A Man With The Knack (Louis Jordan)

On “Winds of Change”, the opening title track of Eric Burdon & the Animals 1967 LP, a big record round our way, the Geordie guvnor marked a moved from R&B to Psychedelia with an invocation of the giants of 20th century music. Over a wash of sitar, violin & sound effects Eric, stoned horizontal in an echo chamber, checked great names of Jazz & Blues before moving on to Rock & Roll. Even though we were kids we knew most of these artists. Only one name came around twice, one that we were not really aware of. “Louis Jordan smiled”…was our first encounter with an influential musician whose work still delights over 60 years after it was recorded. Thanks Eric.

Louis Jordan arrived in New York in 1932 aged 23. ┬áJordan was a multi-instrumentalist, his father taught music, before he settled on the alto saxophone. By 1936 he was playing in the Savoy Ballroom Orchestra at “the Heartbeat of Harlem”, “the World’s Finest Ballroom” fresh from 50G’s worth of refurb, the place to be & be seen. Bandleader drummer Chick Webb was disabled & Louis sang, handled the intros & duetted with the young female lead, Ella Fitzgerald. In 1938 Webb fired Jordan for enticing band members to join his own group. Louis Jordan & the Tympany Five were soon making their own records & a name for themselves.



It was possibly an economic decision to go with a small group. Those big bands of the Swing Era must have been high cost operations. What these guys lacked in numbers they made up with their energy & anyway they didn’t play Swing but Jump Blues, a dynamic more uninhibited style, ideal for dancing the Jitterbug which was a new sensation sweeping the nation. In 1941 Decca launched its “Sepia Series” for African-American artists they identified as having “crossover” potential to white audiences. Louis Jordan was on the list & it was an inspired decision. For the next decade he was top of the R & B pops, the “King of the Jukebox”, a permanent fixture on the charts with at least 4 million selling records.

“Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” was our gateway to Jordan’s music. It’s a country talking blues matched to a train-track shuffle beat, the nimble rhymes (“democratic fellows named Mack” !) enunciated with a sax player’s breath control by Jordan. Our 2nd favourite pub rock band, Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers, included a spirited version of the song & it became an earworm for the woman lucky enough to be my wife. We picked up a Louis Jordan collection & were introduced to his effervescent mix of jumping jive & his conversational, jazz hipster, street smart vocals. The big hits are “Caldonia” (1945) & “Saturday Night Fish Fry” (1949). In 1946, this humourous, celebratory music perfectly caught the post-war mood & the group had a remarkable 13 songs on the R&B chart. “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” stayed at #1 for 18 weeks. It was preceded by a duet with his old spar Ella, displaced by another Louis Jordan & the Tympany Five single.

Jordan & the band made many “soundies”, early music films & they were popular enough to star in a couple of hour length movies. “Wham Sam (Dig Them Gams)” is from “Reet, Petite & Gone” (1947) which squeezed 14 songs into its 67 minutes. Louis is looking fly in his plaid shirt, in most clips the fellows are wearing their smarter stage wear. The stunning Patricia Anderson sits on the piano being beautiful while Mabel Lee’s dancing is hotter than Georgia asphalt. She’s got legs & she knows how to use them. “Wham Sam” is not the most politically correct of songs. In the 1940’s the UK’s highest paid entertainer was comedian Max Miller, “the Cheeky Chappie” who walked a similar line between salaciousness & humour. In both cases a nudge & a wink undercut any accusations of smut & assisted their popularity. I’ve not heard Jordan’s song “Pettin’ & Pokin'”, I wonder what it’s about.

My personal favourite of Jordan’s is included in one of the films but the celluloid version of “Beware (Brother Beware)”, a cautionary tale of courtship, doesn’t match the record. You’re just a click away so “get your business straight, set the date, don’t be late”.

Of course such success couldn’t be maintained as music tastes & dance fashions changed. Jordan tried a short-lived big band but soon reverted back to his Tympany Five (the numbers were flexible). He continued to record & perform & this clip from 1966 is no golden oldie revival rollback. This is a great rocking band, including drummer Chris Columbo, a T5 fixture, well-rehearsed but still keeping it greasy. “Ram-Bunk-Shush” is a tune by his former keyboard player Bill Doggett & is one of the delights of the Y-tube. Tapping your feet while smiling is good for you.

Many claims are made about the influence of Louis Jordan on Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll, even Rap. Certainly he made his mark on the musical history of the last half of the 20th century. Jordan’s producer at Decca, Milt Gabler, used the same formula, with a harder backbeat, on the tracks he cut with Bill Haley & the Comets. Haley was a populariser rather than a pioneer & perhaps Jordan played a similar role for African-American music, breaking the “race” barrier imposed by the music industry & society. His use of vernacular language influenced Chuck Berry, James Brown admired his ability as an all-round entertainer. We could be here all night. It is enough to say that the vibrancy of Louis Jordan’s music endures & his smiling face belongs alongside the greats of popular music.