Stephen Koch's "Louis Jordan: Son of Arkansas, Father of R&B" Reviewed
Many of the popular recording artists from the 1940s, including Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Bing Crosby, Billy Holiday, Nat King Cole, and Duke Ellington, remain household names in America. Strangely, one of the most popular artists from that decade, Brinkley, Arkansas native Louis Jordan, has largely been forgotten, even though his hit records spent a cumulative period of over two years at the #1 slot on the national “race”/rhythm and blues charts. Having long been fascinated and entertained by Jordan, I purchased this new book about the trailblazing musician as soon as it became available.
Little Rock journalist Stephen Koch has been researching Jordan for years and has been involved in many Jordan related events, such as music festivals and conferences. Koch is such a fan that he has even written a musical about the King of the Jukeboxes. This book is a well-researched labor of love and I would highly recommend it to any Louis Jordan fan.
The first thirty years of Jordan’s life are summed up briefly, undoubtedly due to limited source material. His father was a touring musician that had studied under W.C. Handy. Since Louis’s mother passed away when he was an infant, he was primarily raised by relatives in Brinkley. After learning clarinet at an early age, his father placed him in the Brinkley Brass Band and he joined the regional touring group the Rabbit Foot Minstrels as a teenager. He spent almost a decade following high school based in both Little Rock and Hot Springs, Arkansas. Hot Springs, a prohibition era mob owned community saturated with gambling, liquor, and prostitution, gave the young musician plenty of performing opportunities. By this time, he was primarily playing alto sax and he moved to Philadelphia in 1934.
The talented Jordan quickly moved from gigs in Philadelphia to being a member of the Apollo House Band in Harlem to touring with the Chick Webb Orchestra. Chick Webb’s group featured a young Ella Fitzgerald on lead vocals and Jordan sharpened his skills from his teenage minstrel days to serve in a dual role as musician and the comic focal point. He also sharpened his romantic skills with the young scat expert. (Over a decade later, Fitzgerald and Jordan would team up for their 1949 pop hit version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”)
In the late 1930s, Jordan became a bandleader with his ever-changing unit known as “The Tympany Five.” A few personal traits became established during this timeframe – Jordan was a difficult taskmaster as a bandleader. He expected perfection from his group in terms of musical performances, the stage routines, and band appearance (most often the band wore stylish, matching suits). He also had a habit in his personal life of getting married repeatedly while not worrying about the minor details of legal divorces. His financial arrangements, often crediting his wife with songwriting credits to avoid income taxes, were penny wise, pound foolish at best. After one extramarital affair in the late ‘40s, his then wife Fleecie Moore stabbed him repeatedly.
He had his first R&B chart hit in 1942 (“I’m Gonna Leave You on the Outskirts of Town”) and was a fixture on the R&B and pop charts for the rest of the decade. He even topped the country charts with “Ration Blues” and “Is Your or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” – an African-American would not repeat that feat for twenty-five years until Charley Pride had his first #1 hit in 1969. Jordan was an irrepressible entertainer. He combined traditional blues structures and upbeat jazz music into a new form, called “jump blues.” He was best known for his comedic numbers, but he also performed more conventional material and even pushed Carribean based rhythms into the pop charts. He is the true missing link between the jazz music of the 1930s and the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s.
Author Koch does a fine job at detailing the broad influence of Jordan’s music. For example, it’s impossible to hear the Carl Hogan guitar intro to “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman” without identifying the influence on the basic Chuck Berry sound. A comedy hit like “Deacon Jones” is similar to the hip rock numbers that The Coasters released in the ‘50s. The shuffle beat used in Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” was a staple of the Tympany Five. Koch notes that the wailing “Caldonia” was the first non-gospel record that Little Richard heard and Jordan had released a version of “Keep A Knockin’” way back in 1939. Both B.B. King and Ray Charles recorded songs that Jordan popularized with King even releasing a Jordan tribute album in 1999. Both King and James Brown have noted that Jordan was rapping on records decades before that genre was defined.
During Jordan’s major run of hits in the 1940s, he also performed in a series of films, as both a featured performer and in starring roles. Unfortunately for Jordan, his major success of the 1940s faded quickly in the early ‘50s and he never returned to prominence. He toured and recorded regularly, but despite being produced by a young Quincy Jones or being signed to Ray Charles’ personal record label, he never had a comeback. Jordan always viewed his role as an entertainer as much as a musician and he had no commercial home when bebop jazz and the rock ‘n’ roll era emerged.
This slim book, chocked full of details and facts in its slim 150 pages, isn’t perfect. My primary complaint is that it would have been more illuminating if more had been written about Jordan’s musicianship versus his influence. Also, there are some stabs at discussing the broader context of what was occurring in American society and Jordan’s influence on popular culture; however, those aspects are not a strong suit of the book.
Even considering those limitations, Koch has done an excellent job summarizing the life and legacy of a truly underappreciated and original American voice. As for me, I’m ready for a Saturday night choo choo ch’ boogie reet petite fish fry. Take me right back to the track, Jack.