Louis Jordan Biography

Louis Thomas Jordan, 8 July 1908, Brinkley, Arkansas, USA, d. 4 February 1975, Los Angeles, California, USA. This highly popular saxophonist and singer began touring as a teenager with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and supported classic blues singers Ma Rainey, Ida Cox and Bessie Smith. In the 30s, after relocating to New York City, he played in the bands of Louis Armstrong, Clarence Williams, Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald, appearing with these orchestras on records for RCA - Victor Records, Vocalion Records and Decca Records, and making his vocal debut with Webb’s band on novelty songs such as ‘Gee, But You’re Swell’ and ‘Rusty Hinge’. In 1938 Jordan formed his first combo, the Elks Rendezvous Band (after the club at which he had secured a residency), and signed an exclusive recording contract with Decca. While he had been with Webb, he had often been brought to the front to perform a blues or novelty swing number. These spots had been so well received that, from the start of his own band, Jordan had decided to promote himself as a wacky musical comedian with a smart line in humorous jive.

In early 1939, in line with this image, Jordan changed the band’s name to the Tympany Five and enjoyed steadily increasing success on the R&B and pop charts with ‘T-Bone Blues’ (1941), ‘Knock Me A Kiss’ and ‘I’m Gonna Leave You On The Outskirts Of Town’ (1942), ‘What’s The Use Of Getting Sober’, ‘Ration Blues’ and ‘Five Guys Named Moe’ (1943), ‘G.I. Jive’ and ‘Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t (Ma Baby)’ (1944), ‘Mop Mop’, ‘You Can’t Get That No More’, ‘Caldonia’ and ‘Somebody Done Changed The Lock On My Door’ (1945). After World War II, the Tympany Five really hit their stride with bestselling hits including ‘Buzz Me’, ‘Don’t Worry ’Bout That Mule’, ‘Salt Pork, W. Va.’, ‘Reconversion Blues’, ‘Beware’, ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Cryin’’, ‘Stone Cold Dead In The Market (He Had It Coming)’, ‘Petootie Pie’, ‘Choo Choo Ch’Boogie’, ‘That Chick’s Too Young To Fry’, ‘Ain’t That Just Like A Woman’, ‘Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens’ and ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ (1946); ‘Texas And Pacific’, ‘Open The Door, Richard’, ‘Jack, You’re Dead’, ‘I Like ’Em Fat Like That’, ‘I Know What You’re Putting Down’, ‘Boogie Woogie Blue Plate’, ‘Look Out’ and ‘Early In The Morning’ (1947); ‘Barnyard Boogie’, ‘How Long Must I Wait For You’, ‘Reet, Petite, And Gone’, ‘Run, Joe’, ‘Don’t Burn The Candle At Both Ends’, ‘Daddy-O’ and ‘Pettin’ And Pokin’’ (1948); ‘Roamin’ Blues’, ‘You Broke Your Promise’ ‘Cole Slaw’, ‘Every Man To His Own Profession’, ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ (with Ella Fitzgerald), ‘Beans And Corn Bread’ and ‘Saturday Night Fish Fry’ (1949); ‘School Days’, ‘Blue Light Boogie’, ‘I’ll Never Be Free’ (with Fitzgerald) and ‘Tamburitza Boogie’ (1950); ‘Lemonade’, ‘Tear Drops From My Eyes’ and ‘Weak Minded Blues’ (1951).

Jordan remained with Decca until 1954, when he switched briefly to Aladdin Records (1954), RCA’s ‘X’ subsidiary (1955) and Mercury Records (1956-57) but, sadly, his reign was coming to an end; the new generation wanted ‘fast and loud’ not ‘smooth and wry’, and Jordan, dogged by ill health, could not compete against rock ‘n’ roll artists such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry, even though his songs were being recycled by these very performers. Chuck Berry (‘Run, Joe’ and ‘Ain’t That Just Like A Woman’) and B.B. King (‘Do You Call That A Buddy?’, ‘Early In The Morning’, ‘Just Like A Woman’, ‘How Blue Can You Get?’, ‘Buzz Me’, ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ and ‘Jordan For President!’) in particular, have been successful with Jordan covers. Surprisingly, his performances were taken to the heart of many Chicago blues artists with songs like ‘Somebody Done Hoodooed The Hoodoo Man’, ‘Never Let Your Left Hand Know What Your Right Hand’s Doin’’ and ‘Blue Light Boogie’; even Bill Haley would often admit that his ‘revolutionary’ musical style was simply a copy of the Tympany Five’s shuffles and jumps that had been recorded the previous decade in the same Decca studios. Owing to his fluctuating health Louis Jordan spent the 60s and 70s working when he could, filling summer season engagements and recording occasionally for small companies owned by old friends including Ray Charles (Tangerine Records), Paul Gayten (Pzazz) and Johnny Otis (Blues Spectrum). His last recordings were as a guest on trumpeter Wallace Davenport’s Sweet Georgia Brown, after which he suffered eight months of inactivity due to his deteriorating health, and a fatal heart attack on 4 February 1975.

The main factor that set Jordan apart from most of the competition was that he was at once a fine comedian and a superb saxophonist whose novelty value was never allowed to obscure either his musicianship or that of his sidemen, who at one time or another included trumpeters Idrees Sulieman and Freddie Webster (both major influences on boppers like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie), tenor saxophonists Paul Quinichette, Maxwell Davis and Count Hastings, guitarists Carl Hogan and Bill Jennings, bass player Dallas Bartley, drummers Shadow Wilson and Chris Columbus, and pianists Wild Bill Davis and Bill Doggett. In 1990 a musical by Clarke Peters entitled Five Guys Named Moe, which featured ‘music written or originally performed by Louis Jordan’, opened in London. Four years later it overtook Irma La Douce to become the longest-running musical ever at the Lyric Theatre. After initially lukewarm revues, another production enjoyed a decent run on Broadway. That Louis Jordan influenced all who came after him, and continues to be a prime source of material for films, theatre, television advertising, R&B bands and bluesmen, 40 or 50 years after his heyday, is a testament to his originality and talent.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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