Born: July 8, 1908 | Died: February 4, 1975 Primary Instrument: Sax, alto
At the height of his career, in the 1940s, bandleader and alto saxophonist Louis Jordan scored 18 Number One hit records. Jordan exhibited a brilliant sense of showmanship that brought audiences first-rate entertainment without any loss of musical integrity. He performed songs that appealed to millions of black and white listeners. Able to communicate 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, then saxophone. 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. 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; 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. 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. 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.. In 1939, this group recorded several sides for the Decca label; one was “Honey in the Bee Ball.”
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). 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 New York, 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 to 1951, Jordan scored an astonishing 57 R&B chart hits (all on Decca). Some of which are: “Let The Good Times Roll,” “Caldonia,” “Buzz Me,” “Choo Choo Ch' Boogie,” “Ain't That Just Like A Woman,” “Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” “Five Guys Named Moe,” and “Saturday Night Fish Fry.” Jordan was rarely absent from the Harlem Hit Parade. Over the following ten years he recorded more than 54 rhythm-and-blues best-sellers.
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 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. 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. 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. In the early ‘50’s 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. However, in 1956 a fine Quincy Jones-arranged date for Mercury deftly updated Jordan's classics for the rock & roll crowd, the whole session benefiting from the lead guitar of Mickey Baker and Sam Taylor's muscular tenor sax. By the early ‘60’s Ray Charles, who had long cited Jordan as a primary influence, and covered Jordan's “Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” and “Early in the Morning,” paid him back by signing Jordan to his label. Though he produced some fine recordings from ’62-’64, the audience was not there. Throughout the 60s and early 70s, Jordan worked only sporadically as his health deteriorated, and performing became difficult.
During this period he devoted his time to playing occasional month-long engagements in Phoenix, Las Vegas, and New York. He revived the Tympany Five, and started to do performances in ‘67 and ’68, receiving enthusiastic responses. At the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival, crowds gave him a warm reception. In October of 1974, Jordan suffered a heart attack while performing in Sparks, Nevada. He returned home to Los Angeles, where he died on February 4, 1975.
. 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.
Louis Jordan is a pivotal figure in the rise and popularity of R&B, bringing it from the big band swing era, and liberating the music. Developed from black sources, it embodied the fervor of gospel, the vigor of boogie woogie, the jump beat of swing, and the sexuality of life.
Source: James Nadal