I don’t remember when* or where I got my first Louis Jordan album, but I sure remember a lot of the songs on it, and on the next: “Choo-Choo Ch-Boogie,” “Reet, Petite, and Gone,” “Knock Me a Kiss,” and particularly “Jack, You’re Dead.” I fell head over heals for this one, and got a good tip from Dave Van Ronk: I told him I was interested in working up an arrangement, and after laughing and nodding through Jordan’s version, he said, “You oughta keep that descending bass line.” So I did, and recorded it, got some local radio play–not much, maybe just on one station, but enough that for the next few years people would occasionally show up at gigs and ask me to play it.
I need to thank Dave as well for the bridge to the second verse–not because I got it from him, but because I learned from his example that it was OK to rewrite a song if it needed rewriting. Jordan’s version used the same bridge for both verses, which was not only repetitive but repeated the weakest couplet in the lyric. So, following Dave’s example on songs like “That’ll Never Happen No More” and “Somebody Else, Not Me,” I wrote a new lyric for the second bridge… and then Dave let me down, because he liked my new bridge, complimented me on it, promptly forgot about it, and when he recorded his own version used Jordan’s repeated bridge.
Anyway, Louis Jordan…
It’s crazy that I didn’t know about him before the 1980s, because he was one of the most influential figures in 20th century popular music, and specifically in blues and R&B. Whenever I heard B.B. King sing “Let the Good Times Roll,” he was covering Louis Jordan. Chuck Berry said he based his songwriting and performance style on Jordan, and Bill Haley and the Comets were arranged as a white version of Jordan’s Tympany 5. James Brown got his start doing Jordan covers, and was still doing them in the 1960s. But all of that’s just the ripples.
Jordan was a sax player in Chick Webb’s band, one of the greatest bands of the swing era, and coupled for a while with Ella Fitzgerald, but in the late 1930s he had a brainstorm: amplification was coming in, money was tight, jukeboxes were all the rage, and he realized that records could actually sound hotter with a small group, while amplification meant small bands could play halls that had previously needed big bands. So he hit the road with a tight, swinging, fun little outfit that he called the Tympany 5, though it almost always had at least six members. He wrote or bought a bunch of hot, funny jive songs, starred in comical low-budget movies, made entertaining radio appearances… and by the mid-1940s was the most popular recording star in black America, with millions of white, Latino, and Asian fans thrown in.
There is much, much more to be said about Louis Jordan, but for now I’ll just add that he is also a contender for the first major rap star, based on his hit “Beware” in 1946. It is not exactly rap as we now know it, but the lineage is pretty clear. You can catch him doing it at minute 3:50 of this clip from his film of the same name:
*Though I don’t know when I first got into Jordan, it must have been by 1981, since I clearly remember my irritation when Joe Jackson released his Jumpin’ Jive album and it included “Jack, You’re Dead.” I had a horrible moment of fear that people would think I’d learned the song off a Joe Jackson album and was faking my attachment to Louis Jordan… but fortunately no one seems to have bought Jackson’s disc, or at least none mentioned it. (For what it’s worth, I loved Jackson’s Look Sharp album, and even worked up a couple of the songs on it, though not to the point of performing them.)