one of the main popularizers of the slang term chick (“woman”). Sexual themes were often prominently featured, and some sides (notably the saucy double entendre of “Show Me How to Milk the Cow”) were so risqué that it seems remarkable that they were issued at all.
The prime of Jordan’s recording career, 1942–1950, was a period of segregation on the radio. Despite this he had a crossover #1 single, “G.I. Jive” backed with “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” in 1944, thanks in large part to his performance with his orchestra of the song in the all-star wartime musical film “Follow the Boys” (Universal Pictures, 1944). He was also featured in “Meet Miss Bobby Sox” (1944) and the 1946 race film “Beware!” 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.
MGM’s cartoon cat Tom sang “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” in the 1946 Tom and Jerry cartoon short “Solid Serenade.” Jordan appeared in the 1946 Monogram Pictures movie “Swing Parade of 1946,” and in 1947 starred in the all-black, full-length Astor Pictures film “Reet, Petite and Gone” and “Look-Out Sister.”
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 #1 singles and fifty-four in the Top Ten. According to Joel Whitburn’s points-based analysis of Billboard chart placings, Jordan ranks fifth among the most successful artists over the period 1942–1995 From July 1946 through May 1947, Jordan had five consecutive #1 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 as popular with whites as with blacks. He also starred in a series of short musical films and made numerous “soundies” for his hit songs. The ancestor of the modern music video, soundies were short film clips designed for use in audio-visual jukeboxes. These were in addition to his part in “Follow the Boys.”
Jordan’s raucous recordings were also notable for their use of fantastical narrative. This is perhaps best exemplified on the freewheeling party adventure “Saturday Night Fish Fry”, a two-part 1950 hit that was split across both sides of a 78-rpm record. It is arguably one of the earliest American recordings to include all the basic elements of classic rock and roll (obviously exerting a direct influence on the subsequent work of Bill Haley), and it is certainly one of the first widely popular songs to use the word rocking in the chorus and to prominently feature a distorted electric guitar.
Its distinctive comical adventure narrative is strikingly similar to the style later used by Bob Dylan in his “story” songs, such as “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” and “Tombstone Blues”. “Saturday Night Fish Fry” is also notable for the fact that it dispenses with the customary instrumental chorus introduction, but its most prominent feature is Jordan’s rapid-fire, semispoken vocal. His delivery, clearly influenced by his experience as a saxophone soloist, de-emphasizes the vocal melody in favor of highly syncopated phrasing and the percussive effects of alliteration and assonance, and it is arguably one of the earliest examples in American popular music of the vocal stylings that eventually evolved into rap.
In 1951, Jordan assembled a short-lived big band that included Pee Wee Moore and others, at a time when big bands were declining in popularity. This is considered the beginning of his commercial decline, even though he reverted to the Tympany Five format within a year.
In 1952, tongue firmly planted in cheek, he offered himself as a candidate for the highest office in the land on the amusing Decca outing “Jordan for President.” Even though his singles were still eminently solid, they weren’t selling like they used to by 1954. So after an incredible run of more than a decade-and-a-half, Jordan moved over to Eddie Mesner’s Los Angeles-based Aladdin logo at the start of the year, for which Jordan recorded 21 songs in early 1954. Nine singles were released from these sessions; three of the songs were not released. “Dad Gum Ya Hide Boy,” “Messy Bessy,” “If I Had Any Sense,” and the rest of his Aladdin output sounds great in retrospect, but it wasn’t what young R&B fans were searching for at the time.
In 1955, Jordan recorded with RCA’s “independent” subsidiary “X” Records, which changed its name to Vik Records while Jordan was with them. Three singles were released under the “X” imprint and one under the Vik imprint; four tracks were not released. In these sessions Jordan intensified his sound to compete with rock and roll by issuing “Rock ‘N’ Roll Call.”
In 1956, Mercury Records signed Jordan and released two LPs and a handful of singles. Jordan’s first LP for Mercury, “Somebody Up There Digs Me” (1956), showcased updated rock-and-roll versions of previous hits such as “Let the Good Times Roll”, “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens”, “Caldonia”, “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”, “Salt Pork, West Virginia”, and “Beware!” Its follow-up, “Man, We’re Wailin’” (1957), featured a more laid-back, “late-night” sound. Mercury intended this to be a comeback for Jordan, but it was not commercially successful, and the label let him go in 1958. 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 and Blue (1973), Blues Spectrum (1973), and JSP (1974). In 1962 he appeared on the album “Louis Jordan Sings,” by the British trumpeter and bandleader Chris Barber. Speaking in 2012, Barber recalled seeing Jordan in the early 1960s at the Apollo Theater in New York, with the intention of bringing him to the UK to record. Ray Charles had long cited Jordan as a primary influence (he lovingly covered Jordan’s “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” and “Early in the Morning”), and paid him back by signing Jordan to the Genius’ Tangerine label. Once again, the fickle public largely ignored his worthwhile 1962-64 offerings.
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. Lounge gigs still offered the saxman a steady income, and he adjusted his on-stage play list accordingly. A 1973 album for the French Black & Blue logo found Jordan covering Mac Davis’ “I Believe in Music.”
Jordan was married five times. His first wife was named Julia or Julie. By 1932 he was married to Ida Fields, a Texas singer and dancer. He and Fields divorced. In 1942 he married his childhood sweetheart, Fleecie Moore; they were later divorced. He married Vicky Hayes, a dancer, in 1951; they separated in 1960. He married Martha Weaver, a singer and dancer, in 1966.
Jordan wrote (or co-wrote) a large proportion of the songs he performed, but did not benefit financially from many of them. Many of the hit songs he wrote, including “Caldonia”, were credited to his wife Fleecie Moore as a means of avoiding an existing publishing arrangement. Their marriage was acrimonious and short-lived. On two occasions, Moore stabbed Jordan after domestic disputes, almost killing him the second time. 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 later claimed that in fact he had written the song.