The King of Jive Who Made The Good Times Roll
IF BILL HALEY AND ELVIS PRESLEY have to be dubbed the father and king of rock’n’roll, then Louis Jordan must be considered its godfather. Practically all of the black American rhythm and blues, rock’n’roll and early soul stars who upset the Fifties have cited Jordan as the main man of their youth and several of the white rock’n’rollers have acknowledged his influence or recorded his songs. Certain elements of rock’n’roll were developing even before Jordan appeared on the scene and others cropped up after his heyday. But most were completely and successfully defined by Jordan.
In much the same way that James Brown stood out from the Sixties soul scene to inspire and influence the Seventies generation of new funk stars, Louis Jordan exemplified the crystallizing core of urban rhythm and blues music which was to be the major force in the emergence of rock’n’roll in the Fifties and beyond.
Born in Brinkley, Arkansas, on 8 July 1908, Louis Thomas Jordan was the son of an itinerant musician who encouraged his boy’s interest in music by coaching him on clarinet and saxophone and introducing him to the world of the then-popular traveling minstrel shows. During the school vacations of his early teens, Louis was already performing as musicians and dancer in southern minstrel shows, notably with the famous Rabbit Foot Minstrels and reputedly with the equally renowned Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, commonly remembered as ‘The Mother of the Blues’. Coming out of down-home roots with a vaudeville swagger, the minstrel shows were a rich source of both music and showmanship. These elements were encapsulated by Jordan and then greatly exaggerated by rock’n’roll.
From such earthy foundations, Louis Jordan graduated to full-time professional gigs with several hot jazz and swing ensembles, before securing a plum job in 1936 at the Savoy ballroom in New York as alto-ist and occasional singer with Chick Webb’s band. Jordan enjoyed over two years of contributing to and learning from the band at its peak of popularity, before striking out with his own group in 1938 shortly before Webb’s premature death the following year.
Birth of the Tympany Five
Jordan originally called his group the Elks Rendezvous Band after the New York nightspot where he first established a reputation for boisterous showmanship. Before he’d even begun to take off, however, he’d quickly redubbed his accompanists the Tympany Five, a name that stuck until 1954 despite numerous personnel changes and fluctuations in size.
For most of that time the group consisted of one or two trumpeters and tenor saxmen, one of them usually doubling on clarinet, plus a pianist/organist, bassist and drummer. All shouted asides and choruses behind Jordan shuckin’ and jivin’ upfront on vocals, alto and occasionally tenor sax and much athletic looning about; high-kicks were a specialty. In 1945 he added a regular electric guitar player to the line-up, in 1949 a couple of extra trumpeters and in 1951 he briefly toured and recorded with a 15-piece big band before completely stepping out of character for one session in 1953 with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. But it was the compact horn and rhythm section format that was Jordan’s métier: tightly-knit arrangements for ‘jumping’ musicians, most notably including keyboard players Wild Bill Davis and Bill Doggett.
Jordan’s early recordings in his own right were often light and lively variations of the current swing sound. But he was also performing and recording a fair amount of straight blues material and, by 1941, had begun to develop a fuller, more forthright sound than his immediate predecessors and contemporaries by accentuating the shuffle rhythms of boogie-woogie in his repertoire.
King of the Harlem Hit Parade
In the early Forties he scored the first of an amazing run of hits in the jukebox ‘Race’ charts, then newly-created by American trade magazine Billboard. As Arnold Shaw noted in his authoratitive survey of the pre- rock’n’roll era, Honkers and Shouters (Collier Books, 1978):
"For almost a decade after 1942, Jordan’s records were seldom off the Harlem Hit Parade, as black charts were then typed in Billboard. Not infrequently he monopolized a majority of the slots with three or four discs, placing no fewer than 11 recordings in the best-selling category in 1946. That he was able to sell over a million copies of ‘Choo Choo Ch’Boogie’ and close to that of ‘Saturday Night Fish Fry’ suggests the breadth of his appeal. You could not sell that many discs in the years from 1946 to 1950 to black buyers alone. Even when he was not selling a million, his 1944 discs of ‘GI Jive’ and ‘Is You Is Or You Ain’t My Baby’ were pop jukebox as well as ‘race’ hits. And ‘Is You Is’ was heard in no fewer than four Hollywood films."
During his heyday in the mid-Forties to early-Fifties, Jordan was not just the most popular and influencial black artist among black audiences, he was perhaps the first to take an early combination of some of the roots music that made up rock’n’roll to a substantial white audience.
On the one hand he was a popularist, an irrepressible extrovert and showman with a disarming fund of humor, jive talk and appealingly novel songs. As he himself admitted: "‘I wanted to play for the people, for millions, not just a few hep cats." At the same time he was a more than capable singer and saxman with a knack for picking fine accompanists; beneath the jive, too, he dealt with the musical and social themes of everyday black America.
Radio and jukebox promotion
At least three other factors contributed to his success and influence. Firstly, unlike the majority of wartime/postwar rhythm and blues artist who shaped rock’n’roll, Jordan was signed to a relatively large record company, Decca. By the peak of his career in the immediate postwar years, this would not necessarily have been an advantage: the late-Forties rise of the ‘indies’ against the establishment’s conservatism was one of the keys that released rock’n’roll. But in the early part of his recording career it could only have helped, for although Decca was then barely a major company it had a lot more national influence with radio stations, jukebox operators and promoters than did any local label. Of all the major record companies, Decca probably had the most progressive musical outlook.
Secondly, once it became apparent that Louis was a hot property, there seems to have been an unprecedented amount of what is now called ‘marketing and promotion’ effort put behind him (unprecedented, that is, for a raunchy black artist). Jordan and his Tympany Five were solid-booked throughout America in the Forties into every conceivable type of venue, from ghetto theatres to white supper clubs. Furthermore, between 1942 and 1947 he reportedly appeared in about 20 film shorts and four or five full-length movies, many of the former titled after and promoting his hit records. He was also able to make several important radio broadcasts and even appeared in an early Ed Sullivan television show in 1949, seven years before Elvis caused a ruckus in the same slot.
It is to Louis Jordan’s credit that his music did not suffer during those hectic years. On the contrary, with increased success his records became consistently stronger. Many were rock’n’roll in all but name, notably the immortal ‘Caldonia’ (1945), ‘Ain’t That Just Like A Woman’, the aforementioned ‘Choo Choo Ch’Boogie (1946) and the 1949 classic ‘Beans And Cornbread’.
Responsible for the overall sound and release of these and other hits was the third important ‘other factor’ in Jordan’s success and influence: one Milt Gabler, Decca A&R man and producer of virtually all of Jordan’s Decca recordings.
The ‘positively negative’ approach
As far as Jordan’s success goes, Gabler’s assistance towards it might be termed a ‘positively negative’ approach, in that he appears to have had the rare good judgement to try to coax the best out of Louis without attempting to influence his style. Jordan said: "One good thing I had in my life [was] that the people who associated themselves with me let me portray mytalent. Milt Gabler of Decca: he’s one of the main fellows in my life. If we were recording a tune and I said, ‘I would like to do it this way,’ he never said, ‘No, don’t do it that way.’"
Within three months of Jordan’s last session for Decca in January 1954, Gabler found himself in charge of the company’s newest recruits, Billy Haley and the Comets. From their first session came ‘Rock Around The Clock’ soon followed by ‘Shake, Rattle And Roll’ and a string of hits nearly as long as Jordan’s and somewhat greater in total sales, Gabler explained how he worked with Haley:
"We’d begin with Jordan’s shuffle rhythm … you know, dotted eighth notes and sixteenths, and we’d build on it. I’d sing Jordan’s riffs to the group that would be picked up by the electric guitars and tenor sax [man] Rudy Pompilli. They got a sound that had the drive of the Tympany Five and the colour of country and western."
Jordan’s musical offspring
Apart from Haley and the Comets, the most obvious of Jordan’s offspring were the sax-led jump blues combos and gusty singers – the ‘honkers’ and ‘shouters’ of Arnold Shaw’s survey – that included artists like Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown and to some extent Fats Domino, and culminated in the extremes of Little Richard and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Louis Jordan’s influence also passed through rock’n’roll to the blues and soul of singers like Ray Charles and James Brown.
Less apparent, perhaps, in musical terms is that Jordan was even a marginal influence on the Memphis and Chicago-based blues scenes. B.B. King and Muddy Waters both cite Jordan as an early inspiration and more directly relevant to rock’n’roll, so do Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. The latter once went so far as to say: "I identify myself with Louis Jordan more than any other artist. I have a lot of flighty things like Louis had, comical things and natural things and not too heavy."
Finally it should be noted that even at the centre of rockabilly – Sam Phillips’ Sun studio – Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis both recorded versions of Jordan’s hits; meanwhile in Britain, long before Tommy Steele appeared, while Lonnie Donegan was still emerging as king of skiffle, Ray Ellington regularly performed Louis’ brand of prototype rock’n’roll on the weeklyGoon Show.
Alas, the man himself didn’t greatly benefit from the evolution of his music: during the vital years between DJ Alan Freed promoting rhythm and blues as rock’n’roll and the music’s international break-out, Louis was off the road and out of the running, stricken with exhaustion and ill-health, and a little too dated by then to compete with his brash, young successors.
Hard gigging and fast living
Judging by the themes of many of his records, in his formative and prime years Jordan was as wild offstage as on. But a couple of decades of hard gigging and fast living took their toll and he was forced to settle into a more sedate way of life, although not, by all accounts, much less energetic on stage – just appearing far less often.
He soon proved he hadn’t totally burned himself out with some splendidly vigorous re-cuts of his hits for Mercury in 1956 and continued to perform and record intermittently for a further 20 years, including a tour of England in 1962, recordings for Ray Charles’ Tangerine label during 1963-64 and a lively session in Paris in 1973.
In the years immediately before Louis Jordan died of pneumonia in Los Angeles of 4 February 1975, the British pub-rock scene saw many a group reviving his material. Indeed, his music returned to the charts in mid-1981 when new wave vocalist Joe Jackson covered several of Jordan’s compositions on an album entitled Jumpin’ Jive. It is probable that in any week of any year, somebody somewhere is performing ‘Caldonia’, ‘Choo Choo Ch’Boogie’, ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ or some other hardy perennial from Louis’ irrepressible repertoire.
© Cliff White, 1982