Route 66 Song Of The Week:  Louis Jordan

Happy birthday, Louis Jordan!  Cooler and hipper than Cab Calloway, who covered a number of Jordan’s many hits, Louis Jordan was one of the biggest black musical stars of the 20th century.  Those of you who don’t know about Jordan obviously don’t know about jump blues, either, in that case.  Jump blues, aka Jump Jive, was a genre of blues that led directly to rock ‘n’ roll.  Wikipedia’s bio of Jordan describes jump blues as “a swinging, up-tempo, dance-oriented hybrid of jazz, blues and boogie-woogie” that often involved fast-talking, hip lyrics about black urban life.  It’s true, as Muddy Waters claimed, that blues begat rock, but it wasn’t Muddy’s style of blues, nor Bessie Smith’s, nor even that of B.B. King – it was jump blues, which makes Louis Jordan, as jump blues’ most successful exponent and innovator, at least the granddaddy of rock ‘n’ roll if not the actual father.  Even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized him as such in 1987.

Louis Jordan, circa July 1946  (photo courtesy of William P. Gottlieb via Wikimedia Commons)

Louis Jordan and his alto sax, circa July 1946  (photo courtesy of William P. Gottlieb via Wikimedia Commons)

However, Jordan’s music crossed musical lines, from blues and jazz to swing, big band, R&B and even comic ‘novelty’ songs.  He also crossed color lines:  Jordan was one of the first black entertainers whose records did well on the pop charts, and he did duets with several of his Decca Records label mates, including Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.  A gifted instrumentalist as well as a vocalist – who could sing a ballad as well as he could jive lyrics – he played piano, clarinet, and alto, tenor and baritone sax, though his instrument of choice was the alto.  He was also a bandleader and a clever songwriter, though he didn’t get credit or royalties for some of his songs (that was his own doing:  in an attempt to get around an existing publishing contract, he credited some songs, including the famous “Caldonia,” to his third wife, childhood sweetheart Fleecie Moore; but as that marriage was tempestuous and, thankfully, short lived – Fleecie stabbed Jordan on two occasions during domestic disputes, once near fatally – they soon divorced, but she retained ownership of songs she’d never written, much to his dismay).

Some performers come to music by accident or by desire, but not Jordan – he was born into it on July 8, 1908 in Brinkley, Arkansas, to Adell and James Aaron Jordan.  His mother died when he was young; his father, however, was a musician, music teacher and bandleader for two local groups, the Brinkley Brass Band and the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and young Louis was surrounded by music before he could walk.  His father taught him music, starting with the clarinet, and as a youth he played in his father’s bands whenever school was out.  Jordan briefly attended Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock, where he majored in music.  He also played piano professionally early in his career and played with other local bands, including Bob Alexander’s Harmony Kings.  When he moved with his family to Philadelphia in 1932, he played clarinet in the Charlie Gaines band and also did gigs with pianist Clarence Williams.

By 1936, Jordan had made it to New York and the famous Savoy Ballroom, where he joined drummer Chick Webb’s orchestra, whose girl singer was the young Ella Fitzgerald.  Jordan became the band’s male vocalist.  Webb’s group was the hot band of the day in the New York jazz world, regularly beating all comers in cutting contests that pitted his band against other contenders and let the enthusiastic audiences decide.  It was there that Jordan first began singing duets with Ella and polished up his own vocal skills, often introducing the songs onstage, so that many in the audience mistook him for the bandleader.  That must have given Jordan ideas, because Webb fired him in 1938 for trying to convince Ella and other band members to join his new band.  Webb had been chronically ill with tuberculosis of the spine, however, and was seriously ill by that time.  When he died the following year, Ella took over the band under her own name, while Jordan soon assembled his own band and began playing at the Elks Rendezvous club in Harlem.  Their first recording date with Decca was in late December 1938 as Louie Jordan’s Elks Rendezvous Band (Jordan used that spelling because he preferred the French pronunciation of his first name, as did Louis Armstrong; this was often the case down South, particularly in Louisiana).  The band soon switched its name to Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five; the band had several iterations over the years as members switched in or out, but Jordan remained firmly in the lead.

Louis Jordan - Rock Doc LP album coverJordan was wildly popular between the late 1930s and the early to mid-1950s.  When he began recording under his own name in 1938, his records started out on Decca’s R&B ‘race’ label charts, but not all of them stayed there, thanks to his strategic participation in feature films and “soundies,” i.e., short (three-minute) promotional film clips that were the forerunners of music videos.  Jordan was in fact a musical pioneer in using soundies, so much so that Billboard magazine positively gushed over the brilliance of this marketing strategy, speculating on which artists would be next to use it.  By April 1941, Decca had switched Jordan and his band from the firm’s race label to its new Sepia Series – a 35-cent line featuring artists the company thought had crossover potential to sell in both black and white markets – along with the Nat King Cole Trio, The Delta Rhythm Boys, Buddy Johnson, and the Jay McShann Band.  Jordan didn’t disappoint.  That same year, Jordan signed on with the General Artists Corporation agency; GAC named Berle Adams as Jordan’s agent, and Adams soon got the band a date at Chicago’s Capitol Lounge as the lead-in for The Mills Brothers.  This proved to be a big break for the band.  Another important booking came shortly thereafter at the Fox Head Tavern in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Jordan found several songs that became early hits for the band, including “If It’s Love You Want, Baby,” “Ration Blues” and “Inflation Blues.”

By late 1941, around the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the band had returned to New York.  Many musicians either volunteered for the armed forces or were drafted after the U.S. entered WW II.  Jordan, however, didn’t end up in the Army, though he did do a four-week Army camp tour:  he’d been judged 4F, medically unfit because of a “hernia condition.”  The war certainly didn’t interrupt Jordan’s career – if anything, it gave him and his band a boost.  He was enormously popular during World War II, in part perhaps because he recorded prolifically for the Armed Forces Radio Service, which distributed programs to servicemen abroad, and the V-Disc program.  But he didn’t stop there.

In late 1942, Jordan and the Tympany Five moved to Los Angeles, where he began appearing in soundies and short films, some of which were merely longer taped versions of his hit songs.  While there, he and the band also played all the major venues in Los Angeles and in San Diego, which had – and still has – a large Naval base, although the even larger Naval Training Center in San Diego closed in 1997 after 70 years of operation.  A lot of servicemen therefore got to see Jordan and the Tympany Five live before shipping out to postings overseas.  Moreover, Jordan had a cameo (as did many film stars) in Follow The Boys, an all-star wartime musical and patriotic morale-boosting movie that was filmed at that very same Naval Training Center.  In fact, Jordan and his orchestra performed “G.I. Jive,” his first crossover hit, in the film, which no doubt helped boost its sales.  As a result, the record rose to no. 3 on the national pop charts and the no. 1 slot on both the race and the country music charts.  Why country, you ask?  Funny thing:  the B side of “G.I. Jive” was “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” co-written by Jordan and Denver-born songwriter Billy Austin and performed in more of a country swing arrangement.  Ironically, it’s this tune that is by far more popular today – as a jazz standard and blues classic recorded by artists from Dinah Washington to Diana Krall and Bing Crosby to B.B. King.  Even Tom the Cat sang it in a Tom and Jerry animated film in 1946.

From 1942 to 1951, Jordan had an astonishing 57 R&B chart hits (all on Decca), 18 of which made no. 1 on the R&B/race charts, two of which hit no. 1 on the U.S. country music charts (!) even though they weren’t remotely country songs, and one of which – G.I. Jive – made no. 1 on the national pop music charts.  By the time that recording came out, Jordan had perfected his jump blues style.  His raucous renditions and enthusiastic, enervating delivery put the “jump” in jump blues and made his records instantly recognizable.  The jitterbugs and Lindy Hoppers all adored his music and cut loose to it.

Jordan was one of the most successful African-American musicians of the 20th century, ranking fifth in the list of the all-time most successful black recording artists according to Billboard magazine’s chart methodology.  Though comprehensive sales figures aren’t available for most of the period during which he was popular, he scored at least four hits that sold more than a million copies each during his career.  Wikipedia notes that “To this day, Louis Jordan still ranks as the top black recording artist of all time in terms of the total number of weeks at #1 – his records scored an incredible total of 113 weeks in the No. 1 position (the runner-up being Stevie Wonder with 70 weeks).  From July 1946 through May 1947, Jordan scored five consecutive #1 songs, holding the top slot for 44 consecutive weeks.”  (Take that, Beyonce.)

Louis Jordan - Man, We're Wailin' LP album cover (Mercury MG20331, 1957)By the mid-1950s, though, Jordan’s fame was fading as younger listeners tuned in to the new rock ‘n’ roll, not knowing that Jordan’s Saturday Night Fish Fry (1949) is recognized as the first rock song ever recorded.  Even Decca lost faith in him and dropped him.  Since much of Jordan’s repertoire was by then out of print, he went to Mercury Records and began rerecording some of his hits with updated rock-ish arrangements, many of them orchestrated by a young Quincy Jones.  And they were decent recordings, too, just not the originals.  One such album, Man, We’re Wailin’ (1957), included his first recording of “Route 66,” which was fresh.  Unfortunately, it’s not the ebullient Jordan himself singing on that track but Dottie Smith, aka Dorothy Smith; she does a creditable enough job, but it’s Jordan’s inimitable voice we want to hear.  At least it’s his band.

And here you go.

Until next time,
your own DJ SweetMarie



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