‘High brow, low brow, they all agree, we’re the best in harmony
We’re the greatest band around, make the cats jump up and down,
We’re the talk of rhythm town’ (Louis Jordan, Five Guys Named Moe’)
‘Louis Jordan was one of my main inspirations … He was a super musician who taught me so much about phrasing’ (B.B. King)
‘He could sing, he could dance, he could play, he could act. He could do it all.’
‘He really was as close to perfection as it was possible to be. He was the best presenter of a song by movement and action I have ever seen. (Playing with him) was like being dragged along by a wild horse!’ (Chris Barber)
According to the Panjandrums at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Louis Jordan was the Father of Rhythm & Blues, the Grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll and probably a pioneer of Rap!
And, I have to say, I am happy to add the immense authority of The Immortal Jukebox to the encomium of those august authorities in Cleveland.
Louis Jordan did indeed have it all.
He was the complete entertainer; astoundingly assured in the roles of Bandleader, saxophonist, songwriter, vocalist and, comedian.
He was an inescapable presence in 1940s America. Every Jukebox in every roadhouse, tavern or Honky-tonk with a black clientele from sea to shining sea would have been stuffed with Louis Jordan records.
He was omnipotent in the Black music charts. In the 1940s he had 18 (!) Number 1 singles on the R&B charts along with 54 top 10 entries.
Being on Decca’s, ‘Sepia’ label, along with his dazzling appearances in person, on the radio and on film, gave him exposure to the wider white audience and this led to hits lodged on the country, folk and pop charts too.
OK, enough pontificating!
Here’s Louis with an all time classic he cut in 1945, ‘Caldonia’.
The song was credited to Louis’ then wife, Fleecie Moore (who ended up stabbing Louis in a marital spat!) though that was surely a matter of hiding income for Louis from publishers rather a true statement of authorship.
If this don’t move ya I have to say, ‘Jack, you’re dead!’
Louis was backed by The Tympany Five which, at all times, included agile musicians who brought big band power and swing to the bandstand. Amazing how so few could produce so full and powerful a sound.
Great players like Carl Hogan on guitar (a clear influence on Chuck Berry), Will Bill Davis and Bill Doggett on piano and organ, Shadow Wilson on drums and Dallas Bartley on bass provided Louis with the launch pad for the effervescent vocals, saxophone smarts and sheer showmanship which slayed audiences everywhere.
Once the band kicked in Louis’ personality and charisma did the rest. I don’t care whether you call it Jump Blues, Rhythm and Blues, Boogie-Woogie, Cabaret Jazz or Rock and Roll!
What counts is that Louis will, most assuredly, make you jump, jive and wail ’til the cows come home!
Louis was born in July 1908 in Brinkley, Arkansas. Drawing on the influence of his musical father he soon became proficient on clarinet and piano before settling on his premier instrument – the Alto Sax.
It is clear that Louis was a hardworking musician able to absorb a wide range of influences and musical styles in search of an amalgam which would become known as the Louis Jordan sound.
The experience he gained in the 1930s working with Jazz giants like Clarence Williams and especially with Chick Webb at New York’s Savoy Ballroom stood him in very good stead when he felt ready to launch his own band.
He learned about commanding the stage, about arrangements and how to pace a show. Above all, he learned that his greatest asset was himself. Louis was one of those rare artists that audiences immediately take to – probably because, whatever kind of day, week or year you were having, listening to Louis just made you glad to be alive!
Now, let’s turn to a moody masterpiece from 1944 that sold by the million to every kind of audience, the wonderfully titled, ‘Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby’.
Ain’t that a question most of us have had to hazard a time or two!
The relaxed intimacy of Louis’ vocal and the superb individual and ensemble playing of the band make this this one of the great, ‘after hours’ songs for me. Pour yourself a superior malt whiskey and lose yourself!
One of the many great pleasures when listening to Louis Jordan is his brilliant delivery of a lyric. He can be louche, sly, comic or confiding. He can inhabit the role of the outraged husband, the yearning lover, the regular guy or the guy who has the inside dope.
He’s the guy with all the latest gossip expressed in the latest jive talk. When he talks you lean in and listen!
In a previous post, (‘Elegy for Vincent http://wp.me/p4pE0N-7J) I wrote about our habit of greeting each other with quotations from our favourite Irish traditional songs.
I had a similar experience when I used to meet my friend, ‘Slim’ (who was, of course, a man of mighty size) at a blues bar in deepest Soho.
We would invariably try to outdo each other with our recall of tasty Louis Jordan lines:
‘What makes your big head so hard?’
‘You take your morning paper from the top of the stack
and read the situations from the front to the back
The only job that’s open needs a man with a knack – so put it right back in the rack, Jack!’
‘Lot took his wife down to the cornerstore for a malted – she wouldn’t mind her business, boy did she get salted!’
‘Why, I’ll go back in that joint and take a short stick
and bust it down to the ground!
Open the door Richard!’
‘Those other chicks leave me cold
You can’t compare brass to 14 carat gold,
After they made her they broke the mold,
Cause she’s reet, petite and gone!’
‘Tomorrow is a busy day,
We got things to do, we got eggs to lay,
We got ground to dig and worms to scratch,
It takes alot of settin’ gettin’ chicks to hatch’
‘Sure had a wonderful time last night,
Come here, feel this lump on my head!’
I have to confess I’ve had my fair share of, ‘Lump on the head’ nights.
I found when I got home, in the wee small hours, as I searched for the ice pack and contemplated a kill or cure, ‘hair of the dog’ solution that Ol’ Uncle Louis had the perfect song that could soothe the addled head and even have me slippin’ and a slidin’ across the parquet floor playing imaginary Cuban percussion!
The original version of, ‘Early in the Mornin’ is from 1947. Look out as well for the, you have to see it to believe it, version featured in a 1949 film, ‘Look Out Sister’ where Louis appears as a cowboy!
I am going to conclude this brief introduction to the majesty of Louis Jordan’s catalogue with one of my all time favourite records, ‘Choo, Choo, Ch’Boogie’, a monster hit from 1946, which sounds wonderful 70 years on and is sure to sound just wonderful in 600 years time.
This is a pure product of America. America at its best.
Generous, democratic, thrillingly alive.
When I hear America singing it is very often Louis Jordan I hear.
And, I rejoice.
The breadth and depth of Louis Jordan’s recorded output is best captured by the 131 track compilation on JSP Records, ‘Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five’.
Believe me, you will find yourself enjoying every last one of the 131 sides!
After his great years in the 1940s Louis continued to perform with brio and when the circumstances were right he could still produce superb recordings.
I love, ‘Somebody Up There Digs Me!’ from 1956 which benefited from Quincy Jones involvement and, ‘Man we’re Wailing’ from 1957.
Louis was extensively featured in, ‘Soundies’ and these have been collected on DVD.
The English eminence grise of Jazz scholarship, John Chilton, has written a typically well researched and sympathetic biography, ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ published by The University of Michigan.
The influence of Louis on succeeding generations of musicians is undoubtedly immense.
Look out for a follow up post featuring artists of the stature of B B King, Van Morrison, Asleep at the Wheel, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson to name but a few!