Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Greatest Entertainer You've Probably Never Heard Of

Quiz: Who was the popular jazz and swing band leader who played a key role in the early roots of rock and roll? He was third behind only Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder for #1 R&B songs. Only James Brown had more Top-10 hits.

Still don't know? Don't feel bad, I wouldn't have been able to answer either until a few years ago.

Louis Jordan was one of the most popular jazz band leaders of the 1940s. He was known as the Father of R&B and the King of the Jukebox. He had 18 R&B #1 hits and 54 songs in the Top-10. Three of his songs were #1 on the Pop or Country charts. He was an entertainer in the truest sense of the word, with great expression, commanding stage presence, and broad appeal. From the Encyclopedia of World Biography:

... in 1936 he joined drummer Chick Webb's orchestra -- a 13-piece ensemble that featured singer Ella Fitzgerald... During his stint with Webb Jordan developed his skills as a frontman. "Louis would go out and just break up the show," recalled former bandmember Garvin Bushell in his autobiography Jazz From the Beginning. "Nobody could follow him."
Few people today (outside of musicians and jazz buffs) are aware of Louis Jordan's work. It's a shame, because Jordan was incredibly gifted and endlessly entertaining. Compared to today's overly-produced, studio-driven pop music, his music sounds dated and simple, but it definitely stands the test of time.

Let's start out slow. "Buzz Me" is a classically simple jazz/swing number. It was #1 on the R&B charts for 9 weeks in 1945. You can tell the band's doing okay because the trumpeter uses an actual mute and not the bottom of a toilet plunger.

Most of these clips are either from one of the movies Jordan made as studios cashed in on his popularity; or from Soundies, a very early version of MTV shown in movie theaters. For you younger folks, before TV people went to the movies all day. You got a newsreel (which was like "Headline News" -- except on film, in the theater), cartoons, two features, and things like this thrown in. It was like cable, except on a larger screen. Did you also know that people used to wear suits? To play music?

"Buzz me, buzz me, Baby;
I'll be waitin' for your call.
If you forgot the number, come on over;
You won't have to call at all."

Dude is smooth as glass.

The poster on YouTube calls this, "The first rock video." It's hard to argue. If you wondered where Bill Haley got his stuff, look no further. "Swing Blues" is what they called it before white people got hold of it, threw in more instruments, and came up with something less rocking than this.

Don't believe me? Do the side-by-side yourself.

No offense to Billy Haley, but Louis Jordan is mopping the floor with "Rock Around the Clock."

And it's not just that Louis Jordan lay the foundations for rock and roll, an argument can also be made that he invented rap -- or something like it.

"Beware" obviously comes out of the call and response preaching of the black church, but you can see how he's taken that and turned it into a musical form that would later make countless lesser-talented people rich and drive sales of Escalades through the roof.

I have no videos, but "Jumpin' and Jivin' at Jubilee" is another great example of Jordan's ability and popularity. "Jubilee" was an Armed Forces Radio Services program that featured popular entertainers. It was a morale booster for the troops. Louis Jordan and his Tympani 5 sound just as good here as on any studio track (Sippican can explain how the Beatles and the studio record ruined pop music). It's easy to forget how young the Army was in WWII. Louis Jordan was about 35 here. He's performing for a bunch of 20-year-olds, and they absolutely love him.

The bonus on the "Jubilee: CD is getting to hear all the jazz-era lingo thrown around:

"Are you bothered with jumpitis, jive-itis, gingivitis, or arthritis? Well, jack, try the fastest selling remedy on the market -- it's Jubliee!

Yes, brethren and sistren, roar in and park you bonnets on a cloud while we mingle with the majestic majors and minors. You're gonna dig a mess of music that will take you, shake you and bake you. This jumpin' Jubilee highlights such luminaries as ... the Lorenzo Flournoy(?) trio, solid disciples of rooty-toot and vulcanized boot ... "
Yes, people used to talk like that. With a straight face, apparently.

I could listen to Louis Jordan all day. In fact, I'm hoping that if I'm good, I will. Maybe Santa will bring me this incredibly-priced 5-CD retrospective. You ought to get one. It's a genuine steal for $30.

Aren't you glad I told you about Louis Jordan? So go tell someone!

More Louis Jordan at YouTube
"Louis Jordan and His Tympani 5" 5-CD box set at Amazon
"Jumpin and Jivin at Jubilee" at Amazon.

UPDATE. In the comments, Sippican gives timeless music-buying advice.


Quipper said...

Excellent post. Great music.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Quipper - Thanks.

I grew up in a household full of music and I never heard Louis Jordan until recently. I don't know how I missed him, but I'm glad I've found him now.

SippicanCottage said...

Ah,Pastor Jeff- Oh man, that's great. We are kindred spirits, you and I.

Louis Jordan is an old favorite of mine. I've got a reissue of his greatest hits 1941-1948 lp hanging over my little son's bed.

"Come on and knock me a kiss" is the most fun on the downlow of any song I've ever heard.

A long time ago, I played in a Rockabilly band, more or less, and all we played was Louis Jordan, Carl Perkins, Pre-army Elvis, that sort of thing.

There's a kind of bonhomie mixed with talent that very few performers ever exhibit a little, that Louis Jordan has in spades. Only Louis Prima is more fun.

Buy only records by men named Louis! You can't go wrong.

Pastor_Jeff said...

"Back when music was fun"

The music is of course incredible, but you miss almost half of Jordan's talent if you only listen and don't watch what he's doing -- he has such an engaging presence. I see him having so much fun playing, smiling, rolling his eyes, raising his eyebrows, swaying to the beat. His hand gestures are worth the price of admission.

And he did it all with an apparent ease that speaks of obvious talent but less obvious hours of practice, learning, and honing of those skills.

30 years after the man died and 60 years after his prime I am envious of people who saw him live. He must have been something else.

Louis Jordan -- funny, handsome, entertaining, confident, optimistic, a little risque -- was about as quintessentially American as you can get.

Pastor_Jeff said...

And anybody who buys music based on the criteria "guys named Louis" is okay in my book.

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